How public was the public house?

Friday 4 February 2011, 09:05

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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It's a sad fact that the good, old fashioned public house was, for many years, far less public than most of us ever imagined.

Pint glasses in a pub

Many Welsh pubs used to have 'Men Only' bars

Half of the population of Britain was actually banned from many of these establishments, purely on the grounds of gender, and of the other half a large proportion was excluded from certain parts of the building because of social class.

For a long time many Welsh pubs had 'Men Only' bars. Until as late as the 1970s women, if they came to the pub at all, were usually sat in the snug or the lounge.

They rarely entered the hallowed portals of the bar and their men folk - very few women ventured into the pub alone - would bring them drinks as the evening progressed. The men remained, resolutely, standing at the bar.

It had not always been like this. In the Victorian era you would often find women in public houses but these were not always the kind of girl you would be happy to take home to your mother!

Pubs like The Eagle in Cardiff - later, perhaps appropriately, re-named The Spread Eagle - doubled as brothels and many establishments were actually run by women. When you study the various directories of Welsh towns and villages in the 1880s and 1890s you find that, maybe, 40 or even 50% of them had women landlords.

There were famous characters in most Welsh towns, drunkards who regularly appeared in court on charges of being drunk and disorderly. Many of these were women and some, like Ellen Sweeney of Swansea had over 150 convictions. No sign of discrimination by gender there, then!

In the smaller towns and rural areas, however, the taboo against women in pubs remained firm and constant. Pubs often had a small hatch, perhaps at the rear of the building, where women might come to fill up a bottle or a jug but they rarely went inside.

Only as the swinging '60s progressed and the greater freedom of the Women's Lib movement began to smash down some of the prejudices of society did things really start to change.

There was also, for many years, a very clear social divide in the pubs. Working men used the bar; the 'better class of person' - the town doctor, solicitor or police sergeant - drank in the snug or lounge. And never the twain would meet.

Of course there was a charge of two pence extra on all drinks bought in the lounge but, for most members of the middle or even upper classes, that seemed to be preferable than drinking with your workers or servants.

Sometimes the working men in the bar had to face yet another form of discrimination. Many pubs expressly forbade the wearing of working clothes. Others allowed it in the early evening, for men on their way home from work, but if they wanted a drink after 9pm they had to be properly attired in jackets, shirts and trousers.

These days there is no sense of discrimination in our pubs. The law of the land would not allow it and, anyway, attitudes have changed out of all recognition.

The public house has evolved along with the rest of society and if it wants to survive it will have to continue to change, many times.

If you want to hear more about pubs in Wales tune in to Past Master on Sunday 6 February, 5.30pm on BBC Radio Wales, when Phil Carradice explores this unique British tradition.

Read Phil's earlier blog on the death of the British pub.

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    Comment number 1.

    I remember well a pub, probably now long gone, in Troedrhiwgwair. (A village that was once used in the BBC series district nurse). I believe it was called the 'Farm'. It had one large room, which was also used as the lodge for the Moose, a very small skinny room, which was the sung, and a very small bar.

    There was nothing about this place that was slightly modern. The till was the barman's apron, beer was poured from casks, the gents was a wall across the courtyard and there were no women what so ever.

    In the early eighties this then was a bastion of the 'old' pubs. Bloody good company and beer I seem to remember, though!


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