Nationalize the Pubs

One hundred years ago, Britain nationalized hundreds of its pubs — and invented a better drinking culture.

The interior of the Cumberland Arms, a state-managed pub in Carlisle. The State Management Story

A hundred years ago, at the height of World War I, the British government faced a dilemma. As the slaughter on the Somme reached its climax, a vast munitions factory had been built on the border between England and Scotland, on an area covering more than fourteen square miles. Some 12,000 workers, plus thousands more builders and a military guard, were drafted into the area.

Most were billeted in townships near Gretna on the Scottish side of the border, but only a short train journey from Carlisle, a city in northern England. With little else to amuse themselves, Carlisle’s pubs became a home for the workers and their unusually generous pay packets, every evening swelling a native population of just 50,000. At Boustead’s, a watering hole near Carlisle station, they would line up 500 whiskies along the bar, ready for the first after-work customers off the train.

By the summer of 1916, convictions for drunkenness in the town had soared six-fold. But, of course, it wasn’t disorder that primarily concerned the authorities. When future prime minister David Lloyd George, then munitions minister, declared that “We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink, and as far as I can see, the greatest of these three deadly foes is drink,” he was referencing the widespread view that the effects of alcohol were threatening production.

Outright prohibition was on the agenda for a time, something which was to come to pass in America only four years later with a constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcohol. But by the outbreak of the First World War the temperance movement in Britain had passed its high-water mark. In 1908, the House of Lords threw out a licensing bill which had proposed closing 30,000 of the 96,000 pubs in England and Wales.

But war had sharpened the drink question once more — and something had to be done. Against this backdrop, the Carlisle Experiment, as it became known, was born.

The Public House

Over the following months the government’s Central Control Board (CCB), set up to restrict alcohol traffic during the war, bought out the entire drinks trade of the Carlisle area, spanning 500 square miles and including 339 pubs and 5 breweries. Their owners were paid a total of £900,000 in compensation — some £74 million in today’s money.

In Carlisle itself the CCB closed 53 of the city’s 118 pubs and the remaining 65 were brought under direct management. The rest were scattered over northern Cumbria and into Scotland to Gretna and beyond.

There were a couple of precedents. A handful of pubs had been taken into state control earlier that year in the vicinities of arms factories at Enfield Lock in north London and at Invergordon in the far northeast of Scotland. But Carlisle was the big one.

At the time, many feared that nationalization would stifle the pleasure of the pub with the dead hand of bureaucracy and a strict authoritarianism. At least in part, this was because the initial thrust of the Home Office’s “State Management Scheme” was to ensure the enforcement of strict wartime licensing laws.

These would be administered in the pubs by a salaried “disinterested management” who had no incentive to sell more booze. This was a concept borrowed from the Gothenburg system of 1860s Sweden in which bars were owned by public trusts. (A few ‘goths’ remain under trust ownership in Scotland today.)

As well as keeping to hours and banning “treating” (rounds), bar staff were instructed to eject drunks, serve spirits in large glasses to allow for dilution, refuse credit, turn away “undesirable” women (sex workers) and prepare hot drinks when a customer requested one. The CCB also brought in “spiritless Saturdays,” which dramatically reduced drunkenness in the town on weekends.

In this regard, state management speedily achieved its aims. By mid-September, levels of drunkenness had plunged steeply, and by the following May they were lower than they had been before the arms factory.

A group of trade unionists on a fact-finding tour in 1919 was mostly impressed. “In the reconstructed public houses in the Carlisle area we saw what licensed premises might become,” they reported. “We were impressed by the evident attempts which have been made to convert the public houses into places which possess a certain dignity and beauty.”

But this was only the beginning. Under state management Carlisle’s pubs were turning a healthy profit, amounting to £107,000 in the first two years of the scheme. They would soon produce a drinking revolution that departed from a century of pub practice and defined a postwar culture.

Social Democracy, Social Drinking

The state-managed pubs were not only operated differently; they were, in many cases, redesigned to create a new kind of drinking environment — and a new kind of drinking.

Beforehand the conditions of many pubs in the area had been poor. Cramped, unsafe, and often lacking basics such as toilet facilities, they were hazardous for both staff and customers. David Gutzke, author of Protecting the Pub, described their “cramped, seedy quarters” in a recent paper:

Exteriors boasted multiple front and back entrances, huge signboards, prominent liquor advertisement, bottle displays, and vast gaudy mirrored windows. Inside, partitions and snugs divided rooms into small, drab, ill-lit, unhygienic, smoky, stuffy areas with tawdry decor. Spanning the seatless public bar, bar counters facilitated “perpendicular drinkers.” Smoke room customers got seats, but paid for them with dearer pints. Drinkers received nothing more here or in the public bar: no food, games, entertainment, or even comfort. One critic not unjustly dismissed them as “poky little drinking dens.”

This was all to change under state management. Partitions were removed to improve visibility for managers and staff. Good seating and tables were installed to reduce “vertical drinking” and to encourage women to visit while diluting and disarming more boisterous or obnoxious male behavior.

Food, entertainment, and games such as darts, dominoes, snooker, and bowls were introduced. Some pubs were designated food houses where nourishing state-made pies were served. Others boasted billiard tables and bowling greens. One even had a cinema.

No longer was it all about the drink. The modern pub was being born in the unlikely cradle of Carlisle.

The scheme hired its own architect, Harry Redfern, who had been influenced by the socialist William Morris and his arts and crafts movement of the late nineteenth century. Over a couple of decades, in fact until hostilities resumed in 1939, Redfern seized the opportunity of state management to develop his vision of a “new model pub.”

Fifteen pubs were demolished and rebuilt to his design, and another eighty-seven radically remodeled. You can still see the evidence today, in the ornately paneled Cumberland Inn on Botchergate, Carlisle’s main thoroughfare; or at the Spinners Arms in the village of Cummerdale, where a curious carved menagerie parades along the outside beams.

Most remarkable were seven new model pubs built to exemplify Redfern’s and the CCB’s vision. Opened in July 1916, the first state-owned pub of all, the Gretna Tavern, was originally Carlisle’s main post office. Its counter was converted into a bar and the sorting office behind became a dining hall with three rows of tables, a newspaper stand, a writing desk, and a stage with a piano and gramophone to provide the entertainment.

Improvements made the following year, including red leather seating and a linoleum floor, increased takings considerably, with 55 percent coming from food sales.

The grandest of these pubs, though, had to be Gracie’s Bank. Opened in November 1916, it was built at Annan, just across the Scottish border, where laborers at the munitions site had added a thousand drinking men to a native population that was little more than five thousand.

Designed to ease congestion at the town’s bars, Gracie’s was also an opportunity for Redfern to show what was possible in a pub. It went further with controls. No spirits were sold and there was no drinking permitted at the bar counter itself.

The graceful single-story brick and timber building, decorated in green and white and partitioned with glass screens, housed a beer hall seating three hundred and a hundred-cover restaurant, both with full table service delivered by a dozen waiting staff.

At one end was a balcony that could accommodate a “modest-sized” orchestra or double as a tea room. At the other end was a games room with two billiard tables, dominoes, draughts, and chess. Outdoors was a bowling green and a pair of quoits pitches.

Adjoining the main building was a three-hundred-capacity cinema where early fans of the silver screen could gape in wonder at silent stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Theda Bara.

On Fridays and Saturdays Gracie’s would also become a pop-up post office where customers could add to or withdraw savings and buy stamps to send postcards to loved ones in the trenches via the pillar box on the pub’s veranda.

Lasting Legacy

As early as January 1917, on the back of the success of the Carlisle scheme, the CCB was pushing for nationalization of the drink trade across the UK, and the debate continued after the war.

Although this never came to pass, the state-managed model worked so well that the “experiment” continued through peacetime and beyond. The nationalized estate was even extended with the purchase of pubs further afield before, embarrassed by such a public-ownership success story, Ted Heath’s Tory government finally sold the pubs off in parcels to brewers in 1973.

But the State Management Scheme’s influence lasted. Redfern’s new model pubs would inspire the “improved pub movement,” led by two brewers who sat on the CCB. A decline in alcohol drinking, caused in part by more restrictive licensing across the country as well as the deaths on the battlefields of so many young drinking men, meant a reduction in beer sales. This prompted brewers to design pubs that could attract a wider audience — women and families — by serving good food and entertainment in comfortable, well-furnished, and safe environments.

The movement wasn’t without its critics — some arguing it intended to impose middle-class values on working-class institutions. But its improvement of conditions was without question and, although the movement was undoubtedly motivated in part by self-preservation, the progressive politics of its leading figures meant the changes it introduced were broadly popular.

Pubs from this period are still held in high esteem, and often came to serve as hubs for community activity — a fact which is reflected in the presence of more than ninety of them on the government’s List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest.

This stands in contrast, however, to a flood of lost pubs over the last decade or so, currently running at a net twenty closures per week.

Recession, smoking bans, and changing lifestyles, plus an industry structure that has sucked profits towards major chains, mean that despite all the innovation, pubs at the heart of their communities have struggled to keep beating.

For a tiny fraction of the fifty thousand pubs still open, a form of collective ownership has been the solution as communities have stepped up to take over their failing local. The number of cooperative pubs in Britain has shot up during the crisis from half a dozen in 2011 to more than fifty this year, with a recent report indicating that another ninety groups are exploring setting ones up.

Most of these, such as recent pub of the year winner the George & Dragon, are in rural areas attempting to stem the flow of small-town decline — but they have begun to spring up in the cities too. In 2014, the Bevy in Brighton became the first cooperatively owned pub in a housing estate, and is now a community hub hosting everything from a choir to local disability services.

But they can’t do it all. Sometimes only the state is big and bold enough to save an industry. Given its record of success, it is long past time for the nationalization of pubs to return to the political agenda. It may sound far-fetched — but so, at one time, did Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn.