Making a meal of it? A wartime view of pub restrictions

Monday, 14 December 2020
by Dr David Beckingham in the School of Geography

After reports linking rising sales of scotch eggs to Tier 2 restrictions, Dr David Beckingham offers a historical perspective on rules regulating pub meals.

Tier 2 coronavirus restrictions allow pubs and bars to continue to trade if they can operate like restaurants. They can serve alcohol for consumption on their premises only if it accompanies a ‘substantial meal’. This prompted various media outlets to explore what might count as a legitimate meal. Would a pasty, or perhaps a sausage roll? Or maybe a scotch egg?

‘Many questions of fact will be raised as to what is the minimum amount of food which constitutes a meal,’ wrote the Daily Mail. But this was not a commentary on COVID-19: this was September 1915, when Britain’s pubs and their patrons were enrolled in a different fight.

Why did defining a meal became a wartime worry? I have been investigating the work of the Central Control Board (CCB), a state body set up to regulate the drink trade and so help promote national economy and efficiency. At its most draconian, in vital military or manufacturing areas such as Carlisle, this included nationalising the trade from production through to sale, closing some pubs and encouraging the provision of food in others. Elsewhere, as more regions were added to the Board’s scheduled areas of control, trading hours were reduced, and the social world of pubs scrutinised.

I have been using digital newspaper databases to trace some of the less well-known impacts of the Board’s measures on everyday pub life. In 1915 the Board banned treating – also known as standing somebody a drink or buying a round. This was designed to prevent people drinking more than they really wanted, freeing them from the customary obligations of round buying while also clearing pubs of ‘loafers’, ‘bummers’ and ‘cadgers’, who would hang around hoping to be treated to a drink by an unsuspecting or overly-generous customer.

The Board made an exception for diners: the same person who bought somebody else a meal could also pay for the drinks. ‘Smith may pay for a drink for Brown if he buys him a meal as well’, the Mail explained, ‘But Brown must actually eat the food; he may not give it to a boy in the street outside’ (20 September 1915: 5).

In anticipation of the rules being applied to London, in October 1915, publicans were tasked with working out what might constitute a meal. According to one, cited in the Daily Mail (9 October 1915: 3), “Biscuits aren’t a meal, buns (doubtfully) aren’t a meal – that is, unless perhaps a gentleman takes two or three. Sandwiches are a meal, sausage-rolls are a meal, and bread and cheese, I reckon, is a thorough old English lunch”.

The Times (11 October 1915: 5) reported that at one railway station buffet bar, sandwiches alone would not constitute a meal, and a customer would also need to order a slice of cake. Another venue ruled that neither sandwiches nor cake could meet the requirements of a meal, perhaps to save its staff the bother of navigating the rules.

Time of day was also a consideration for determining a legitimate meal. One careful barmaid in London’s West End concluded that four o’clock was “too late for luncheon, too early for dinner, and you dare not call it tea”. For pubs near Smithfield market, the question was whether toast would reasonably constitute breakfast – market staff having laboured through the small hours before seeking their refreshment (Daily Mail, 12 October 1915: 3).

A critical Manchester Guardian (12 October 1915: 6) speculated that these ‘stupid and undignified’ attempts to define a meal were an effort to test the rules to the point that they would be relaxed. But the newspapers anticipated loyalty from the trade, and even customers, and it is important to register that this aspect of the CCB’s regulations actually attracted very little subsequent attention. One London licensee wryly observed that he would keep his stack of unsold buns “for Christmas decoration” (Daily Mail, 30 November 1915: 5).

These stories reveal something very important about the management of pubs, traditionally shaped by local common sense and discretionary decisions. There would be no one definition of a legitimate meal for all pubs in all circumstances. But by highlighting the ambiguities created by the measures, the stories hinted that restrictions were redefining common sense in a time of crisis. This mattered, for it brought home the reach of governmental regulations into everyday spaces and freedoms while at the same time reminding publicans and drinkers of their responsibilities.

‘It is the interest of a trade against the interest of the nation’, warned the Guardian, reviewing opposition to broader liquor restrictions in Manchester (23 November 1915: 6), ‘and the interest of the nation must prevail’. Despite wartime restrictions, however, many publicans kept on pulling their pints. The ordinary intimacy of the pub helped sustain its social role during the war, even if patrons were asked to pay for their own beer. The necessity and reality of social distancing makes it harder for tens of thousands of pubs to claim that place now.

David Beckingham is Associate Professor of Cultural and Historical Geography
Katie Andrews - Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Social Sciences
Phone: 0115 951 5751

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