Back in 1970, my dads’ drinking days were still in their infancy as a 19 year old. Around the same time back in my home town of Leicester, he told me of a stretch of road leading out of the city centre, about half a mile in length which then hosted approximately 30 pubs. The challenge was to have a half pint in each pub and reach the last one still walking. Looking at the same stretch of road now, there are 6 pubs, with 9 licensed premises in total including restaurants. This clustering wasn’t unique, I’ve been told of similar groupings of pubs along the A62 towards Oldham by people of a similar age to my dad or older.
The drinking culture back then sustained this number of pubs, the “couple of pints before I go home from work” was a normal part of life for many men, having families or not. An afternoon session was part of the weekend calendar. Drink driving was viewed as more socially acceptable, so many more people risked that 3rd or even 4th pint. You also had less chance of being caught with 26,000 convictions registered in 1970 against 83,000 in 2007, down from a peak in 105,000 in 1988. Add to this the significant number of students who got a full grant to go to university and thus had more disposable income to spend on drinking and it could be said that there were more drinkers for the taking.
(As a historical note, if you are under 35, a full grant is something you wouldn’t have experienced. Your local education authority gave you living costs with no tuition fees to pay and no loans needed for a reasonable lifestyle.)
The beer may not have been that good, some of the boozers were “a bit rough” and food was limited to crisps and peanuts, maybe some prepared butties, but it didn’t matter, the pubs were one of the core hubs in the community, and the landlord could earn a decent living from it. Of course by this point we were past the apex of brewery consolidation with many good local brands being merged into the larger organisations and subsequently disappearing in future years.
We are all well aware of the recent spate of pub closures since the current recession hit in 2007, but historically the number of pubs had been declining since the 1950s. The winters of discontent and general economic problems of the late 70s and early 80s started a more rapid descent as it did with many other businesses. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, there were 69,000 pubs licensed bars and pubs in the UK in 1980 (the furthest back the statistics go), and the numbers drop by 1,000 every 2-3 years on average until 2010 where they list a count of 51,000.
Last month CAMRA released figures showing the number of pubs closing per week had reduced from 16 to 12 year on year. This of course is good news, but I will hold off celebrating until we have no net loss at all.
The point of all this is that culture, family life, personal finances and the general pressure of life itself has changed significantly over the last 40 years and these changes have not been good for pubs overall. There of course have been some good changes made for public houses in this time, the removal of the forced “sunday teatime” closure which was revoked in 1995 and the freedom for landlords to choose their own opening and closing hours (within reason) in 2003 gave the industry the flexibility it needed. The “Sunday Hours” rule forced pubs to close between 3pm and 7pm on the day of rest. This lead to the weekly spectacle of working mens clubs emptying a usually very full lounge and concert room onto the streets at 3.20pm after drinking up time only to have mostly the same people going back in at 7pm.
Pubs were forced to change, the family had to be embraced more to replace the lost income of the “working man”, this lead to the development of chains such as Hungry Horse, JD Wetherspoons and Smith & Jones where the pub is food lead during the day and drinks lead in the evening. Food is a higher margin sale and thus very attractive to operators. Other pubs became focused on a certain sectors of the market such as the Revolution bars. However most important to me is that the real ale house has survived and thrived.
The public house has changed a lot in 40 years, and it’ll be interesting to see what they are like when I am the old(ish) man nursing a pint with his newspaper in the corner of the pub in 40 years.