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Public house

An amusingly named pub (the Old New Inn) at Bourton-on-the-Water, in the Cotswold Hills of south west
An amusingly named pub (the Old New Inn) at Bourton-on-the-Water, in the Cotswold Hills of south west England

A public house, usually known as a pub, is a drinking establishment found mainly in Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other countries influenced by British culture. A pub which offers lodging may be called an inn or hostelry. In Australia, pubs often bear the name of "Hotel", even though most of them no longer offer lodging.



In the 1930s the Anglo-French writer Hilaire Belloc penned the following cautionary warning:

When you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England!

Public houses are culturally and socially different from other places found elsewhere in the world such as cafés, bars, bierkellers and brewpubs. There are approximately 60,000 public houses in the United Kingdom (UK). In many places, especially in villages, a pub can be the focal point of the community, playing a similar role to the local church in this respect.

Pubs are social places for the sale and consumption of mainly alcoholic beverages, and most public houses offer a wide range of beers, wines, spirits and alcopops. Beer served in a pub can range from pressurised "keg" beer, to "cask-conditioned" real ale beer brewed in the time-honoured fashion. The beer lends most pubs a pleasant, memorable aroma. Often the windows of the pub are of smoked or frosted glass so that the clientele are obscured from the street.

The owner or manager (licensee) of a public house is known as the publican, and may be referred to as "guv" (short for guv'nor, or governor) in some parts of the country. Each pub generally has a crowd of regulars, people who drink there regularly. The pub people visit most often is called their local. In many cases, this will be the pub nearest to their home, but some people choose their local for other reasons: proximity to work, a traditional venue for their friends, the availability of real ale, or maybe just a pool table.

Colloquialisms for the public house include boozer, the local and rub-a-dub-dub (see Cockney Rhyming Slang).


The inhabitants of the British Isles have been drinking ale since the Bronze Age, but it was with the arrival of the Romans and the establishment of the Roman road network, that the first inns, in which the weary traveller could obtain refreshment, began to appear. By the time the Romans left, the beginnings of the modern pub had been established. They became so commonplace that in 965 King Edgar decreed that there should be no more than one alehouse per village. 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.

Traditional English ale was made solely from fermented malt. The practice of adding hops to produce beer was introduced from the Netherlands in the early 15th century. Alehouses would brew their own distinctive ale, but independent breweries began to appear in the late 17th century. By the end of the century almost all beer was brewed by commercial breweries.

The 18th century saw a huge growth in the number of drinking establishments, primarily due to the introduction of gin. Gin was brought to England by the Dutch after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and started to became very popular after the government created a market for grain that was unfit to be used in brewing by allowing unlicensed gin production, whilst 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. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London over half were gin-shops. Beer maintained a healthy reputation as it was often safer to drink ale than water, but the drunkenness and resultant lawlessness created by gin was seen to lead to ruination and degradation of the working classes. The distinction was illustrated by William Hogarth in his engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane. The Gin Act (1736) imposed high taxes on retailers but led to riots in the streets. The prohibitive duty was gradually reduced and finally abolished in 1742. The 1751 Gin Act however was more successful. It forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers and brought gin-shops under the jurisdiction of local magistrates.

Opening hours

From the middle of the 19th century restrictions began to be placed on the opening hours of licensed premises. These culminated in the Defence of the Realm Act of August 1914, which along with the introduction of rationing, and the censorship of the press also restricted the opening hours of public houses to 12noon-2.30pm and 6.30pm-9.30pm. In recent times the licensing laws have become more relaxed, with pubs allowed to open from 11am (12noon on Sundays) through to 11pm (10.30pm on Sundays). There is an ongoing debate on whether pubs should be allowed to close later in the evening. The Licencing Act 2003 , due to come into force in 2005, allows for pubs to apply to the local authority for opening hours of their choice. Despite the criticisms that this would introduce 24-hour drinking, publicans are probably not interested in a massive increase of opening hours, just a few extra hours on weekend evenings. There is some evidence for this in that since 2000, pubs have been able to open for 36 hours straight, from 11am on New Year's Eve, but few if any do so. Even before the new Act comes into force, several English cities have already allowed some pubs to extend opening hours to midnight or 1am.

Licensing laws differ in Scotland, and pubs there generally have more flexible opening hours.

Pub games and sports

A number of traditional games are played in pubs including darts, shove ha'penny, billiards, and in some areas, Nine Mens Morris and Skittles. In recent years the game of pool (both the British and American versions) has increased in popularity. Increasingly, video games are provided. Many pubs also hold special events, from tournaments of the aforementioned games to karaoke nights to pub quizzes. Some play pop music, or show football on big screen televisions.

See also

Pub food

Traditionally pubs in Britain were drinking establishments and little emphasis was placed on the serving of food. The usual fare consisted of specialised English snack food such as pork scratchings along with crisps and peanuts. If a pub served meals they were usually basic dishes such as a ploughman's lunch. Food has now become much more important as part of a pub's trade and today most pubs serve lunches and dinners (colloquially this is known as pub grub, or in Australia, counter meal or simply countery) in addition to snacks consumed at the bar. Many pubs serve excellent meals which rival the best restaurants and going for a 'pub lunch' can be a real treat. Certain pubs with a focus on quality food have come to be known as gastropubs.

Pub signs

In 1393 King Richard II 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". In the past, pictures were more useful than the words for identifying the pub, as many of the patrons were illiterate. Many British pubs still have highly decorated signs hanging over their doors. These signs bear the name of the pub, in words and in pictorial representation. If the pub's name refers to real objects or animals, then the picture will usually be a straightforward one; if the pub is named after a person of nobility, then the sign will often bear that person's coat of arms. Some pub signs are in the form of a pictorial pun or rebus. Many of the traditional pub names were chosen in order to provide a memorable pub sign.

Pub names

Pubs often have traditional names. Here is a list of categories:

  • reflecting local trades: The Mason's Arms, The Foresters
  • local sporting activities: The Cricketers, The Fox and Hounds
  • a noted individual: The Marquis of Granby, The Lord Nelson
  • an historic event: The Trafalgar, The Royal Oak
  • alluding amusingly to everyday phrases: The Nowhere Inn Particular
  • with a royal or aristocratic association: The King's Arms, The King's Head, The Queen Victoria, The Duke of Cambridge
  • with the names of two objects which may or may not be complementary: The George and Dragon, The Goat and Compasses, The Rose and Crown
  • with names of tools or products of trades: The Harrow, The Propeller, The Wheatsheaf
  • with names of items that may be part of a coat of arms: The Red Lion, The Unicorn, The White Bear

John Manners, Marquess of Granby (son of John Manners, 3rd Duke of Rutland) was a general in the 18th century. He showed a great concern for the welfare of his men upon their retirement and provided funds for many to establish taverns, which were subsequently named after him.

Many names for pubs that appear nonsensical may have come from corruptions of older names or phrases, often producing a visual image to signify the pub. For example, the name The Goat and Compasses is apparently a corrupted version of the phrase "God encompasseth us". These images had particular importance for identifying a pub on signs and other media before literacy became widespread. Another example of a mistaken Pub name is the Oyster Reach pub in Ipswich, England. This pub spent several decades being called the Ostrich, before historians informed the owners of the original name. More possible but uncorroborated corruptions include "The Bag o'nails" (Bacchanals), "Elephant and Castle", (Infanta de Castile) and The Bull and Mouth which purportedly celebrates the victory of Henry VIII at "Boulougne Mouth" or Harbour. While these corruptions are amusing there are usually more substantiated explanations available.

Pub chains

In recent years a number of pub chains have sprung up which use semi-traditional sounding names (The Rat and Parrot, The Slug and Lettuce, The ... and Firkin) for all of the pubs in the chain. Newly acquired pubs are renamed and many people resent the loss of traditional names. These pubs are often owned by brewing companies and their beer selection is mainly limited to beers from that particular company. However; by law, pubs owned by breweries must allow their landlords the choice of offering at least one alternative beer (known as a guest beer) from another brewery and that beer must be a cask conditioned or bottle-conditioned real-ale.

Campaign for Real Ale

A society with a particular interest in the traditional British beers and the preservation of the 'integrity' of the public house is CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. CAMRA were instrumental in lobbying for the 'guest beer law'.

In 1998 there were 68,000 pubs in the United Kingdom (53,200 in England and Wales, 5,200 in Scotland and 1,600 in Northern Ireland). Perhaps more significant is the overall trend reflected in two other statistics: while the number of licences is up from around 75,000 in the mid-1970s to over 85,000 in 2002, the number of barrels of beer sold at pubs (and bars) has dropped from over 36 million to less than 24 million during the same period. These statistics reflect the trend in the UK away from drinking at the local pub. (Source: BBPA Statistical Handbook).

Notable British public houses

Pubs in British popular culture

All the major soap operas on British television feature a pub as their focal point, with their 'pub' becoming a household name. The Rovers Return is the world famous pub on Coronation Street, the top British 'soap' broadcast on ITV. The Queen Vic (short for the Queen Victoria) is the pub on EastEnders, the major 'soap' on BBC1, while The Bull in The Archers and the Woolpack on Emmerdale are also central meeting points. The sets of each of the three major television soap operas have been visited by royalty, including Queen Elizabeth II. The centrepiece of each visit was a trip into the Rovers, the Vic or the Woolpack to be offered a drink.

US president George W. Bush fulfilled his ambition of visiting a 'genuine English pub' during his November 2003 State Visit to the UK when he shared lunch and a pint of non-alcoholic lager with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the Dun Cow pub in Sedgefield, County Durham.

In the movie Shaun of the Dead, the characters regularly visit the pub The Winchester.

Pub music

While many pubs now play piped pop music, the Pub has historically been a popular venue for live song. See:

The pub has also been celebrated in popular music. Examples are "Hurry Up Harry" by the 1970s punk rock act Sham 69, the chorus of which was the chant "We're going down the pub" repeated several times. Another such song is "Two Pints Of Lager and a Packet of Crisps Please!" by UK punk band Splodgenessabounds.

Theme pubs

Pubs that to cater for a niche audience, such as sports fans or Star Trek fans or people of certain nationalities are known as theme pubs. Examples of theme pubs include sports bars, rock pubs, biker pubs and Irish pubs (see below).

Irish public houses

Superficially there is little difference between an Irish pub and its English counterpart. However, closer scrutiny will reveal some differences. There is more live music in an Irish pub, some of which are known in the Irish language as Ceilí Houses, and a customer is more likely to entertain the assembly with a song. The atmosphere in such places is called "craic" or "crack" (a word for fun). In Ireland pubs usually bear the name of the current or a previous owner, e.g. Murphy's or O'Connor's Pub. Famous pubs in Dublin include O'Donoghue's, an Irish music pub in Merrion Row frequented by American tourists, Doheny & Nesbitt, where politicians, journalists and writers drink together, the Horse Shoe Bar in the Shelbourne Hotel, where journalists like Eamon Dunphy are regular drinkers, and The George, Dublin's largest gay pub. Individual pubs are also associated with famous Irish writers and poets such as Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan and James Joyce.

'Irish Pubs' have been opened throughout the world, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, from New York to Frankfurt, Johannesburg to Beijing. Main drinks consumed in Irish pubs include stout or ales like Guinness, Smithwicks and Kilkenny , lagers such as Budweiser, Heineken, Carlsberg and Harp and other spirits like whiskey and Baileys. Alcopops are also becoming popular with the youth market, many of whom no longer drink beverages such as Guinness. Cider is also a drink which is consumed much in the pubs in Ireland with Bulmers (sold as "Magners" outside of the Republic of Ireland to distinguish it from the internationally recognized Hereford cider-makers, H.P. Bulmer and Company, with which it shares a common heritage) being the leading brand. Non-alcoholic drinks are also available.

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Last updated: 06-02-2005 01:34:10
Last updated: 08-26-2005 03:27:35