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A pub, or public house, is an establishment licensed to sell alcoholic drinks, which traditionally include beer (such as ale) and cider. It is a social drinking establishment and a prominent part of British,Irish,Breton, New Zealand, South African and Australian cultures. In many places, especially in villages, a pub is the focal point of the community. In his 17th-century diary Samuel Pepys described the pub as "the heart of England".
Pubs can be traced back to Roman taverns, through the Anglo-Saxon alehouse to the development of the tied house system in the 19th century. In 1393, King Richard II of England introduced legislation that pubs had to display a sign outdoors to make them easily visible for passing ale tasters, who would assess the quality of ale sold.
Most pubs focus on offering beers, ales and similar drinks. As well, pubs often sell wines, spirits, and soft drinks, meals and snacks. The owner, tenant or manager (licensee) is known as the pub landlord or landlady, or publican. Referred to as their "local" by regulars, pubs are typically chosen for their proximity to home or work, the availability of a particular beer or ale or a good selection, good food, a social atmosphere, the presence of friends and acquaintances, and the availability of recreational activities such as a darts team, a skittles team, and a pool or snooker table. The pub quiz was established in the UK in the 1970s.
The inhabitants of the British Isles have been drinking ale since the Bronze Age, but it was with the arrival of the Roman Empire on its shores in the 1st century, and the construction of the Roman road networks that the first inns, called tabernae, in which travellers could obtain refreshment, began to appear.
After the departure of Roman authority in the 5th century and the fall of the Romano-British kingdoms, the Anglo-Saxons established alehouses that may have grown out of domestic dwellings, first attested in the 10th century. These alehouses quickly evolved into meeting houses for the folk to socially congregate, gossip and arrange mutual help within their communities. The Wantage law code of Æthelred the Unready proscribes fines for breaching the peace at meetings held in alehouses. Herein lies the origin of the modern public house, or "pub" as it is colloquially called in England.
A traveller in the early Middle Ages could obtain overnight accommodation in monasteries, but later a demand for hostelries grew with the popularity of pilgrimages and travel. The Hostellers of London were granted guild status in 1446 and in 1514 the guild became the Worshipful Company of Innholders. A survey in 1577 of drinking establishment in England and Wales for taxation purposes recorded 14,202 alehouses, 1,631 inns, and 329 taverns, representing one pub for every 187 people.
Inns are buildings where travellers can seek lodging and, usually, food and drink. They are typically located in the country or along a highway. In Europe, they possibly first sprang up when the Romans built a system of roads two millennia ago. Some inns in Europe are several centuries old. In addition to providing for the needs of travellers, inns traditionally acted as community gathering places.
In Europe, it is the provision of accommodation, if anything, that now distinguishes inns from taverns, alehouses and pubs. The latter tend to provide alcohol (and, in the UK, soft drinks and often food), but less commonly accommodation. Inns tend to be older and grander establishments: historically they provided not only food and lodging, but also stabling and fodder for the traveller's horse(s) and on some roads fresh horses for the mail coach.
Famous London inns include The George, Southwark and The Tabard. There is, however, no longer a formal distinction between an inn and other kinds of establishment. Many pubs use "Inn" in their name, either because they are long established former coaching inns, or to summon up a particular kind of image, or in many cases simply as a pun on the word "in", as in "The Welcome Inn", the name of many pubs in Scotland.
The original services of an inn are now also available at other establishments, such as hotels, lodges, and motels, which focus more on lodging customers than on other services, although they usually provide meals; pubs, which are primarily alcohol-serving establishments; and restaurants and taverns, which serve food and drink. In North America, the lodging aspect of the word "inn" lives on in hotel brand names like Holiday Inn, and in some state laws that refer to lodging operators as innkeepers.
The 18th century saw a huge growth in the number of drinking establishments, primarily due to the introduction of gin. Brought to England by the Dutch after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, gin became very popular after the government created a market for "cuckoo grain" or "cuckoo malt" (grain that was unfit to be used in brewing and distilling) by allowing unlicensed gin and beer production while imposing a heavy duty on all imported spirits.
As thousands of gin-shops sprang up all over England, brewers fought back by increasing the number of alehouses. By 1740, the production of gin had increased to six times that of beer and because of its cheapness, it became popular with the poor, leading to the so-called Gin Craze. Over half of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London were gin shops.
The drunkenness and lawlessness created by gin was seen to lead to the ruination and degradation of the working classes. The different effects of beer and gin were illustrated by William Hogarth in his engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane. The Gin Act 1736 imposed high taxes on retailers and led to riots in the streets. The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. The Gin Act 1751, however, was more successful. It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin shops under the jurisdiction of local magistrates.
By the early 19th century, encouraged by lower duties on gin, the gin houses or "Gin Palaces" had spread from London to most cities and towns in Britain, with most of the new establishments illegal and unlicensed. These bawdy, loud and unruly drinking dens so often described by Charles Dickens in his Sketches by Boz (published 1835-1836) increasingly came to be held as unbridled cesspits of immorality or crime and the source of much ill-health and alcoholism among the working classes.
Under a banner of "reducing public drunkenness" the Beer Act of 1830 introduced "beer houses", a new lower tier of premises permitted to sell alcohol. At the time, beer was viewed as harmless, nutritious and even healthy. Young children were often given what was described as small beer, brewed to have a low alcohol content, as the local water was often unsafe. Even the evangelical church and temperance movements of the day viewed the drinking of beer very much as a secondary evil and a normal accompaniment to a meal. The freely available beer was thus intended to wean drinkers off the evils of gin, or so the thinking went.
Under the 1830 Act any householder who paid rates could apply, with a one-off payment of two guineas (roughly equal in value to £185 today), to sell beer or cider in his home (usually the front parlour) and even to brew his own on his premises. The permission did not extend to the sale of spirits and fortified wines, and any beer house discovered selling those items was closed down and the owner heavily fined.
Beer houses were not permitted to open on Sundays. The beer was usually served in jugs or dispensed directly from tapped wooden barrels on a table in the corner of the room. Often profits were so high the owners were able to buy the house next door to live in, turning every room in their former home into bars and lounges for customers.
In the first year, 400 beer houses opened and within eight years there were 46,000 across the country, far outnumbering the combined total of long-established taverns, pubs, inns and hotels. Because it was so easy to obtain permission and the profits could be huge compared to the low cost of gaining permission, the number of beer houses continued to rise; in some towns nearly every other house in a street might be a beer house. Finally in 1869 the growth had to be checked by magisterial control. New licensing laws were introduced making harder to get a licence, and the regime which operates today was established.
Although the new licensing laws prevented new beer houses from being created, those already in existence were allowed to continue and many did not close until near the end of the 19th century. The vast majority of beer houses applied for the new licences and became pubs. These usually small establishments can still be identified in many towns, seemingly oddly located in the middle of terraced housing part way up a street, unlike purpose-built pubs that are usually found on corners or at road junctions. Many of today's respected real ale micro-brewers in the UK started as home-based beer house brewers under the 1830 Act.
The beer houses tended to avoid the traditional pub names like The Crown, The Red Lion, The Royal Oak etc. and, if they did not simply name their place Smith's Beer House, they would apply topical pub names in an effort to reflect the mood of the times.
There was regulation of public drinking spaces in England from at least the 15th century. In 1496, under, Henry VII, an act was passed, "against vagabonds and beggers" (11 Hen. VII c2), that included a clause empowering two justices of the peace, "to rejecte and put awey comen ale-selling in tounes and places where they shall think convenyent, and to take suertie of the keepers of ale-houses in their gode behavyng by the discrecion of the seid justices, and in the same to be avysed and aggreed at the tyme of their sessions." More legislation was introduced in the following centuries, together with licence fees, which became an income stream for the crown. Tavern owners were required to possess a licence to sell ale, and a separate licence for distilled spirits.
From the mid-19th century on the opening hours of licensed premises in the UK were restricted. However licensing was gradually liberalised after the 1960s, until contested licensing applications became very rare, and the remaining administrative function was transferred to Local Authorities in 2005.
The Wine and Beerhouse Act 1869 reintroduced the stricter controls of the previous century. The sale of beers, wines or spirits required a licence for the premises from the local magistrates. Further provisions regulated gaming, drunkenness, prostitution and undesirable conduct on licensed premises, enforceable by prosecution or more effectively by the landlord under threat of forfeiting his licence. Licences were only granted, transferred or renewed at special Licensing Sessions courts, and were limited to respectable individuals. Often these were ex-servicemen or ex-policemen; retiring to run a pub was popular amongst military officers at the end of their service. Licence conditions varied widely, according to local practice. They would specify permitted hours, which might require Sunday closing, or conversely permit all-night opening near a market. Typically they might require opening throughout the permitted hours, and the provision of food or lavatories. Once obtained, licences were jealously protected by the licensees (who were expected to be generally present, not an absentee owner or company), and even "Occasional Licences" to serve drinks at temporary premises such as fêtes would usually be granted only to existing licensees. Objections might be made by the police, rival landlords or anyone else on the grounds of infractions such as serving drunks, disorderly or dirty premises, or ignoring permitted hours.
Detailed licensing records were kept, giving the Public House, its address, owner, licensee and misdemeanours of the licensees, often going back for hundreds of years. Many of these records survive and can be viewed, for example, at the London Metropolitan Archives centre. The archives centre is responsible for records being publicized as well as permanently preserving the records. The records remaining permanent for 15-25 years until they are reviewed for the second time.
A favourite goal of the Temperance movement led by Protestant nonconformists was to sharply reduce the heavy drinking by closing as many pubs as possible. In 1908 Prime Minister H.H. Asquith--although a heavy drinker--took the lead by proposing to close about a third of the 100,000 pubs in England and Wales, with the owners compensated through a new tax on surviving pubs. The brewers controlled the pubs and organized a stiff resistance, supported by the Conservatives, who repeatedly defeated the proposal in the House of Lords. However, the "People's Tax" of 1910 included a stiff tax on pubs. Beer and liquor consumption fell in half from 1900 to 1920, in part because there were many new leisure opportunities.
The restrictions were tightened by the Defence of the Realm Act of August 1914, which, along with the introduction of rationing and the censorship of the press for wartime purposes, restricted pubs' 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. Pubs were closed under the Act and compensation paid, for example in Pembrokeshire.
There was a special case established under the State Management Scheme where the brewery and licensed premises were bought and run by the state until 1973, most notably in Carlisle. During the 20th century elsewhere, both the licensing laws and enforcement were progressively relaxed, and there were differences between parishes; in the 1960s, at closing time in Kensington at 10:30 pm, drinkers would rush over the parish boundary to be in good time for "Last Orders" in Knightsbridge before 11 pm, a practice observed in many pubs adjoining licensing area boundaries. Some Scottish and Welsh parishes remained officially "dry" on Sundays (although often this merely required knocking at the back door of the pub). These restricted opening hours led to the tradition of lock-ins.
However, closing times were increasingly disregarded in the country pubs. In England and Wales by 2000 pubs could legally open from 11 am (12 noon on Sundays) through to 11 pm (10:30 pm on Sundays). That year was also the first to allow continuous opening for 36 hours from 11 am on New Year's Eve to 11 pm on New Year's Day. In addition, many cities had by-laws to allow some pubs to extend opening hours to midnight or 1 am, whilst nightclubs had long been granted late licences to serve alcohol into the morning. Pubs near London's Smithfield market, Billingsgate fish market and Covent Garden fruit and flower market could stay open 24 hours a day since Victorian times to provide a service to the shift working employees of the markets.
Scotland's and Northern Ireland's licensing laws have long been more flexible, allowing local authorities to set pub opening and closing times. In Scotland, this stemmed from a late repeal of the wartime licensing laws, which stayed in force until 1976.
The Licensing Act 2003, which came into force on 24 November 2005, consolidated the many laws into a single Act. This allowed pubs in England and Wales to apply to the local council for the opening hours of their choice. It was argued that this would end the concentration of violence around 11.30 pm, when people had to leave the pub, making policing easier. In practice, alcohol-related hospital admissions rose following the change in the law, with alcohol involved in 207,800 admissions in 2006/7. Critics claimed that these laws would lead to "24-hour drinking". By the time the law came into effect, 60,326 establishments had applied for longer hours and 1,121 had applied for a licence to sell alcohol 24 hours a day. However nine months later many pubs had not changed their hours, although some stayed open longer at the weekend, but rarely beyond 1:00 am.
A "lock-in" is when a pub owner allows patrons to continue drinking in the pub after the legal closing time, on the theory that once the doors are locked, it becomes a private party rather than a pub. Patrons may put money behind the bar before official closing time, and redeem their drinks during the lock-in so no drinks are technically sold after closing time. The origin of the British lock-in was a reaction to 1915 changes in the licensing laws in England and Wales, which curtailed opening hours to stop factory workers from turning up drunk and harming the war effort. From then until the start of the 21st century, UK licensing laws changed very little, retaining these comparatively early closing times. The tradition of the lock-in therefore remained. Since the implementation of the Licensing Act 2003, premises in England and Wales may apply to extend their opening hours beyond 11 pm, allowing round-the-clock drinking and removing much of the need for lock-ins. Since the smoking ban, some establishments operated a lock-in during which the remaining patrons could smoke without repercussions but, unlike drinking lock-ins, allowing smoking in a pub was still a prosecutable offence.
Ireland banned smoking in early 2004 in pubs and clubs. In March 2006, a law was introduced to forbid smoking in all enclosed public places in Scotland. Wales followed suit in April 2007, with England introducing the ban in July 2007. Pub landlords had raised concerns prior to the implementation of the law that a smoking ban would have a negative impact on sales. After two years, the impact of the ban was mixed; some pubs suffered declining sales, while others developed their food sales. The Wetherspoon pub chain reported in June 2009 that profits were at the top end of expectations; however, Scottish & Newcastle's takeover by Carlsberg and Heineken was reported in January 2008 as partly the result of its weakness following falling sales due to the ban. Similar bans are applied in Australian pubs with smoking only allowed in designated areas.
By the end of the 18th century a new room in the pub was established: the saloon. Beer establishments had always provided entertainment of some sort--singing, gaming or sport. Balls Pond Road in Islington was named after an establishment run by a Mr. Ball that had a duck pond at the rear, where drinkers could, for a fee, go out and take a potshot at the ducks. More common, however, was a card room or a billiard room. The saloon was a room where, for an admission fee or a higher price of drinks, singing, dancing, drama, or comedy was performed and drinks would be served at the table. From this came the popular music hall form of entertainment--a show consisting of a variety of acts. A most famous London saloon was the Grecian Saloon in The Eagle, City Road, a pub which was referenced by name in the 18th century nursery rhyme: "Up and down the City Road / In and out The Eagle / That's the way the money goes / Pop goes the weasel." This meant that the customer had spent all his money at The Eagle, and needed to pawn his "weasel" to get some more. The meaning of the "weasel" is unclear but the two most likely definitions are: a flat iron used for finishing clothing; or rhyming slang for a coat (weasel and stoat).
A few pubs have stage performances such as serious drama, stand-up comedy, musical bands, cabaret or striptease; however, juke boxes, karaoke and other forms of pre-recorded music have otherwise replaced the musical tradition of a piano or guitar and singing.
The public bar, or tap room, was where the working class were expected to congregate and drink. It had unfurnished floorboards, sometimes covered with sawdust to absorb the spitting and spillages (known as "spit and sawdust"), bare bench seats and stools. Drinks were generally lower quality beers and liquors. Public bars were seen as exclusive areas for only men; strictly enforced social etiquettes barred women from entering public bars (some pubs did not lift this rule until the 1980s).
This style was in marked contrast to the adjacent saloon or lounge bar, that by the early 20th century, was where male or accompanied female middle-class drinkers would drink. It had carpeted floors, upholstered seats, and a wider selection of better quality drinks that cost a penny or two more than those served in the public bar.
By the mid 20th century, the standard of the public bar had generally improved. Pub patrons only had to choose between economy and exclusivity (or youth and age: a jukebox or dartboard). By the 1970s, divisions between saloons and public bars were being phased out, usually by the removal of the dividing wall or partition. While the names of saloon and public bar may still be seen on the doors of pubs, the prices (and often the standard of furnishings and decoration) are the same throughout the premises. Most present day pubs now comprise one large room, although with the advent of gastropubs, some establishments have returned to maintaining distinct rooms or areas.
The "snug" was a small private room or area which typically had access to the bar and a frosted glass window, set above head height. A higher price was paid for beer in the snug and nobody could look in and see the drinkers. It was not only the wealthy visitors who would use these rooms. The snug was for patrons who preferred not to be seen in the public bar. Ladies would often enjoy a private drink in the snug in a time when it was frowned upon for women to be in a pub. The local police officer might nip in for a quiet pint, the parish priest for his evening whisky, or lovers for a rendezvous.
Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) have surveyed the 50,000 pubs in Britain and they believe that there are very few pubs that still have classic snugs. These are on a historic interiors list in order that they can be preserved.
Until the early 19th century, beer establishments used to bring the beer out to the table or benches, as remains the practice in beer gardens and some other drinking establishments in Germany. Beer would be tapped directly from a barrel sat on a table, or kept in a separate taproom and brought out in jugs.
Gin houses of this time had developed from gin shops and the serving counter had stayed, as part of that evolution. The feature was adopted by public houses and began to appear in them from the 1820s. The main room was the public room with a large serving bar copied from the gin houses, the idea being to serve the maximum number of people in the shortest possible time. Other, more private, rooms had no serving bar and had the beer brought to them from the public bar. There are a number of pubs in central or northern England which still retain this set up but these days the beer is fetched by the customer from the taproom or public bar. One of these is The Vine, known locally as The Bull and Bladder, in Brierley Hill near Birmingham, another the Cock at Broom, Bedfordshire a series of small rooms served drinks and food by waiting staff. In the Manchester district the public bar was known as the "vault", other rooms being the lounge and snug as usual elsewhere. By the early 1970s there was a tendency to change to one large drinking room and breweries were eager to invest in interior design and theming.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the British engineer and railway builder, introduced the idea of a circular bar into the Swindon station pub in order that customers were served quickly and did not delay his trains. These island bars became popular as they also allowed staff to serve customers in several different rooms surrounding the bar.
The first beer pump known in England is believed to have been invented by John Lofting (b. Netherlands 1659-d. Great Marlow Buckinghamshire 1742) an inventor, manufacturer and merchant of London.
The London Gazette of 17 March 1691 published a patent in favour of John Lofting for a fire engine, but remarked upon and recommended another invention of his, for a beer pump:
"Whereas their Majesties have been Graciously Pleased to grant Letters patent to John Lofting of London Merchant for a New Invented Engine for Extinguishing Fires which said Engine have found every great encouragement. The said Patentee hath also projected a Very Useful Engine for starting of beer and other liquors which will deliver from 20 to 30 barrels an hour which are completely fixed with Brass Joints and Screws at Reasonable Rates. Any Person that hath occasion for the said Engines may apply themselves to the Patentee at his house near St Thomas Apostle London or to Mr. Nicholas Wall at the Workshoppe near Saddlers Wells at Islington or to Mr. William Tillcar, Turner, his agent at his house in Woodtree next door to the Sun Tavern London."
"Their Majesties" referred to were William and Mary, who had recently arrived from the Netherlands and had been appointed joint monarchs.
Strictly the term refers to the pump itself, which is normally manually operated, though electrically powered and gas powered pumps are occasionally used. When manually powered, the term "handpump" is often used to refer to both the pump and the associated handle.
After the development of the large London Porter breweries in the 18th century, the trend grew for pubs to become tied houses which could only sell beer from one brewery (a pub not tied in this way was called a Free house). The usual arrangement for a tied house was that the pub was owned by the brewery but rented out to a private individual (landlord) who ran it as a separate business (even though contracted to buy the beer from the brewery). Another very common arrangement was (and is) for the landlord to own the premises (whether freehold or leasehold) independently of the brewer, but then to take a mortgage loan from a brewery, either to finance the purchase of the pub initially, or to refurbish it, and be required as a term of the loan to observe the solus tie.
A trend in the late 20th century was for breweries to run their pubs directly, using managers rather than tenants. Most such breweries, such as the regional brewery Shepherd Neame in Kent and Young's and Fuller's in London, control hundreds of pubs in a particular region of the UK, while a few, such as Greene King, are spread nationally. The landlord of a tied pub may be an employee of the brewery--in which case he/she would be a manager of a managed house--or a self-employed tenant who has entered into a lease agreement with a brewery, a condition of which is the legal obligation (trade tie) only to purchase that brewery's beer. The beer selection is mainly limited to beers brewed by that particular company. The Beer Orders, passed in 1989, were aimed at getting tied houses to offer at least one alternative beer, known as a guest beer, from another brewery. This law has now been repealed but while in force it dramatically altered the industry. Some pubs still offer a regularly changing selection of guest beers.
Organisations such as Wetherspoons, Punch Taverns and O'Neill's were formed in the UK in the wake of the Beer Orders. A PubCo is a company involved in the retailing but not the manufacture of beverages, while a Pub chain may be run either by a PubCo or by a brewery.
Pubs within a chain will usually have items in common, such as fittings, promotions, ambience and range of food and drink on offer. A pub chain will position itself in the marketplace for a target audience. One company may run several pub chains aimed at different segments of the market. Pubs for use in a chain are bought and sold in large units, often from regional breweries which are then closed down. Newly acquired pubs are often renamed by the new owners, and many people resent the loss of traditional names, especially if their favourite regional beer disappears at the same time.
In 2009 about half of Britain's pubs were owned by large pub companies.
A brewery tap is the nearest outlet for a brewery's beers. It is usually a room or bar in the brewery itself, although the name may be applied to the nearest pub. The term is not applied to a brewpub which brews and sells its beer on the same premises.
Together these characteristics differentiate pubs from restaurants and hotel bars, although some pubs also serve as restaurants or hotels.
A gastropub is a hybrid pub and restaurant, notable for serving good quality beer, wine and food. The name is a portmanteau of gastronomy and public house, and was coined in 1991 when David Eyre and Mike Belben took over The Eagle pub in Clerkenwell, London. The concept of a restaurant in a pub reinvigorated both pub culture and British dining, though has occasionally attracted criticism for potentially removing the character of traditional pubs.
In 2011, The Good Food Guide suggested that the term has become irrelevant such is its commonality these days.
A country pub, sometimes referred to as a tavern, is a rural public house. Traditionally, many functioned as a social centre for villages and rural communities, providing opportunities for country folk to meet and exchange news. Others, particularly those located on main thoroughfares, existed as coaching inns, providing accommodation or refreshment for travellers before the advent of motorised transport.
In recent years many country pubs have either closed, or been converted to gastropubs.
The term roadhouse was originally applied to a coaching inn, but with the advent of popular travel by motor car in the 1920s and 1930s in the United Kingdom, a new type of roadhouse emerged, often located on the newly constructed arterial roads and bypasses. They were large establishments offering meals and refreshment and accommodation to motorists and parties travelling by charabanc. The largest roadhouses boasted facilities such as tennis courts and swimming pools. Their popularity ended with the outbreak of the Second World War when recreational road travel became impossible, and the advent of post-war drink driving legislation prevented their full recovery. Many of these establishments are now operated as pub restaurants or fast food outlets.
A theme pub is a pub which aligns itself to a specific culture, style or activity; often with the intention of attracting a niche clientele. Many are decorated and furnished accordingly, with the theme sometimes dictating the style of food or drink on offer too. Examples of theme pubs include sports bars, rock pubs, biker pubs, Goth pubs, strip pubs, karaoke bars and Irish pubs.
A micropub is a small community pub with limited opening hours and, commonly, a strong focus on local cask ale. It became easier to start a small pub after the passing of the 2003 Licensing Act, which became effective in 2005.
In 1393, King Richard II of England compelled landlords to erect signs outside their premises. The legislation stated "Whosoever shall brew ale in the town with intention of selling it must hang out a sign, otherwise he shall forfeit his ale." This law was to make alehouses easily visible to passing inspectors, borough ale tasters, who would decide the quality of the ale they provided. William Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, was one such inspector.
Another important factor was that during the Middle Ages a large proportion of the population would have been illiterate and so pictures on a sign were more useful than words as a means of identifying a public house. For this reason there was often no reason to write the establishment's name on the sign and inns opened without a formal written name, the name being derived later from the illustration on the pub's sign.
The earliest signs were often not painted but consisted, for example, of paraphernalia connected with the brewing process such as bunches of hops or brewing implements, which were suspended above the door of the pub. In some cases local nicknames, farming terms and puns were used. Local events were often commemorated in pub signs. Simple natural or religious symbols such as 'The Sun', 'The Star' and 'The Cross' were incorporated into pub signs, sometimes being adapted to incorporate elements of the heraldry (e.g. the coat of arms) of the local lords who owned the lands upon which the pub stood. Some pubs have Latin inscriptions.
Other subjects that lent themselves to visual depiction included the name of battles (e.g. Trafalgar), explorers, local notables, discoveries, sporting heroes and members of the royal family. Some pub signs are in the form of a pictorial pun or rebus. For example, a pub in Crowborough, East Sussex called The Crow and Gate had for some years an image of a crow with gates as wings. A British Pathe News film of 1956 shows artist Michael Farrar-Bell at work producing inn signs.
Most British pubs still have decorated signs hanging over their doors, and these retain their original function of enabling the identification of the pub. Today's pub signs almost always bear the name of the pub, both in words and in pictorial representation. The more remote country pubs often have stand-alone signs directing potential customers to their door.
Pub names are used to identify and differentiate each pub. Modern names are sometimes a marketing ploy or attempt to create "brand awareness", frequently using a comic theme thought to be memorable, Slug and Lettuce for a pub chain being an example. Interesting origins are not confined to old or traditional names, however. Names and their origins can be broken up into a relatively small number of categories.
As many pubs are centuries old, many of their early customers were unable to read, and pictorial signs could be readily recognised when lettering and words could not be read.
Pubs often have traditional names. A common name is the "Marquis of Granby". These pubs were named after John Manners, Marquess of Granby, who was the son of John Manners, 3rd Duke of Rutland and a general in the 18th-century British Army. He showed a great concern for the welfare of his men, and on their retirement, provided funds for many of them to establish taverns, which were subsequently named after him. All pubs granted their license in 1780 were called the Royal George, after King George III, and the twentieth anniversary of his coronation.
Some names for pubs that seem absurd or whimsical have come from corruptions of old slogans or phrases, such as "The Bag o'Nails" (Bacchanals), "The Goat and Compasses" (God Encompasseth Us), "The Cat and the Fiddle" (Chaton Fidèle: Faithful Kitten) and "The Bull and Bush", which purportedly celebrates the victory of Henry VIII at "Boulogne Bouche" or Boulogne-sur-Mer Harbour.
Traditional games are played in pubs, ranging from the well-known darts,skittles,dominoes,cards and bar billiards, to the more obscure Aunt Sally,nine men's morris and ringing the bull. In the UK betting is legally limited to certain games such as cribbage or dominoes, played for small stakes. In recent decades the game of pool (both the British and American versions) has increased in popularity as well as other table based games such as snooker or table football becoming common.
Increasingly, more modern games such as video games and slot machines are provided. Pubs hold special events, from tournaments of the aforementioned games to karaoke nights to pub quizzes. Some play pop music and hip-hop (dance bar), or show football and rugby union on big screen televisions (sports bar). Shove ha'penny and Bat and trap were also popular in pubs south of London.
Some pubs in the UK also have football teams composed of regular customers. Many of these teams are in leagues that play matches on Sundays, hence the term "Sunday League Football". Bowling is found in association with pubs in some parts of the country and the local team will play matches against teams invited from elsewhere on the pub's bowling green.
Pubs may be venues for pub songs and live music. During the 1970s pubs provided an outlet for a number of bands, such as Kilburn and the High Roads, Dr. Feelgood and The Kursaal Flyers, who formed a musical genre called Pub rock that was a precursor to Punk music.
Some pubs have a long tradition of serving food, dating back to their historic usage as inns and hotels where travellers would stay.
Many pubs were drinking establishments, and little emphasis was placed on the serving of food, other than sandwiches and "bar snacks", such as pork scratchings, pickled eggs, salted crisps and peanuts which helped to increase beer sales. In South East England (especially London) it was common until recent times for vendors selling cockles, whelks, mussels, and other shellfish to sell to customers during the evening and at closing time. Many mobile shellfish stalls would set up near pubs, a practice that continues in London's East End. Otherwise, pickled cockles and mussels may be offered by the pub in jars or packets.
In the 1950s some British pubs would offer "a pie and a pint", with hot individual steak and ale pies made easily on the premises by the proprietor's wife during the lunchtime opening hours. The ploughman's lunch became popular in the late 1960s, as did the convenient "chicken in a basket", a portion of roast chicken with chips, served on a napkin in a wicker basket.
Quality dropped but variety increased with the introduction of microwave ovens and freezer food. "Pub grub" expanded to include British food items such as steak and ale pie, shepherd's pie, fish and chips, bangers and mash, Sunday roast, ploughman's lunch, and pasties. In addition, dishes such as burgers, chicken wings, lasagne and chilli con carne are often served. Some pubs offer elaborate hot and cold snacks free to customers at Sunday lunchtimes, to prevent them getting hungry and leaving for their lunch at home.
Since the 1990s food has become a more important part of a pub's trade, and today most pubs serve lunches and dinners at the table in addition to (or instead of) snacks consumed at the bar. They may have a separate dining room. Some pubs serve meals to a higher standard, to match good restaurant standards; these are sometimes termed gastropubs.
CAMRA maintains a "National Inventory" of historical notability and of architecturally and decoratively notable pubs. The National Trust owns thirty-six public houses of historic interest including the George Inn, Southwark, London and The Crown Liquor Saloon, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
The highest pub in the United Kingdom is the Tan Hill Inn, Yorkshire, at 1,732 feet (528 m) above sea level. The remotest pub on the British mainland is The Old Forge in the village of Inverie, Lochaber, Scotland. There is no road access and it may only be reached by an 18-mile (29 km) walk over mountains, or a 7-mile (11 km) sea crossing.
Contenders for the smallest public house in the UK include:
The smallest public house in Wales is claimed by Y Goron Fach (The Little Crown) in Denbigh, with a single bar of 15 sq.m. (160 sq.ft.).
A number of pubs claim to be the oldest surviving establishment in the United Kingdom, although in several cases original buildings have been demolished and replaced on the same site. Others are ancient buildings that were used for purposes other than as a pub previously in their history. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, Hertfordshire, holds the Guinness World Record for the oldest pub in England, as it is an 11th-century structure on an 8th-century site. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham is claimed to be the "oldest inn in England". It has a claimed date of 1189, based on the fact it is constructed on the site of the Nottingham Castle brewhouse; the present building dates from around 1650. Likewise, The Nags Head in Burntwood, Staffordshire only dates back to the 16th century, while it has been claimed that a pub on the site is mentioned in the Domesday book, Burntwood is not in fact listed.
The Bingley Arms, Bardsey, Yorkshire, is claimed to date to 905 AD. Ye Olde Salutation Inn in Nottingham dates from 1240, although the building served as a tannery and a private residence before becoming an inn sometime before the English Civil War. The Adam and Eve in Norwich was first recorded in 1249, when it was an alehouse for the workers constructing nearby Norwich Cathedral.Ye Olde Man & Scythe in Bolton, Greater Manchester, is mentioned by name in a charter of 1251, but the current building is dated 1631. Its cellars are the only surviving part of the older structure.
The town of Stalybridge in Greater Manchester is thought to have the pubs with both the longest and shortest names in the United Kingdom -- The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn and the Q Inn, both operating as of 2019 (the Rifleman reopening in new premises, moving from Astley Street to premises two doors away from the Q Inn in Market Street in 2019, after being closed for three years). The original Rifleman building retains a pub sign, and a blue plaque from 1995 recording the recognition of the name in the Guinness Book of Records.
The number of pubs in the UK has declined year on year, at least since 1982. Various reasons are put forward for this, such as the failure of some establishments to keep up with customer requirements. Others claim the smoking ban of 2007, intense competition from gastro-pubs, the availability of cheap alcohol in supermarkets or the general economic climate are either to blame, or are factors in the decline. Changes in demographics may be an additional factor.
In 2015 the rate of pub closures came under the scrutiny of Parliament in the UK, with a promise of legislation to improve relations between owners and tenants. The Lost Pubs Project listed 31,301 closed English pubs on 19 July 2016, with photographs of over 16,000.
In the fifteen years to 2017 a quarter of London's pubs had closed. The closures have been ascribed to factors such as changing tastes, rise in the cost of beer due to applied taxes and the increase in the Muslim population.
The highwayman Dick Turpin used the Swan Inn at Woughton-on-the-Green in Buckinghamshire as his base.Jamaica Inn near Bolventor in Cornwall gave its name to a 1936 novel by Daphne du Maurier and a 1939 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. In the 1920s John Fothergill (1876-1957) was the innkeeper of the Spread Eagle in Thame, Berkshire, and published his autobiography: An Innkeeper's Diary (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931). During his idiosyncratic occupancy many famous people came to stay, such as H. G. Wells. United States president George W. Bush fulfilled his lifetime ambition of visiting a 'genuine British pub' during his November 2003 state visit to the UK when he had lunch and a pint of non-alcoholic lager (Bush being a teetotaler) with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Dun Cow pub in Sedgefield, County Durham in Blair's home constituency. There were approximately 53,500 public houses in 2009 in the United Kingdom. This number has been declining every year, so that nearly half of the smaller villages no longer have a local pub.
Many of London's pubs are known to have been used by famous people, but in some cases, such as the association between Samuel Johnson and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, this is speculative, based on little more than the fact that the person is known to have lived nearby. However, Charles Dickens is known to have visited the Cheshire Cheese, the Prospect of Whitby, Ye Olde Cock Tavern and many others. Samuel Pepys is also associated with the Prospect of Whitby and the Cock Tavern.
The Fitzroy Tavern is a pub situated at 16 Charlotte Street in the Fitzrovia district, to which it gives its name. It became famous (or according to others, infamous) during a period spanning the 1920s to the mid-1950s as a meeting place for many of London's artists, intellectuals and bohemians such as Dylan Thomas, Augustus John, and George Orwell. Several establishments in Soho, London, have associations with well-known, post-war literary and artistic figures, including the Pillars of Hercules, The Colony Room and the Coach and Horses. The Canonbury Tavern, Canonbury, was the prototype for Orwell's ideal English pub, The Moon Under Water.
The Red Lion in Whitehall is close to the Palace of Westminster and is consequently used by political journalists and Members of Parliament. The pub is equipped with a Division bell that summons MPs back to the chamber when they are required to take part in a vote.The Punch Bowl, Mayfair was at one time jointly owned by Madonna and Guy Ritchie. The Coleherne public house in Earls Court was a well-known gay pub from the 1950s. It attracted many well-known patrons, such as Freddie Mercury, Kenny Everett and Rudolph Nureyev. It was used by the serial-killer Colin Ireland to pick up victims.
In 1966 The Blind Beggar in Whitechapel became infamous as the scene of a murder committed by gangster Ronnie Kray. The Ten Bells is associated with several of the victims of Jack the Ripper. In 1955, Ruth Ellis, the last woman executed in the United Kingdom, shot David Blakely as he emerged from The Magdala in South Hill Park, Hampstead, the bullet holes can still be seen in the walls outside. It is said that Vladimir Lenin and a young Joseph Stalin met in the Crown and Anchor pub (now known as The Crown Tavern) on Clerkenwell Green when the latter was visiting London in 1903.
The Angel, Islington was formerly a coaching inn, the first on the Great North Road, the main route northwards out of London, where Thomas Paine is believed to have written much of The Rights of Man. It was mentioned by Charles Dickens, became a Lyons Corner House, and is now a Co-operative Bank.
The Eagle and Child and the Lamb and Flag, Oxford, were regular meeting places of the Inklings, a writers' group which included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. The Eagle in Cambridge is where Francis Crick interrupted patrons' lunchtime on 28 February 1953 to announce that he and James Watson had "discovered the secret of life" after they had come up with their proposal for the structure of DNA. The anecdote is related in Watson's book The Double Helix. and commemorated with a blue plaque on the outside wall.
The major soap operas on British television each feature a pub, and these pubs have become household names. The Rovers Return is the pub in Coronation Street, the British soap broadcast on ITV. The Queen Vic (short for the Queen Victoria) is the pub in EastEnders, the major soap on BBC One and the Woolpack in ITV's Emmerdale. The sets of each of the three major television soap operas have been visited by some of the members of the royal family, including Queen Elizabeth II. The centrepiece of each visit was a trip into the Rovers, the Queen Vic, or the Woolpack to be offered a drink. The Bull in the BBC Radio 4 soap opera The Archers is an important meeting point.
Although "British" pubs found outside of Britain and its former colonies are often themed bars owing little to the original British pub, a number of "true" pubs may be found around the world.
In Scandinavia, especially Denmark, a number of pubs have opened which eschew "theming", and which instead focus on the business of providing carefully conditioned beer, often independent of any particular brewery or chain, in an environment which would not be unfamiliar to a British pub-goer. Some import British cask ale, rather than beer in kegs, to provide the full British real ale experience to their customers. This newly established Danish interest in British cask beer and the British pub tradition is reflected by the fact that some 56 British cask beers were available at the 2008 European Beer Festival in Copenhagen, which was attended by more than 20,000 people.
In Ireland, pubs are known for their atmosphere or "craic". In Irish, a pub is referred to as teach tábhairne ("tavernhouse") or teach óil ("drinkinghouse"). Live music, either sessions of traditional Irish music or varieties of modern popular music, is frequently featured in the pubs of Ireland. Pubs in Northern Ireland are largely identical to their counterparts in the Republic of Ireland except for the lack of spirit grocers. A side effect of "The Troubles" was that the lack of a tourist industry meant that a higher proportion of traditional bars have survived the wholesale refitting of Irish pub interiors in the 'English style' in the 1950s and 1960s. New Zealand sports a number of Irish pubs.
The most popular term in English-speaking Canada used for a drinking establishment was "tavern", until the 1970s when the term "bar" became widespread as in the United States. In the 1800s the term used was "public house" as in England. A fake "English looking" pub trend started in the 1990s, built into existing storefronts, like regular bars. Most universities in Canada have campus pubs which are central to student life, as it would be bad form just to serve alcohol to students without providing some type of basic food. Often these pubs are run by the student's union. The gastropub concept has caught on, as traditional British influences are to be found in many Canadian dishes.