Popular drink histories and the pandemic: learning from ‘learning from the past’

Three years ago today the Morning Advertiser, the publican’s trade newspaper since 1794, ran a story written by Emily Hawkins entitled ‘Lessons to be learned from the past.’ British pubs, like other public and working places, had been closed for five weeks in response to the coronavirus pandemic, in what would turn out to be only the first of several lockdowns. Perhaps conscious of its claim to be the oldest newspaper in the world, the Morning Advertiser asked: had pubs ever had been closed in this way before? Could the licensed trade learn from earlier crises? Was the pandemic really unprecedented, in other words?

Interestingly, the story focuses on two brewers, Hall & Woodhouse and McMullen’s, and the firms’ experiences of World War I and the ‘Spanish Flu’ influenza epidemic that followed it, and on the reflections of an East Sussex landlord who had taken over his pub just before the the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. I was also called upon to provide some context, as ‘a historian,’ though I wanted to make it clear that this was not something I’d done that much research on – and of course all of the research I then carried out, rather quickly, had to make use of my books and digital sources, because archives and libraries had also been closed.

The brewers noted that their firms had not had to close their pubs during either of the World Wars, drawing clear contrasts with the response to coronavirus. I suggested that pubs might not have had to close during this earlier pandemic, or even fallen under any new controls or supervision, because they were already subject to the stringent and far-reaching war-time discipline of the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic), or CCB. Other places of public resort, like cinemas, were subject to the Public Health (Influenza) Regulations, 1918, and the Public Health (Influenza) Regulations (No. 2), 1918, institued by the Local Government Board. These restricted the duration of public entertainments to three or four hours at most, allowing cinemas and theatres to be properly ventilated before being re-opened for another three or four hours. The effects of these restrictions were duly noted in the reports of local boroughs’ Medical Officers of Health; in Hackney, for example, the managers of four of the twelve cinemas in the Borough were fined for not closing for thirty minutes to air the building (1919, 33-34).

It seems likely that pubs did not need new regulations of this kind because the CCB had already drastically reduced the opening hours of pubs, partly by instituting what became known as an ‘afternoon gap’ between lunchtime and evening opening. By the beginning of 1917, the CCB’s regulations applied to 38 million of the 41 million people living in England, Scotland and Wales, covering all but the least populous rural areas. Pubs were allowed to open for only two and a half hours at lunchtime and three hours in the evening from Monday to Saturday; on Sunday pubs were also closed at luncthime in England and all day in Scotland and Wales. Before the war, London pubs had been able to open for nineteen and a half hours a day, with pubs elsewhere open for at least sixteen hours. Additional restrictions to curb the transmission of influenza might have been seen as superfluous; cinemas and theatres were simply being brought into line with pubs. The 1921 Licensing Act that rescinded the CCB’s regulations retained the afternoon gap while suggesting a return to more liberal opening hours; the gap would survive until 1988.

The idea that pubs were unfairly targeted during the pandemic persists, but other insitutions fared worse in 1918-19. The landlord of the Sussex pub consulted by the Morning Advertiser noted that the pandemic would test two apparently eternal British institutions, the pub and the church. While worship moved online in 2020, this was obviously not an option for churches during the influenza epidemic. In fact there was consternation in Rhondda in 1918 when Sunday Schools were closed by government regulations while pubs and cinemas remained open, for the short periods mentioned above at least. The Urban Council considered the suggestion that “if it was right to close one public place it was equally right to close all public places.” The Rhondda Leader reported that one councillor said that if it had been within the Council’s powers he would also close cinemas and public houses.

One thing that made pubs distinct from cinemas and Sunday Schools, though, was the issue of hygiene. All of these places needed ventilation, but only places selling food and drink also had to worry about infections being passed on dirty glasses, or the cloths used to clean and dry them. In 1919 the Abergavenny Chronicle warned its readers to ‘Mind that cold!’ –

Where glasses are used, as in confectioners’ shops restaurants, and public-houses, the usual procedure of cleansing after the customer drinks is a hasty dip into tepid, dirty water, a hasty rub with a dirty towel by a person with dirty hands and finger nails, who then places the glass upon a shelf to be used by the next customer. After the washer-up has finished with it there are usually more germs than those which might have been left by the customer drinking from it just before.

Abergavenny Chronicle, 14th Nov 1919, p3

This concern for hygiene and the cleanliness of bar towels continued during World War 2; in 1942 Mass Observation devoted a file report to ‘Towels for drying glasses’ as part of its work for the Ministry of Information.

The Morning Advertiser’s 2020 story did not have space for these kinds of details, or for a sense of the wider context that identified pubs as a particular threat to public health, different to some kinds of public places but similar to others. That’s entirely reasonable – the paper and its readers had much more pressing issues to cope with.

But what this story did show was a more nuanced sense of pub history than the usual myth of the British boozer as a timeless icon. Here were brewers and publicans talking about earlier threats to pubs, at a time when the twenty-first-century version was facing a significant challenge, with more nuance than you would find in many political discussions of the value and role of the pub. For example, Tom McMullen, director of McMullen’s, suggested that the government took “a rather relaxed approach to the flu” in 1919, though again I woud say that was because it was already as tightly controlled as any other place of entertainment would be. Pubs remained open, but for two short periods each day. He also noted, though, that the firm’s profits rose by 47% in the financial year ending September 1919, despite an estimated death toll of 136,000 people from the influenza pandemic in England and Wales between October 1918 and March 1919. Mr McMullen acknowledged that this “material recovery” “probably disguised the impact of the flu.” That’s a perceptive reading of the firm’s records. Robert Duncan’s study of pubs and drinking in World War I (Pubs and Patriots: The Drink Crisis in Britain during World War One, Liverpool University Press, 2013) concludes that many brewers had a ‘good war’ financially, despite the strict regulations and reduced supply of beer.

Not only is that a very different outcome to the coronavirus pandemic, but it complicates the idea that the pub is simply timeless, an idea that ignores the role of the state, economic conditions, the actions of groups and individuals, and much more. These popular histories also extend a sense of continuity into the future. Anthony Woodhouse, of Hall and Woodhouse, connected the firm’s culture of “all being in it together” in wartime with its support for its tenants in 2022, cancelling rent and suspending loan repayments. Woodhouse made a similar comment when the firm returned to profitablity last year. His sense of the firm’s history seems to inform contemporary decisions as well as a sense of the future. Similarly Tom McMullen returned to the firm’s archives to learn from the conservative business strategy that had helped the firm survive earlier crises, noting that “people will remember how we acted during this time.

I think it’s really interesting that these firms have referred back to their own histories to generate that sense of permanence and resilience. Of course these are both family firms, with their own archives and perhaps a stronger sense of paternalism in their dealings with tenants and other staff. Similarly, I don’t know to what extent these reflections have been prompted by the historically-minded stories run by the Morning Advertiser during lockdown, but that might well have helped. The paper continued in this reflective vein in an excellent article on the paper’s coverage of the disruption caused by the World Wars by journalist and pub historian Phil Mellows, published the following day (May 6th 2020), and Stuart Stone contributed an interesting piece on the links between medicine and the pub on the 7th, drawing on online records. It’s a really welcome stimulus for reflections on pub pasts, and one that perhaps deserves more attention from drink historians.

James Kneale