The Local Pub

This post is a bit speculative, but it concerns the place of class as it relates to the local pub. There are, I suppose, a few issues at work here. One of course is the concept of class in British society: it has developed and been refined over time. It was the Industrial Revolution which, by freeing up leisure time, brought about the rise of a middle class: aspirational, acquisitive, and pursuing the office-based professions. The other issue is the place of the pub vis-a-vis the world of the working man and woman. It’s a big topic, so apologies if I rather misrepresent anything or am overly facile in my analysis of trends. I welcome input.

Pubs have throughout history been patronised largely by working people, and specifically those from the class which since the Victorian era has come to be called “the working class”, i.e. those in blue collar, manual-based professions and trades. Even as late as 1935 (in a study quoted by Jennings), in a survey of 20 London pubs, only four out of 150 customers were clearly not from that class, with 19 borderline.1 Pubs were spaces of social and community cohesion, and those bonds were reinforced by communal activities such as singing, through games, and by pub-organised trips. They didn’t necessarily exclude women (in metropolitan centres such as London, women have always been part of pub life), but did exclude those outside the community the pub served, particularly those from the fluid and placeless new middle classes.

However, since then the social milieu of the pub, its respectability, has moved on, as it is not uncommon to find people of the middle (and, perhaps to a lesser extent, upper) classes drinking and fraternising in pubs. One even finds unlikely champions of this ‘lost’ community focus of the traditional pub such as Prince Charles.2 So, the question is, has the local pub really disappeared: is there nowhere for the working class to drink?

Clearly this is not the case, and this is where the rather amorphous category of “the local pub” (or locals’ pub) comes in to play. It’s a term which has arisen only relatively recently, since around the 1930s, and perhaps not coincidentally at the same time as the pub as an institution was becoming a gathering place for all classes.

Defining the Local

In looking at this phenomenon in relation to the pubs of London, it might be useful to look at the corporate definitions given by one of Britain’s largest leaseholders, the Punch Tavern group, who group their estate into the following categories:3

i. basic local;
ii. mid-market local;
iii. city local;
iv. value dining;
v. upmarket local;
vi. premium dining;
vii. chameleon;
viii. circuit;
ix. venue; and
x. others.

The “basic local” category easily accounts for the majority of their estate (34%), and is defined thus:

These are community pubs, mostly located in high density residential areas. Trade is focused on regular drinkers and tends to be wet led with little food. Beer, cider and spirits are the big sellers. Most show televised sport. Customers are generally blue collar workers and the proportion of female customers is relatively low.

That these shouldn’t be so visible anymore is tied into some of the particular history of London’s development: since the 18th century, and particularly the rise of the railways, the working population of the city have been pushed ever further out of the centre, which itself has been largely reclaimed for commercial and office space. At the same time, the largest industrial employers (particularly the docks, but also, for example, the rag trade in East London) have disappeared, leaving only the ghostly relics of their former liveliness (including pubs).

The Tidal Basin Tavern (Royal Docks E16)
Figure 9. The Tidal Basin Tavern (Royal Docks E16).

As such, the working class pubs — now “local pubs” — are no longer to be found in the centre of town, but rather attached to the satellite commuter zones, particularly those with a high-density (usually housing estate-based) population.

Such pubs are unquestionably focused on the local community, hosting local musicians, chairing meetings of Neighbourhood Watch groups, sporting busy noticeboards, et al. At their best, these pubs need not be unfriendly or exclusive, even if they are small and occupy the corner of a busy out-of-the-way estate, such as the lovely Trafalgar (South Wimbledon SW19, fig. 10), which incidentally does a good line in real ale. But mostly they are not quite so hospitable to the outsider (figs. 1 and 2). And perhaps this is as it should be.

The Trafalgar (South Wimbledon SW19)
Figure 10. The Trafalgar (South Wimbledon SW19).

I should be clear that my understanding of the local pub differs from the strictly profit-oriented focus of the large PubCos. There are those pubs in built-up residential areas which tick all the PubCo’s boxes, but curiously lack a sense of atmosphere or community. These are pervaded by a dispirited sense of dislocation and an atmosphere which can be charged with the threat of violence.4 These are largely to be found in places with no clear sense of identity themselves — an example perhaps being North Peckham, an area blighted by a legacy (and an attendant one-sided media portrayal) of violence and unrest, at which a lot of resources have been thrown, perhaps succeeding only in stripping the sense of community away and allowing vast tracts of land to be acquired for redevelopment by gentrifying property speculators.5

The Breffni Arms (North Peckham SE15)
Figure 11. The Breffni Arms (Peckham SE15).

The health of the nations’ pubs then, can in this way be linked to the sense of place shared by its people, a sense fostered by their ties to a specific geographic community over an extended period of time. It is the erosion of the working class and the rapid movement of gentrification throughout the late-20th century, which has allowed the flourishing of the kinds of soulless places which have proved so popular for Marston’s (the Pitcher & Piano chain) or Mitchells & Butlers (the All Bar One chain), and which continue to spread from the centre of the city.

[1] Sir H.L. Smith, The New Survey of London Life and Labour, vol. 9 (London: P.S. King & Son, 1935), p. 253, as quoted in Jennings (2007).
[2] Via the Pub Is the Hub initiative, sponsored by the Prince’s Trust, even if he did show a slightly odd priority when pledging his support.
[4] Though violence itself tends not to break out in the space of the pub itself, even in the most depressed areas.
[5] So far this has only really been noticeable around the area of Queen’s Road Peckham station, while the Old Kent Road side has been largely unaffected, except in the prevalence of large chain stores like B&Q, Toys ‘R’ Us, Asda, or Magnet kitchens.

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