Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[96] “The Wisdom to Know …”


Continuing the theme of alcohol, after a look at pubs in [57] A Pint of Bitter. I come next to how you could buy alcoholic drinks for home consumption.

Off Licences

As I said in the last blog about alcohol, the places you could buy drinks used to be very limited – just pubs and some restaurants (only when with food.) There has been a similar widening in places from which alcohol can be bought for drinking at home. In the fifties, this was only possible from Off-Licences, which were relatively rare. I think there was one in Beehive Lane. Some (but not all) pubs also had a small Off-Licence operating from their premises. People didn’t use them much – most alcohol was consumed in pubs.

Now you can buy bottled beer, wine and spirits from most supermarkets and lots of smaller shops. In my original notes I said newsagents, but now they are all general stores or mini-supermarkets.

Bottle and Cans

You could buy beer only in bottles – a pint or half a pint. (Cider also came in two-pint bottles.) I know that some soft drinks had a 3d returnable deposit on the bottle buy I’m not sure whether this applied to beer.

As explained in the last blog, light ale sold in bottles was not quite the same as draft bitter.


From the late sixties, bitter brewed in wooden barrels was gradually replaced by a similar produced in metal kegs, sometimes known as keg bitter. The purists fought a long battle to retain ‘real ale’ from wooden barrels with the establishment of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, founded in 1971. (CAMRA is still active and various Beer Festivals continue to provide many different types of beer for the aficionados.)

The trend towards drinking more beer at home started around the late sixties with the Party Seven from Watneys, a large can of draught type bitter. It was not easy to open and you had to drink all seven pints quite soon after opening but it started the trend.


One other change of the sixties and seventies was in the consumption of lager. It used to be an expensive drink sold in small bottles and usually drunk by women – often with a dash of lime juice (or lime cordial). I think brands then were German or French and it was seen as not really an English drink, certainly not a drink for men.

Somehow it became more fashionable for men to drink lager – to the extent that it became more popular than bitter. It became available in cans.


The mechanism for opening cans has become easier with the modern ring-pull, shown above, coming in the eighties. (The use of cans has continued now also for many other drinks.)

After the general adoption of lager as a drink we had had the advent of several Australian brands of ‘amber nectar’ and also some American brands. We still have the familiar French Stella Artois and the German Kronenbourg (now part of the Danish Carlsberg brewery.)

beaujolais  blue-nun


Wine only came in bottles and always with proper corks. The volume of a ‘bottle’ of wine was not specified but was always a sixth of a gallon.

People didn’t drink wine much at home. What there was came generally from France of Spain and there were just a few well-known names. Red wine was probably Beaujolais from France and white wine might be Riesling, Liebfraumilch or Blue Nun from Germany. (Of course then it was West Germany.)


There was also Mateus Rose from Portugal and perhaps one or two from Spain and Italy but in the fifties and early sixties we did not see wine produced from further afield. Now we see wine from Hungary, Romania and other countries that were hidden behind the Iron Curtain -also Australia, the USA and South America particularly Chile.


[As for all pictures, it’s best to assume that they are modern equivalents. They are for illustration only and can’t show exactly what things were like in the sixties.]

Somewhere in the sixties wine boxes appeared, a cheap way of buying wine in draught form. You could in theory leave the wine box for a few days once opened but the temptation was there to finish it! Cheaper wine was becoming more available. (To the wine experts it was cheap wine not to be compared to expensive bottled wine. But soon cheap bottled wines became available.)

Drinking at Home

Alcoholic drinks come and go in fashions. In the fifties, sherry was a popular pre-dinner drink, which has now virtually disappeared. People were much more likely to have a sherry before Sunday lunch than wine with lunch. (It was usually very sweet sherry such as Bristol Cream. Sherry has always come in varieties as very sweet, sweet, medium, dry and very dry – cream, pale cream, oloroso, amontillado and fino.)

I think that because home drinking was at such a low level there were the drinks like sherry that would keep indefinitely once a bottle was opened. You saw advertised drinks like Dubonnet, Martini and other aperitifs. We probably had one or two bottles in the dining room sideboard but I don’t remember seeing then ever used. I always considered they were available as something to offer to an unexpected relative visiting.

Other Changes

There is a lot to this blog that comes from my memories and a lot of sweeping generalizations that may be inaccurate – but that won’t stop me saying it all! It’s not helped by being from a time before I knew much of alcohol. I was young and innocent.

The only memories I have of alcohol from the fifties and early sixties are that my parents may have had the odd Bristol Cream sherry before Sunday lunch and a bottle of wine at Christmas. Later on we may have had occasional bottles of beer and, of course, Nan had her regular Guinness.

Alcohol had a more positive (or perhaps neutral) image and people were generally more restrained in their consumption of alcohol. This is all linked to the period of post-war austerity when people could not have afforded to drink anyway.

On the other hand routine drinking at pubs was common with no attempt to control intake just because of their driving. There was no real stigma associated with being drunk while driving. There were laws about being drunk in charge of a vehicle but no scientific means of establishing drunkenness. The decrease in popularity of drinking beer at pubs came with the breathalyzer in the late sixties. There has been a continued drive to reduce drinking under the influence of alcohol with television advertising especially in the weeks before Christmas.

From the late sixties alcohol has become cheaper in relative terms and more freely available. It is now easy to buy alcopops (which did not exist) or single cans of gin and tonic or other mixed drinks in supermarkets. So consumption is much higher. Cynics among you may blame increasing consumption on advertising. There have been many extensive advertising campaigns for various alcoholic drinks – both on television and in cinemas. [As for cigarettes, such advertising has now largely disappeared.]

The younger population have adopted binge drinking as a culture and have opportunities for late night drinking in night clubs (or late opening pubs) which we did not have.

It is worth noting that in the sixties a ‘stag night’ was a few drinks with the boys the evening before the wedding. The best man would make sure that the groom did not drink too much. Now there are week long stag events involving much alcohol – not the night before the wedding to allow some recovery time! In our time there were no ‘hen’ equivalents for women. It was very rare for a woman to become drunk in public.

The trend towards pubs selling food started with decreasing consumption from those who drove. Also other social changes have led to the trend towards eating out much more, and pubs have filled the gap in the market. Now perhaps ninety percent of pubs have closed, with those remaining becoming combined pub/ restaurants or just restaurants.

It is also worth noting that then no-one was ever seen drinking straight from a bottle (or can – but of course canned drinks did not exist). There was no general problem of drinking in public places.

[Yes, people did drink. Some got themselves drunk. Many drove home very drunk. But the overall way of life was different.]


I ought to end with some words of advice. If you have any concerns about your drinking there are many organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous. If you have a friend or relative with drinking problems you may want to look at Al-anon.

The Serenity Prayer comes from the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971).

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Niebuhr used it widely in sermons as early as 1934 and published it in 1951. It spread both through his sermons and church groups and was later adopted and popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.


Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

3 thoughts on “[96] “The Wisdom to Know …”

  1. Alan, I am catching up on emails so this is almost a month old now, but I just had to share with you. We had an off-licence at the end of our road and every Saturday I was sent down there to get a bottle of Guinness for my Nan and a bag of chips for me. She used to drink it on Sunday morning whilst she cooked the sunday roast dinner. She had to sit at the oven because of ulcerated legs meaning she could not move much. A memory I have never forgotten. Joy


  2. Pingback: [113] All Manner of Things Shall be Well | Remembrance of Things Past

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