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The History of Public Houses in the UK

The local public house is a staple of the British cultural landscape, one of our most famous national icons, and has an extensive and fascinating past. Britons had been quaffing mead since the Bronze Age, but it was arguably the industrious Romans who helped catapult this ubiquitous and lucrative business into the mainstream with their diligent road-building. Where else was the weary and thirsty traveller going to rest his head and get a few well-deserved refreshments but a road-side inn-house ?

The Roman Empire was not to last though, a waning and declining victim of its own success. The British Isles suffered somewhat from a lack of organisation that only the Romans had brought. Anglo-Saxon women, never averse to earning a few guineas, promptly took over the role and began running ale-houses from their own homes. It was customary to hang a green bush outside their home to signify when their heady fermented cocktail was apparently fit for human consumption.

The Gin Craze

In the Eighteenth century the Dutch came to visit, and with them innocently brought a veritable goldmine of drunkenness - gin. This took off big-time – by 1740 gin was knocked back six more times often than common ales. Attempts by the law to curb the dreadful working class debauchery by heavily taxing gin resulted in widespread riots, and eventually had to be repealed. The magistrates had a big problem on their hands.

Enter Our Saviour - Beer

They had a novel solution to solving the “ruination of the working class” – make beer cheap! At this time beer was seen as a harmless and even nutritional drink – it was swigged by small children and the clergy alike. The Beer Act of 1830 decreed that for the relatively paltry sum of two guineas anyone could setup a shop to sell beer or cider on their premises. Crucially - they were not allowed to sell spirits or gin. This lead to an extraordinary boom – forty six thousand of these ‘beerhouses’ were registered in the first year alone. The profits people could make were astronomical, allowing them to buy the houses next door, and open those too as beerhouses.
The Beer Act of 1830 was almost too successful – the profits made by owners simply allowed them to buy the expensive full licenses to sell spirits and gin!

Licensing Laws

The next big attempt to curb the perceived vices of drinking came in the form of licensing laws in the 19th century – establishments had set opening hours they had to adhere to. These laws survived largely in-tact for over 100 years - in 1896 stronger licensing laws were added in the form of the Wine and Beerhouse Act, which imposed hefty fines on publicans who allowed gaming, drunkenness or prostitution on their premises. It was not till the liberation of the 1960’s when licensing laws began to relax somewhat – the first 24-hour licenses were granted to some public houses in the London area to cater for thirsty night-workers.

The Modern Public House

The modern pub now comes in a bewildering array of different varieties, from traditional country pubs to huge brewery chains, theme pubs to gastro-pubs. The modern pub is in some ways both more liberal and more restricted- laws introduced in 2003 allow public houses to specify their own opening hours, but in 2007 a full smoking ban was introduced.

Publicans maintain the steady rise of discount supermarket alcohol, increased licensing costs and the recent smoking ban could mean a death for the British public house. But if history tells us anything, it’s that the British public house is here to stay.


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