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A typical British pub in London

Drink up! The 2,000-year history of British pubs

Image: Botond Horvath /

Britain's Greatest Obsessions follows a host of top celebrities as they explore uniquely British preoccupations and passions in an attempt to find out what makes the British tick.

In the second episode, Madness frontman Suggs discovers the history of the British love of the humble pub and gets stuck into loads of interesting topics along the way.

How it all began

The public house is the most venerable of British institutions and has been an important part of cultural life for centuries. The seeds were first sown in 43 AD when the Romans invaded the British Isles. As the conquerors expanded their road network across the country, traditional Roman drinking houses, called ‘tabernae’, sprang up, quenching the thirsts of soldiers, travelers, and workers. Tabernae served wine as opposed to ale – the local’s favourite tipple of choice.

When the empire began to crumble and the Romans abandoned Britain in the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxons took their place. Unlike the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons came from Northern Europe and drank ale, so the taberna made way for the alehouse. The name evolved into ‘tavern’ which represented an alehouse that also offered lodgings.

Alehouses soon became very popular as enterprising men realised they could make a pretty penny brewing and selling ale. They began to spring up all over the country, so much so that King Edgar decided to step in in 957 and restrict them to just one per settlement. However, the king’s decree did not last for long.

The evolution of the pub

The Norman conquest of 1066 led to a rapid expansion in alehouses across the country. While the Normans imposed themselves by building muscular structures like castles and cathedrals, King Edgar’s decree was quietly forgotten and the number of taverns and alehouses grew and grew. They were eventually joined by a new kid on the block - the inn.

Distinct from alehouses (though sharing some characteristics with taverns), inns were built at the side of busy roads and not only provided food and drink, but also accommodation and stabling for horses and later stagecoaches. The inn grew out of a network of monasteries that sprung up across the country under the Normans. As more and more people began traveling between the newly established Norman towns and cities, monks set up hostelries along popular routes. They offered bed and board and a chance for the weary traveler to sample a flagon (or five) of the celebrated ales that almost all monasteries brewed.

The Middle Ages saw the roads fill up with crusaders, pilgrims, traders, and travellers, all in need of a place to stay, a hearty meal, and something tasty to drink. The monks couldn’t keep up and demand quickly outstripped supply. Others stepped in, opening up hostelries of their own, offering everything a traveler could need, including entertainment (both of the wholesome and unwholesome kind). The inn was born, and it was a cut above the scruffy old alehouse.

What’s in a name?

In 1357, a new law came into force that made all owners of taverns, alehouses, and inns display signs outside their premises so they could be identified by travelers and tax inspectors. Most visitors were illiterate, so instead of words, the signs displayed easily recognisable pictures like doves, lambs, stars, angels, and ploughs.

The signs gave the inns and alehouses their names. As the centuries went by, new names joined an ever-growing roster of what we now think of as ‘traditional’ pub names. Some inspired by royalty (the King’s Head, the Star and Garter, the Royal Oak), others by folklore and mythology (the Robin Hood, the George and Dragon), and others by famous people and battles (the Lord Nelson, the Alma, the Duke of Wellington).

The dissolution of the monasteries in 1533 removed the competition from the church, and the number of alehouses, taverns, and inns exploded. By 1577, there were 14,202 alehouses in England and Wales, as well as 1,631 inns and 329 taverns.

The golden age

The term ‘public house’ appeared towards the end of the 17th century. Before then, alehouses were usually only for private members, whereas inns and taverns were open to everyone. A new type of establishment appeared that was open to all, but did not include accommodation. To distinguish them from alehouses, these new establishments were labeled ‘public houses’. Shortened to the word ‘pub’, the name stuck and eventually became the generic name for all alehouses, taverns, and inns in the country.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the pub took on its most familiar form. The 18th century ‘Gin Craze’ caused enormous damage to the social structure of many towns and cities, so much so that laws were passed in 1736 and 1751 that greatly curtailed the consumption of the juniper spirit.

When a reduction in duties in the early 19th century threatened to make gin popular again, the government passed the Beerhouse Act of 1830. The act allowed any ratepayer to obtain a licence to sell beer for two guineas, in an attempt to encourage people to consume weaker drinks. The act worked so well that a second gin craze was avoided and, just eight years after its passing, 46,000 new pubs had sprung up in Britain.

Business boomed. With a two guinea licence under his belt and a decent product to sell, a landlord in a populated area could quickly find himself a very wealthy man. This led to many landlords expanding or building brand new pubs resplendent with custom-made tiles, polished brass work, ornate mirrors, and lashings of gold leaf.

The grand Victorian public house was born, and many still stand in all their grand 19th century glory to this day.

Time at the bar?

The boom time for the independent landlord didn’t last. An explosion of public drunkenness, prostitution, and crime followed in the wake of the Beerhouse Act, leading to stricter licensing laws in 1869. Unable to obtain new licences, the most successful breweries of the era began buying up pubs, leading to the ‘tied-house’ system that prevented a pub from selling anything but the beer produced by its owners. By the end of the 19th century, 90% of the pubs in England were tied houses.

This remains very much the case today despite numerous attempts to break the system. New laws introduced in 1989 obliged the country’s big breweries to dispose of their tied houses in what was supposed to usher in a new era of free houses where landlords could choose their own suppliers and set their own prices. The breweries instead either closed down pubs or sold them to so-called ‘pubcos’ - independent pub companies that were not subject to the new laws. As a result, most pubs in England are still tied houses.

The 20th and 21st centuries saw further restrictions on the freedoms pubs once enjoyed. The Defence of the Realm Act of the First World War introduced strict opening and closing times that remained in place for almost a century. Taxes and duties increased the price of beer, especially during the New Labour years when a tax accumulator was introduced that pushed up the price of a pint to eye-watering levels, especially in London and the South East.

The introduction of the smoking ban in 2007 was the final nail in the coffin for many pubs. Ten years after it was introduced, 11,383 pubs had closed for good, though the financial crash of 2008, the increasing cost of beer in pubs compared to supermarkets, and a change in attitude to health were also factors. Another 7,000 have shut their doors since the pandemic, which means there are now less than 40,000 pubs in England and Wales - the lowest since records began.

The future of this most British of institutions has never looked so perilous as it does today, with spiralling operating costs and dwindling customer numbers adding to the industry’s woes. Many more pubs are expected to close in the next few years.

Will the public house survive? Only time will tell.

Five Facts About Pubs

1. The Most Popular Pub Name

The most popular pub name in the United Kingdom is the Red Lion. The name first became fashionable thanks to the popularity of John of Gaunt, the third son of Edward III. Many places displayed John’s personal crest of the red lion to show their support for him and the name stuck.

2. The Oldest Pub

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the oldest pub in the UK is the Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St. Albans, which pulled its first flagon of ale back in 793. The title is disputed by other pubs including the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham and the Ye Old Man and Scythe in Bolton, Greater Manchester.

3. The Longest And The Shortest Names

The pubs with the longest and the shortest names in the UK are both situated in the same town. Stalybridge, Greater Manchester is home to The Old Thirteenth Cheshire Astley Volunteer Rifleman Corps Inn and the Q Inn.

4. Most Popular Royal Name

The monarch with the most pubs named after him is William IV. This is because the Beerhouse Act of 1830 that allowed anyone with two guineas to buy a licence was passed in his reign and many pubs were named in his honour.

5. The Monopoly Pub

The only member of a Monopoly set that isn’t a street is The Angel, Islington. The Angel was the name of various inns that stood on the same spot in London from the end of the 16th century until just before the start of the 20th century. The final Angel public house was demolished in 1896, and replaced by a hotel that is now used for offices.