The death of the British pub

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It's a sad fact that upwards of 30 public houses are closing down every week in Britain.

Other countries might have their taverns, beer halls or bars but the humble British pub has always been something of an institution, an establishment unique to this country.

Every town or village once had one and the public house was, for many years, the social centre of community life. All that, however, is changing as people now buy cheaper alcohol in supermarkets and are more than happy to sit and drink at home. The cosy chat around the pub fire or bar counter are rapidly becoming things of the past.

It might seem as if the pub has been around for thousands of years but, in fact, the public house as we know it is not as ancient as we sometimes think. As far as Wales is concerned purpose-built pubs only came into being in the last 300 or so years.

Inns, for the comfort of needy travellers, had been around for some time - Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales began their journey from just such an establishment and there were many examples in Wales. But pubs? These were a different species.

The public house, a place just to drink and talk, arrived in Wales in the early 1700s. To begin with they were beer houses, the name summing up their origins.

Quite simply people opened up their houses and sold beer in their front rooms or parlours. In rural areas these beer houses might be located in farm houses - in towns they were just as likely to be terraced properties, surrounded on both sides by the dwellings of ordinary men and women.

To begin with these places had no bar counter - such refinements did not come into being until the middle of the 19th century.

The beer (and it was, normally, just beer that was sold) was stored in the pantry and was fetched to your seat or, if you were lucky, to your table by the landlady or landlord, being poured from a jug directly into your glass. Most of these early pubs or beer dens had only one room, with chairs typically set around an inglenook fire or lined along the walls.

These early pubs were well used and provided valuable income for the owners. In many cases they were run by women, the men continuing to work on the farm or foundry during the day and either lending a hand at night or simply sitting and partaking in the entertainment.

It was very much a working class clientèle as the upper echelons of society would either use well-established inns or drink in the comfort of their own homes. But for men coming home from the pit, quarry or steel works these public houses provided much-needed refreshment after a working day that would probably kill or maim most people in this day and age.

Beer was also safe to drink. It was, for the most part, relatively clean and unlikely to carry disease. And that was more than could be said about the water in Welsh towns or villages until well into the 20th century.

By the middle years of the 19th century towns in Wales boasted huge numbers of public houses. By 1840, even a relatively small place like Caernarfon had no fewer than two inns, two hotels, five spirit dealers and 27 taverns or beer houses.

The town of Monmouth had the staggering (perhaps literally!) ratio of one pub for every 85 people while in the ship building community of Pembroke Dock there were over 200 drinking dens.

Newport had an amazing 390 pubs, inns and beer houses - at a time when the town's population was less than a third of today's.

Just like the long-established inns, after a while the pubs began to acquire names for themselves. In many cases these names were linked to the signs that hung outside their doors.

To display a sign advertising their wares had been a legal requirement for anyone who sold alcohol since Roman days - names such as the Bush or Ivy Bush can certainly be traced back to this era.

Places like The Royal Oak or the King's Arms soon became commonplace while after the Crimean War, as soldiers began to return home, pubs began to adopt names such as The Alma or Odessa. Other names, such as the famous Cow and Snuffers in Cardiff, elude explanation.

The story of the public house - particularly in Wales - cannot be separated from the Temperance Movement. Despite the fact that, in the early days, many religious groups used the pubs and taverns as meeting houses, during the Victorian age the supporters of "temperance" gained ground, railing about drunkenness and portraying the pubs as "gateways to Hell."

Women's Temperance Union (courtesy of Conwy Archive Service)

Perhaps the crowning glory of the Temperance Movement came in 1881 when the Sunday Closing Act was passed. It might have seemed to be a victory for the supporters of Temperance but, in fact, the Act led to a century or more of ingenious law breaking as would-be Sunday drinkers continuously found loopholes in the law.

The simplest way of getting around the Act was to leave the back door open but there were also more sophisticated ways of buying a drink on Sundays. For a long while, for example, anyone travelling seven miles or more could claim a drink in another town - although quite how people were able to prove or disprove that fact remains a little unclear.

Late Victorian and Edwardian Wales produced some staggeringly beautiful pub buildings. And many of them still remain. The Golden Cross in Cardiff, the Waterloo in Newport and The Ivy Bush in Pontardawe are just three superb examples, survivors of an institution once found in many working class communities.

However, with pub closures taking place right across the country, the future of all our public houses has to be in question. The pub remains part of our heritage, envied by visitors and tourists the world over. As someone once said about the local corner shop - use it or lose it.

Phil Carradice explores the hidden history of Wales' ancient beer houses, inns and taverns in this week's episode of Past Master on Sunday 30 January, 5.30pm on BBC Radio Wales.

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