Travelling through time to go to the pub

Published on 17 January 2024 in ,

The exterior of the Bridge End Inn, Dalston.
The Bridge End Inn, Dalston.

“If you could go back in time to visit any pub in history, where would you go?” Catherine asked.

We were, inevitably, in a pub at this point.  Well.  In a pub’s beer garden anyway.

It was an interesting question.  Any time in history.  The possibilities!  Some sort of Medieval tavern perhaps?  A Victorian Gin Palace in their absolute hey-day.  Some sort of rural travellers inn where the menu consisted of a bit of meat, some gravy and a massive hunk of bread.  I could go back in time and see what one of my favourite pubs was like in the past.  What would the Red Lion in Ealing have been like when it first opened? Or the Hatters in Marple? Fascinating! The possibilities! The questions!

All these thoughts were swirling through my mind. And I couldn’t choose.

And then it came to me.

I’d go back to the 1920s or 1930s and visit two, very similar pubs.  One in Carlisle.  And one not in Carlisle.  And I’d compare the differences.

I can imagine a puzzled look on most peoples faces on reading that.  But there’s a reason.  See, in 1916 the brewing, distribution and sale of alcohol in three areas of the country was nationalised.  Commonly known as the Carlisle Experiment, it saw the state take control of pubs, brewing and more.  And though Carlisle’s the headline name and the biggest area affected, it also happened in Gretna, Cromarty Firth and Enfield. 

It was, inevitably, related to World War I.  Armament factories were built in Gretna to supply ammunition to the British Army.  Workers flooded to Carlisle and many partook in binge drinking.  This resulted in wild drinking and people working with explosives who had big hangovers.

The wild drinking isn’t what I would be interested in seeing.  More the aftermath.

The State Management Scheme saw the government step in.   Pubs and office licences were nationalised.  The Carlisle Old Brewery, founded in 1756, found itself run by the state. 

The Enfield scheme ended in 1922, but – amazingly – it took until 1973 for the State Management Scheme in Carlisle to end.  The pubs and off licences were sold off. The brewery was similarly privatised, ending up in the hands of Theakstons in 1974. Theakstons later got taken over by Matthew Brown & Co. of Blackburn, and the Carlisle brewery was closed for good in 1989.

The state running pubs and breweries? Why go back in time and view this clear dystopian nightmare, you may wonder.

Simple. As part of the scheme, a number of policies were introduced. The biggest was the concept of “disinterested management”. Under this, the pub managers had no incentive to sell alcohol. Indeed, one of the goals of the whole project was to reduce alcohol consumption. Managers were, therefore, civil servants who received a wage. They got no bonuses for selling alcohol. But they did have incentives to do other things like increasing food sales.

And that was not all. Pubs were refurbished to make them more welcoming. Dark and gloomy spaces were opened up. Pubs became more leisure spaces rather than just somewhere to drink alcohol. And the pubs were not to be just the preserve of men. Comfortable spaces for women were introduced, encouraging a wider clientele.

Something started changing under the State Management Scheme. It was something that was eventually picked up by the breweries who – at that time – owned most of the pubs in Britain. To me, it sounds very much like the birth of the modern pub.

To see all this at the start, well that feels like it would be fascinating. As would going back to see the comparison. What were other pubs at that time doing? What was the experience like? How did the beer differ? Yes, that would be interesting all right.

If you’d like to know more about the Carlisle State Management Scheme, there is an excellent website created by the Carlisle City Centre Business Group called The State Management Story. It includes a full history of the scheme, details of the pubs, and recollections from people involved.

The photograph at the top of this piece is of the Bridge End Inn pub in Dalston, one of the pubs that was taken over by the State Management Scheme. By complete coincidence, and unaware of its history, I passed it in 2009 whilst doing the Cumbria Way. Sadly for this article, I didn’t actually go inside.