I’m very pleased to feature this week a guest post – a meditation on the estate pub – from Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey. Jessica and Ray blog about beer and pubs at boakandbailey.com and their new book, 20th Century Pub, is out now. (A thoroughly researched, informative and enjoyable read – I recommend it.) They’re on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @boakandbailey.
Since we started working on our book 20th Century Pub which includes a chapter on post-war estate pubs we’ve had one line quoted at us more than any other: ‘Never drink in a pub with a flat roof.’ It’s generally attributed to comedian Sean Lock but has the quality of a well-worn aphorism – an ultra-condensed summary of all the problems and perceptions of pubs built to serve social housing. That is, that they are ugly, probably half-rotten, and too dangerous for anyone halfway respectable to consider entering.
Depending on who is expressing this point of view it can sound like snobbery but, equally, there is perhaps a tendency among aesthetes – the kind of people who swoon at tower blocks as sculptural objects – and nostalgic sentimentalists (like us) to ignore the human reality of the situation.
Lynsey Hanley’s 2007 book Estates touches on pubs only briefly. Emotionally over-attached to pubs as we are, however, we found ourselves bridling at a commentary which identifies the pub near her East London flat as a nexus for anti-social behaviour. Its car park, she writes, is a ‘slump of dead space’; she and her fellow residents resent ‘the noise pollution pumped out by the pub’ – the breaking of bottles against its walls, the fighting, the sirens. We wanted to argue with her: the pub isn’t the problem! The pub could be part of the solution! Pubs, targeted relentlessly by the great and good of the temperance and improvement lobby for the last 150 years, don’t need the people who live alongside them to join in the kicking.
That feeling is all the more acute because of the fact that when many estates were built a prime complaint levelled against them, by both residents and critics of planned communities, was the lack of social amenities. City slum dwellers were left stranded on estates and in new towns where there was no third space between work and home.
Writing in his 1964 book The Other England journalist Geoffrey Moorhouse reflected on why people in Durham seemed to prefer the old slum district of Shotton, ‘close and compact and ingrowing as a defective toenail’, to the ‘sweeping, lofty and wide open’ new town of Peterlee:
At the moment, whereas Shotton has five pubs, five working men’s clubs, and a cinema, Peterlee hasn’t even got a cinema. The ones who do come, so they say in Peterlee, very often stay for only a year or two, until a cottage becomes available in their old village, and then they’re back off to it with without any apparent regrets of the exchange of a modern semi for a period piece straight out of the industrial revolution.
The lack of pubs on estates in the first part of the 20th century was often a direct result of the temperance instinct: pubs were of the slum and if people were to be rescued from that environment and culture, the drier the sanctuary the better. That debate continued in the period after World War II with serious consideration given to nationalising any pubs to be built in new towns and a determined lobby that thought building any pubs at all was on par with providing, say, council-sponsored opium dens.
But, in the absence of pubs, people learned to live without them, developing new routines centred round the home, the garden, the allotment, the church, or the community centre.
When pubs did arrive on post-war estates, if they ever did, there were usually fewer per head than the old neighbourhoods the residents had known, and they were often fatally plain. In the abstract, or through a nostalgic filter, there is much to appreciate in a straight-edged modernist pub building designed to let in the light and wipe clean with ease. In practice, most were designed that way not out of idealism but pragmatism – a response to lingering wartime building restrictions, and the desire of breweries in an ever more aggressively competitive climate to quickly, cheaply replenish their arsenals of pubs. But drinkers don’t want pubs to be bright, boxy and modernistic – they want corners, cosiness, umbered shadows and a patina just one degree south of outright grot. Character, in other words.
And so many of these unlovely, unloved pubs became tattier but no more charming, the preserve of the hardest and hardest drinking – less welcoming to women and children than even the backstreet pubs they were intended to improve upon. The Flying Shuttle in Bolton, to pick just one example, was named ‘the roughest pub in Britain’ when in 2012 it was finally raided by police in the wake of persistent drug dealing and evidence that staff were allowing drinkers to stay long past the scheduled closing time, afraid to offend violent customers by calling last orders. Pubs can be wonderful centres for communities but they can’t fix or form a community where one has collapsed or failed to coalesce for other reasons.
Of course not all pubs on estates are like this but struggle nonetheless. When an ordinary pint of beer in a nondescript pub cost at least £3, most of it tax, it becomes effectively a luxury purchase – a hard sell to those who might be struggling to pay for essentials and who, anyway, can buy cheaper (possibly better) beer at the supermarket, or in Wetherspoon’s on the high street. The unpretentious pub among the chimney pots is squeezed from every direction.
In 2015 Historic England began a project to catalogue surviving post-war pubs and raise awareness of their fragility. Based on our observation in various parts of England while researching the book it feels as if they might be too late. In the last decade or so many estate pubs have finally reached the end of their short lives and have burned down, closed down, collapsed, or been converted into supermarkets or nurseries – amenities that are perhaps more useful on many estates, and certainly less likely to lead to anti-social behaviour.
Still, it is sad to see these symbols of a more optimistic time go, especially when, as at Sydenham in Bridgwater, Somerset, entire estates are quite suddenly left entirely publess. Estates with no pubs might be quieter and easier to police but only in the same way bricking up windows saves on the cost of cleaning them.
You’ll find full details on the book and how and where to order it here on Jessica and Ray’s blog.