Quintessentially English as scones, cricket, Marmite or Stephen Fry, pubs like my ‘local’ in Stapleford Tawney, Essex are becoming endangered.
In Ireland or America most bars have mundane names, Murphy’s or Clancy’s, while English pubs have historic and often funny names; Cat and Fiddle, Hare and Hounds, The Red Lion, The Cricketers, The Battle of Trafalgar, The Rose and Crown.
[T]he Royal Oak (commemorating the time Charles II as a boy hid from Cromwellian troops after the Battle of Worcester), The Lamb and Flag or the King’s Head. These names are centuries old, from the time when most of their customers were unable to read and pictorial signs could be readily recognised and even now English pubs have beautifully painted signs above their doors.
Over the centuries, the English Public House has been a place to drink with friends; play dice, cards, backgammon, bagatelle, skittles or darts; magistrates would even hold court in pubs, and people have been hanged in them.
In the eighteenth century the Tyburn Road now named Oxford Street was the route prisoners would be taken to be hanged. At The Mason’s Arms, a pub in Seymour Place, its cellars still have the manacles on the walls, which show that prisoners enjoyed their last pint in very unusual conditions. As they left the pub and were loaded back onto the cart, prisoners would shout to customers “I’ll buy you a pint on the way back!”
The ‘Ye Olde Man and Scythe’ in Bolton, Lancashire is the third oldest pub in England, dating back to the 1200s. In 1651, the Earl of Derby had a last drink and meal inside the pub before being beheaded in the street right outside the pub for his part in the Bolton Massacre. His head supposedly missed the basket and rolled along the street. To this day, the wooden chair which he sat on during his last meal and the axe used to behead him is on display inside the pub. On the chair is an inscription which reads: ‘15th October 1651 In this chair James 7th Earl of Derby sat at the Man and Scythe Inn, Churchgate, Bolton immediately prior to his execution’.
But, unfortunately, the Great English Pub is in danger of becoming a dying breed. Each week in the past six months, an average of 39 of the nation’s 57,000 pubs have closed.
Most pubs have become restaurants or television rooms, after centuries in which they were the social focus of British life. “There is no private house in which people can enjoy themselves as well as at a capital tavern,” said Dr Johnson the great London diarist in the late 18th century; he went on to say, “At a tavern, there is general freedom from anxiety. You are sure you are welcome; and the more noise you make, the more things you call for, the welcomer you are.”
Urban pub numbers are declining even more steeply, because city dwellers enjoy such a choice of restaurants and coffee shops attracting their custom. A survey of 227 out of 936 North London pubs that have closed since 2002 shows that 84 have been turned into flats, while 143 have become businesses or voluntary projects.
One small group, closed pubs is trying to catalogue this decline, I fear their website’s list will grow and grow.