A recent stroll down Oxford Street was all I needed to see when it comes to London’s popularity as a tourist destination. Visitors, tour buses in abundance and crowded tube stations certainly reinforce the latest results of the Global Destinations Cities Index that international visits to London rose to a record 16.8 million last year surpassing Paris and other top destinations in Europe and beyond. This can also be seen in London’s property market as many of the new owners are foreign buyers mostly from Asia.
Most of the new developments being built around the city have plans for new luxury hotels to accommodate the growth of tourists and other visitors. But what is it that gives London, if not all of Britain for that matter, this new status for attracting the most visitors and now residents? Certainly the great accommodations, arts and shopping, but what also makes London appealing are the classic British traditions such as its culture and educational institutions. Many foreign investors have cited that one of the main reasons for buying a property in Britain was because of the choice of academic institutions for their children and even grand children to attend.
But one other tradition that makes a visit to London and the rest of Britain complete is going to the traditional pub. In recent years pubs were closing and lately stories of binge drinking university students on pub crawls have given some in the pub industry a black eye. But the pub is an important mainstay on so many levels not to just drink and have a meal but for the best part of all-socializing. Especially in this internet and mobile phone era where so much of our daily communications have become impersonal with emails, social networks, voice messages and selfies.
The British pub actually started during Roman times and dates back almost 2,000 years.
The Great British Pub by Ben Johnson explains the origins of todays pubs. Known as tabernae, establishments that sold wine, quickly became popular and widespread as Roman roads and towns began to be built. Eventually ale became the most popular drink and the term tabernae became tavern. During the time of King Henry VII these establishments became known as Alehouses and along with inns then became known as public houses or pubs.
In 1552 laws were created that required pub owners had to have a license to operate. By 1577 it is estimated that there were some 17,000 alehouses, 2,000 inns and 400 taverns throughout England and Wales. Taking into account the population of the period, that would equate to around one pub for every 200 persons. To put that into context, that same ratio today would be approximately one pub for every 1,000 persons. One reason for the widespread consumption of ale and beer in those days was that they were considered safer to drink than water.
From 1689 onward, the English government encouraged the industry of distilling, as it helped boost grain prices. This gave way to the ‘Gin Era’ from about 1720 to 1750 where gin became popular in pubs because it was inexpensive and stronger than beer. But eventually the Gin Acts of 1736 and 1751 not only imposed higher taxes but were introduced because of heavy consumption and the problems it caused. Gin was considered to be more detrimental than beer and was viewed as a root cause of society decay and other problems. By 1750, over a quarter of all residences in St Giles parish in London were gin shops, and havens for prostitutes and thieves selling stolen property.
In 1751 English artist William Hogarth’s Gin Lane published a print depicting the parish of St Giles showing the depths of despair of a community raised on gin led to the Gin Act. Whilst some thought Hogarth’s depictions of gin on society to be more propaganda for the causes of poverty and other troubles the Gin Act did lead to a twenty year low in gin production and consumption.
The Beer Act of 1830 introduced a new lower enterprise permitted to sell alcohol, the Beer Houses. In those days beer was viewed as harmless, nutritious and healthy. It was not uncommon for children to be served beer as an alternative to local water systems that were considered to be unhealthy. It was also hoped that this legislation would help stop the continued consumption of gin and its associated problems.
Restrictions on public houses continued throughout the 19th century. By World War I the most notable was the Defence of the Realm Act of August 1914 restricted pub’s opening hours to 12 noon–2:30 pm and 6:30 pm–9:30 pm. Opening for the full licensed hours was compulsory, and closing time was equally firmly enforced by the police; a landlord might lose his licence for infractions.
The Licensing Act 2003 which began on 24 November 2005 allowed pubs in England and Wales to apply to the local council for the opening hours of their choice. The idea was rather than all pubs closing at the same time and all the patrons leaving at around 11:30 pm this would help in police efforts of crowd control and crime problems. But the problems for A&E units and hospitals actually increased and there were fears that some establishments would get permission to be operating 24 hours a day.
So what is the future of the local traditional pub?
The economy certainly plays a major role in the survival of the local pubs but other factors have also made the pub industry difficult. In the 2012 report Pubs And Places there were 16 pubs closing every week in Britain and it continues today. Contributing to the decline is that the cost of beer prices have gone up in pubs faster than in corner shops and supermarkets thanks to the discounts they can provide. Adding to the cost for beer prices has been legislation passed in taxes and other charges that have put the pubs at a disadvantage due to increased operating costs. Tastes and lifestyles have changed, with more people drinking wine and fewer people drinking beer, the mainstay of most pub income. There has also been a significant rise in the number of people drinking at home, rather than in pubs and bars. Most importantly are the changes taking place in neighbourhoods with new blocks of developments eliminating pubs and other small businesses.
History shows that whatever problems society may have as a result of alcohol consumption the pub has endured. The institution of public houses is necessary for people to meet and enjoy life face to face in this digital world. The older pubs not only provide that but help remind us of Britains great traditions that so many grew up enjoying. I would hope the traditional ‘British’ pub would not be completely replaced by the modern, trendy and lack of atmosphere meeting places. Traditions are a good thing, especially British ones, and keeping them alive is of utmost importance.
Article by Kevin Murphy of www.eclipseaf.com