January 2010

Another World

The drinking scene of thirty years ago showed some amazing contrasts with the present day

As a new decade dawns, it is interesting to look at just how much the pub and beer scene has changed over the years. So here are a few points of the drinking and pubgoing experience of the start of the 80s that are very different from today:

  • Most pubs here in the North-West just served standard mild and bitter. Apart from the odd sighting of Pedigree or Draught Bass, there was nothing that could be called a premium beer
  • Beer was often sold from unmarked handpumps
  • Electric beer dispense was commonplace, typically using diaphragm meters, which were generally unmarked too
  • Free houses were virtually unknown and there were no guest beers. It was just the regular products of the owning brewery
  • Across the board, there was a lot of choice, with substantial tied estates belonging to Border, Higsons, Burtonwood, Oldham Brewery, Boddingtons, Matthew Brown, Mitchells and Yates & Jackson that have now largely vanished from the face of the earth
  • But in many local areas there was a marked dearth of choice, in particular with large areas such as Warrington being dominated by Greenalls
  • It was considered a point worthy of note that in Macclesfield you could get beer from eight different breweries (Ansells, Bass, Boddingtons, Robinsons, Marstons, Greenalls, Tetleys and Wilsons)
  • Central Manchester was, surprisingly to the outside observer, virtually devoid of pubs tied to the local independent breweries – it didn’t have a single Holts pub
  • Many older drinkers still drank splits – a half of draught beer topped off with a bottle of brown or pale ale
  • Although there was a compulsory afternoon closure (around here, generally 3-5.30), most pubs stuck fairly closely to the standard permitted hours. Weekday lunchtime closure was very rare
  • Closing time was 10.30 pm Monday-Thursday, with 11 pm closing only on Friday and Saturday
  • Sunday lunchtime opening was a strict 12 noon – 2 pm, during which many pubs were packed
  • There was a lot more lunchtime drinking by office and factory workers
  • Middle-aged couples would just “go out for a drink” in the evening in a way they don’t tend to now
  • There was much less food served in pubs, especially in the evenings. Many of today's high-profile country dining pubs did not serve evening meals at all
  • On the other hand, food was much more varied and there was more of a sense of experimentation with styles and formats. It had not yet settled into today’s standardised “pub menu”. For example, a number of pubs had extensive lunchtime buffets – something you never see nowadays
  • A lot of the bottom-end pubs were extremely scruffy in a way that is very rare now
  • There was a clear hierarchy amongst country pubs of “No coaches”, “Coaches by appointment only” and “Coaches welcome”. Does anyone (apart from CAMRA) actually organise coach trips to pubs any more?
In some respects the present-day drinking scene is far better than it was then, but in others it is much worse. And pubs in general are certainly a lot less busy than they were.


  1. You could have added a few things:

    *Cask beer was almost universal even in rough end pubs
    *Most pubs would offer free snacks on the bar on a Sunday
    *When a certain pub was suggested, someone always said "Whose ale is it?" and someone always objected on that basis
    *In addition to mixing draught and bottled, draught was often mixed
    *Bottled versions of beer were common - Brown ale, pale ale etc.
    *Every pub sold a nip bottle of strong ale, barley wine or both
    *Afternoon stay behinds or lock ins were common in cities at least, but you had to be "known"
    *Many pubs had a bar/snug/taproom and a lounge/best room in which different prices applied
    *There was always a price list
    *Walking around a number of adjacent pubs was a common pursuit
    *pubs were astonishingly busy most of the time
    *There was always an eagle eyed landlord watching out
    *Licensing police were common visitors

    I could probably go on. One point though. While generally true, there were premium beers around. Tetley did Ind Coope Burton Ale, Greenalls did Thomas Greenall, Burtonwood did Top Hat, Higgies did Bass and some keg too such as Greenalls Festival. I recall only Tetley and Greenalls selling beer on sliders and both were clearly marked with stickers giving the details.

  2. "Walking around a number of adjacent pubs was a common pursuit" - absolutely, and people now just don't understand this. Hence the typically over-55 make-up of local CAMRA Staggers.

    In the North-West, I'd say the sliders were also common in Robinsons, Hydes, Burtonwood and Border pubs, and certainly around 1980 were often unmarked. Not to mention Banks's and the Nottingham breweries. Plenty of Holts and Lees pubs also had electric dispense, whether metered or freeflow, of various kinds. I've even seen sliders in Gales pubs in the south!

  3. What were visits by the licensing police like? Undercover? What sorts of infractions were they trying to bust?

    What are sliders?

    1. A slider was a metered beer pump in which a diaphragm slid back and forth in a glass cylinder to dispense half a pint at a time (or, very occasionally, a full pint). See this picture.

      This blogpost on A Brief History of Electricity gives further background.

    2. I can remember 'the fishman' (as we used to call him) in pubs which I used to frequent back in the 1980's. Every Friday evening, he used to tour the local pubs in his old Datsun, come in and sell seafood - crab sticks, cockles, whelks etc. from a basket. Haven't seen anything like that for ages now.


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