The History of Public Houses

Whether you call them pubs, taverns, inns or alehouses they are renowned all over the world. The great British pub is not just a place to drink beer, wine, cider or even something a little bit stronger, it is a unique social centre and the focus of community life in villages, towns and cities throughout the length and breadth of the country.

However, the great British pub actually started life as a great Italian wine bar, and dates back almost 2,000 years.

It was an invading Roman army that brought Roman roads, Roman towns and Roman pubs known as tabernae to these shores in 43 AD. Such tabernae, or huts that sold wine, were quickly built alongside Roman roads and in towns to help quench the thirst of the legionaries.

Ale however was the native British brew, and it appears that these tabernae quickly adapted to provide the locals with their favourite tipple, and the word tabernae became adapted to tavern.

With the gradual spread of the road network and horse-drawn coaches our roadside taverns were transformed into coaching inns. Such establishments even now preserving the archways leading to former stables and courtyards behind. In market towns it was not uncommon for prosperous inns to add function rooms, and private rooms where business could be discussed away from the bustling town marketplace outside. And so it was that hostelries created a social role for themselves.

Strictly speaking, inns provided rooms for travellers, taverns provided food and drink, while alehouses simply sold beer. Since most of the population were illiterate it was quite common for each establishment to display a simplistic sign which depicted the name of the premise. 

The native British brew of ‘ale’ was originally made without hops. Ale brewed with hops was gradually introduced in the 14th and 15th centuries and this was known as beer. By 1550 most brewing included hops and the expression alehouse and beerhouse became synonymous.

Following the accession of William of Orange in 1688 gin became the popular drink in England. Gin provided an alternative to French brandy at a time of both political and religious conflict between Britain and France. Between 1689 and 1697, the Government passed a range of legislation aimed at restricting brandy imports and encouraging gin production.

Most importantly, the monopoly of the London Guild of Distillers was broken in 1690, thereby opening up the market in gin distillation.  Anyone was able to start up their own distillery simply by giving ten days notice to the excise. With the government imposing heavy duties on imported spirits, domestic distilleries sprang up everywhere. 

By 1735 there were five million such businesses in operation.  The production and consumption of English gin, which was then popular among politicians and even Queen Anne, was encouraged by the government. Gin was cheaper than beer and, as a result, it was very popular with the poor. 

Unfortunately because it was so cheap the majority of the working classes went on a bender that was dubbed 'Gin Fever.'  Inevitably, there was a long period when it was considered that Britain had gone to the dogs. Drunkenness, coupled with crime and lawlessness, was rife and it was gin, known as “Mother's Ruin” or “Madam Geneva” that was the cause.
In 1830, The Duke of Wellington’s Beerhouse Act was introduced to make it easy for anyone to obtain a licence to brew and sell beer on payment a licence fee of two guineas. The intention was to increase competition between brewers and to encourage the drinking of beer and cider instead of gin which was still the cheapest and most common drink of the working classes. In addition, the industrial revolution could only function if the workforce was sober. Beer was not only viewed as the lesser evil in terms of controlling labour and production but in many areas still safer to drink than water.  

Any ratepayer could now sell beer without a full licence. There was an explosion of beerhouses and over 20,000 Beer Houses suddenly appeared up and down the country. Within six years there were 46,000 beer shops or beer houses in the country. The opening hours could be from 4am to 10pm and many were shops and private dwellings selling beer in one room of their shop or house. Gradually the drinking spaces in people's homes were separated: seating being available in the taproom, but standing space only offered in the bar-room while the more genteel might look for an establishment with a parlour. 

The Wine and Beer House Act of 1869 and the Licensing Act of 1872 brought back tighter controls on licensing and many beerhouses closed. Many of those that remained, The Fox included, were bought by breweries and evolved into Public Houses. 

Interestingly, under the 1872 Act which remains in force today, it is still illegal to be drunk in charge of a horse, a cow or a steam engine, with a possible penalty of a £200 fine or 51 weeks in prison!
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