A History of Pubs in the UK
It’s hard to imagine your high street without its local boozer, and although pubs have evolved over the centuries, their core intention remains the same.
When we look at a history of pubs in the UK, from medieval taverns to modern day gastropubs, they all share a common identity.
Pubs (from the term ‘public house’, which differentiated private dwellings from ones which sold beer or ale) are places to connect and socialise with others through the unifying force of a good drink. This hasn’t changed over the years, even if the decor of pubs has.
Let’s get in our time machine, and look at the complete history of pubs in the UK.
the history of pubs in the UK
The history of pubs in the UK dates back to the Roman invasion of Britain, when the Romans set up tabernae, or shops selling wine, which, after the Romans left, evolved into Anglo Saxon alehouses.
Following the Anglo Saxon period, Medieval inns and taverns sprung up, to cater to the needs of travellers on the roads, but pubs as we know them today only emerged in the early 19th Century, when the inclusion of bar counters, hand-pumps for beer and tiled surfaces echoed something of the modern boozer.
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A history of pubs: the complete timeline
43 AD: The Tabernae
The Romans brought many things to Britain when they invaded the country, including the earliest recorded version of the British pub. These were wine shops called tabernae and were placed alongside the roads built by the Romans. Originally, these were built for occupying Roman soldiers, but apparently word quickly spread to the locals, and the tabernae (soon corrupted into the word ‘tavern’, probably by British people struggling with the Roman tongue), started to sell the favoured drink of locals: the native British ale (beer brewed from melted barley).
The Romans also established pub signs, which you’ll see hanging on most pubs and inns in Britain. The Tabernae would hang vine leaves outside their door to show that they sold wine (this kind of pictorial imaging was very important in a largely illiterate society), and the Anglo-Saxons did the same, putting evergreen bushes for wine, and long poles used for stirring ale to represent ale.
400 AD: Anglo Saxon alehouses
The Romans may have left Britain, but their taverns did not. The concept of selling alcohol and socialising was here to stay, and Anglo-Saxon alehouses soon sprang up, usually just out of people’s homes. These alehouses became known as meeting houses, where people could gossip, connect with their neighbours and organise things of importance in the local area. Æthelred the Unready, king of the English from 978 to 1013 , even established fines in his Wantage law code for rowdy behaviour in alehouses. The consequences for breaking this law was that: “six half marks shall be paid in compensation if a man is slain and twelve ores if no one is slain”.
In Anglo-Saxon times, it was common for every neighbourhood to have a designated brewer. Usually, the brewer would work out of his own home and hang a bush above his door (just like the Romans had hung garlands above tabernae in England), to show he was selling ale. The brewer would put the bush on a pole and extend it out of the front door, over the street. There was even a law in 1375 to regulate the height of the pole, as too many horseman had got a bashing from it.
The Anglo-Saxon drinking culture was intense, and the laws at the time prove it. In 680 Theodore, In 680 Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, ordered that a Christian layman who drank too much must do penance for fifteen days. And in, 965 King Edgar of Wessex and England restricted the number of alehouses to one per village, and regulated the size of drinking vessels via a system that was marked by pegs. This is believed to be where the saying “I’ll take you down a peg” comes from.
Medieval Inns and Taverns
Taverns continued to flourish in the Medieval era, alongside inns to provide drink, food and a bed for tired travellers.
The invention of the Roman road centuries before meant that more travel was possible, and therefore the need for inns to provide respite for passing travellers was greater. While fairly basic, these inns were an early version of the modern day Travelodge and Holiday Inns. Chaucer’s famous pilgrims from The Canterbury Tales famously convene at an inn called The Tabard.
While taverns and inns were separate establishments – the main difference being that taverns were for drinking, and inns were for eating, sleeping and drinking – they would often be owned by the same group of brewers, called a guild. This meant you could have your finger on the whole hospitality business in your village, with profits from both the inn and alehouses.
Taverns in medieval times were usually large, and a lot of fun. It was busy, noisy and hot, full of drunks, gamblers or just people out for a good time. Inns were great places to do business, especially as they were often deliberately situated on big trade routes. Merchants travelling across the country with their wares could meet and exchange goods with other merchants. The medieval inn served a variety of drinks, from the guild of brewers who owned them, or from other local brewers.
The 19th century Beerhouse and Gin Palace
By the 18th Century, gin was the drink of choice in England, which led to greater heights of violence and drunkenness in British society. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane, a horrifying portrait of the effect of this spirit on the local people (see babies tumbling off mothers’ laps and men flailing and gurning in the streets) captures the lawlessness that different Gin Acts tried to put a stop to.
Just as gin palaces were spreading like wildfire through the country, the Beerhouse Act of 1830 aimed to encourage people to drink beer instead (which was seen as a lot less harmful – even young children drank it then, in preference to the local, dirty water). Beerhouses became really easy to set up, all you needed to do was pay two guineas and you could brew and sell beer in your own home, to a high profit (you’d get a heavy fine if you sold gin, though).
Beerhouses became the new drinking establishment of choice, far outnumbering the inns, taverns and hotels. The combined cheapness of setting up a beerhouse vs the big profits was so popular that legislation had to be brought in in 1869 to curb the spread.
These new drinking establishments borrowed the idea of bar counters from gin palaces, and also included tiled surfaces, fancy mirrors and hand-pumped beer, all an echo of the modern pub today.
Beerhouses and gin palaces were big business in the 19th Century. The tied house system involved breweries buying out pubs and allowing publicans to run them as long as they only sold drink brewed by the owners. If you were a brewer and smart about it, this was exactly how you beat out the intense competition from other brewers.
The 20th Century Improved Pub
By the 20th Century, though, the pub had an image problem. As industrialisation increased, pubs were very much the sole domain of the working man, allowing him to destress after a day of hard labour, and unsurprisingly, pubs involved huge amounts of alcohol consumption and resulting social problems.
Government policies to restrict opening hours, higher taxes, and the First World War meant that the number of pubs in the UK dropped from 99,000 in 1905 to 77,500 in 1935.
By the end of the First World War, there was a desire to move from the pub as the booze-soaked territory of the working man, to the pub as a place for family. In the 20th Century, many pubs were rebuilt to include beer gardens and non-smoking rooms more suitable for families and children.
These pubs played an important role in keeping up morale during the Second World War. Unfortunately, many were bombed in the war, shattering their attractive, Tudor-style designs. The pubs that were rebuilt after the war were very much in keeping with grey, 50s style prefab housing, built fast and cheap.
Pubs in the 70s
The 1970s saw many architectural changes to the pub, including an end to the division between saloon and public bar. Pubs built after the Beerhouse Act of 1930 usually had a public room with a bar to serve drinks, and then a series of smaller rooms (saloons) which were better furnished and sold a better quality of drinks for the pub’s richer clientele. By the 1970s, the preference was just to have one, large drinking room, with a cohesive interior design and atmosphere.
The 1970s also saw the invention of the pub quiz, which changed pub culture forever. The pub quiz was created by a company called Burns and Porter, to try and increase business to pubs during the quieter nights of the week.
You’d also be more likely to see games like dartboards, as well as jukeboxes.
The 70s was the start of the chain food pub, with familiar names like Beefeater and Harvester dominating the market.
Pubs in the 80s
When you ask someone who grew up in the 70s and 80s about what pubs were like then, they always mention the cigarette smoke. Smoking was obviously still allowed in the pub, so you’d come back stinking of it.
And let’s not forget that icon of the 80s: the great arcade game. If you went to the pub in the 80s, you’d be very likely to see fruit machines with low payouts reflecting the inflation of the late 70s and early 80s, and gaming machines like the ever-popular Space Invaders. In the time before easy-to-steam music, there were also juke boxes, of course.
In the 80s free market of Margaret Thatcher, there were less restrictions on opening hours as there had been in the war and post-war era. The 1988 licensing act allowed pubs to open all day. Most pubs now close by midnight and are open on Sundays.
Pubs in the 90s
The 1990s saw the birth of the Gastropub, and our pub culture has never looked back. Pubs used to be synonymous with only pork scratching, crisps and the occasional greasy fare, but gastropubs (relating to ‘gastronomy’, the practice of cooking and eating good food), meant that pubs were soon serving much higher quality food. The first Gastropub was pioneered by David Eyre and Mike Belben when they took over The Eagle Pub in Clerkenwell, London.
While there were many complaints about Gastropubs removing the pubs of the ‘good old days’, when customers (mostly men) just came to drink themselves silly and eat indifferent food because no-one was fussy back then, Gastropubs did a lot to save pubs, integrating them into the evolving nature of British dining.
While we might think that so-called ‘pub food’ is centuries old, it only became particularly significant in the 90s, with British foods like steak and ale pie, fish and chips, Sunday roast and chilli con carne cropping up on the menu, as well as the traditional ploughman’s lunch or chicken in a basket.
The 2007 ban on smoking in pubs and greater focus on food preferences, including a desire to eat out for breakfast, have largely defined the ‘millennial pubs’ of today. Michelin starred pubs are very common, catapulting us light years away from the time that pub grub was considered cheap and low quality. More of us go out for breakfast than ever now, and pubs accounted for 11.3% of breakfasts bought in the out of home food market in 2018. Pubs are also paying attention to the huge rise in Veganism and Vegetarianism in our culture, with pubs like the Gardener’s Arms in Oxford being solely vegetarian.
So, there you have it! The entire history of pubs in the UK. We hope you’ve enjoyed this trip into a very important part of British history. Just don’t try and drive a horse and cart on your way home from the tavern.