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Can our pubs reinvent themselves for the 21st century? asks Rob Fiehn

From the 2020 issue of the Journal of The London Society. You can find out how to get a print copy of the Journal here - we are still mailing them out even during the lockdown.

The public house is as old as London itself. It is completely woven into our cultural identity and represents the perfect fusion of communal and private life. From the Queen Vic in EastEnders to the Grapes at Limehouse – an inspiration for Dickens’ London – pubs are often the beginning and end of our stories.

But it is hard to define exactly what a pub is. Ask 20 people to describe the defining characteristics of the pub and you'll most likely receive 20 different answers. This is because over time pubs have altered their form and nature to accommodate changing tastes, social pressures and national upheaval. They have weathered the storm of temperance and fought back against shifting attitudes towards eating, gambling and entertainment. Now pubs are closing at an alarming rate and to protect their future we must look to their past.

 From Roman taverns to the Georgian gin craze

The origins of the pub stretch back to the Roman Empire and the taverns that lay along the routes linking cities, towns and forts. These became inns and then, as drinking habits changed, landlords began using their own residences to serve the community, laying the basis for the 'public house.’ This domestic scale has since diversified into both large open-plan spaces to accommodate workers and interiors that have been subdivided into a series of distinct spaces, generally used to segregate social classes.

The Georgian era saw growing concerns about the effects of alcohol on British society, putting pubs at the heart of a complex duality. Beer had long-been regarded

as a healthy alternative to drinking contaminated water and it was clear that communal spaces were good for social cohesion. On the other hand, the so-called ‘Gin Craze’, with its ubiquitous gin shops, was seen as a real threat to public health as well as law and order; by 1750 reportedly one in four residences in St Giles was a gin shop. This tale of two moralities was famously encapsulated in William Hogarth’s 1751 etchings: convivial Beer Street nourished by English ale, versus debauched Gin Lane, ruined by the foreign menace. It's a national schizophrenia towards drinking habits and pub culture that we have never fully reconciled.

Sobering the nation up, the Gin Act of 1751 restricted the sale of spirits, followed in 1830 by

the Beerhouse Act, which encouraged the creation of more beer houses to curb the consumption of gin, coupled with tighter opening hours.

State ownership

During the First World War, the Carlisle Experiment took intervention further and introduced state-managed pubs. These performed much better than their capitalist contemporaries as they were designed and managed for community activity rather than

drinks’ sales. Pubs like the Gretna Tavern in Carlisle (now, sadly, closed) offered light and airy interiors that attracted more women, an effective way to discourage bawdy behaviour and prostitutes. However, after decades of success, the public-ownership story ended in the 1970s when the then Conservative government sold off the pubs to brewers.

The Moon Under Water

George Orwell’s seminal pub essay – printed in the Evening Standard in 1946 – described his favourite pub, The Moon Under Water. It was close to a bus stop but did not attract ‘drunks and rowdies.” The fixtures were ‘uncompromisingly Victorian’ and the bar staff distributed drinks in the appropriate vessels to friendly regulars. Guests had the option to consume a snack or take their drinks to a pleasant garden. This establishment was a work of fiction, but it mythologised the pub as something that is simultaneously very personal but also firmly attached to the British cultural psyche.

Three years later, in October 1949, the Architectural Review launched an international competition to ‘raise the standard of interior design in the English public house,’ something they felt was necessary to keep them relevant in a rapidly modernising world. The announcement stated that popularity is ‘the very essence of the purpose of the pub; if it cannot be this it might as well not exist. But its popularity depends largely on the existence of a familiar atmosphere and thus on the existence of tradition.’ The Modernist pubs of the 20th century have not survived well though, as many were built into the fabric of estates that have since been destroyed or re-planned. A few examples persist, such as the Lord Nelson on Union Street in Southwark, which turns a busy trade catering for the residents of Rowland Hill House and visitors to the area.

 Pubs in crisis

Many of the Architectural Review's concerns continue as our cities lose community spirit and younger generations feel uncomfortable in the public spaces of the past. In 2018 the Office of National Statistics reported that a quarter of all pubs have closed since 2008, as they are demolished or converted into homes or shops. For this very reason, Sadiq Khan announced that pubs would be included in the new London Plan to protect existing venues and encourage the construction of new pubs that should sit alongside residential developments: ‘New pubs, especially as part of a redevelopment or regeneration scheme can provide a cultural and social focus for a neighbourhood, particularly where they offer a diverse range of services, community functions and job opportunities.’

CAMRA and the Victorian Society have done much to try to save pubs and in 2012 architect David Knight went as far as to campaign for the London Public House to be recognised with UNESCO World Heritage status. Recently, local people have been encouraged to nominate pubs under threat as Assets of Community Value (ACV), helping to prevent, or delay, redevelopment and giving the local community a chance to purchase the pub themselves. The Ivy House in Nunhead became London's first co-operatively owned pub in 2013, which is overseen by a management team of 11 local residents. It is one of 85 such community pubs that are operating across the UK, which boast 100 per cent survival rate according to the Plunkett Foundation. 

A future serving the community

But what of the overall future of the pub? Community-run schemes represent a relatively bespoke solution and many pubs are still under threat as they struggle to remain financially solvent. While in residence at the V&A Museum in 2010, multidisciplinary studio and thinktank Aberrant Architecture explored the potential for pubs to act as a network of public co-working spaces, but to date this research has not been developed into a national or citywide programme. Or could the answer lie in pub nationalisation that was so successful in the Carlisle Experiment? Pubs are already well distributed across cities, towns and the countryside and could be used to fill the gap left by rapidly diminishing community centres and other public services.

Just as pubs reject a simple classification, there is no one answer to their preservation. It seems the planning system and people power offers the best hope for their salvation, and therefore we need a combination of national strategic thinking to work in tandem with grassroots activism. The pub has always managed to adapt to society’s changing needs but in an era of high land values and aggressive development tactics, it might just need a helping hand to reach the next stage of its evolution.

Rob Fiehn is an architectural and design communications consultant ( He is currently working with a series of public and private partners on a project to raise awareness about the threats facing pubs