'"What do you mean, forgotten?" I hear you ask. "There are pubs all over the place! Why only last night I drank myself stupid at the Dog and Phuc, the new Vietnamese gastropub on the corner. Surely you're mistaken!"
Yes, there are pubs in London. Quite a few of them in fact, but most if not all of them aren't pubs as someone drinking during the 1930s would have known the breed. Let's talk about some of the differences.
Most of the information I have on this subject comes from The English Pub, by Peter Haydon.
Before the 1890s the pub was a very different animal. Each public house was an independent, owned by the same person who operated it. Each owner could buy beer from whoever he or she liked, and it was very common for pubs to brew their own beer on the premises. Each pub had its own character, no two being quite alike. The owner decided the style, and that meant a riot of differences, of color, of idiosyncrasy. There were also many more breweries active then than there are now, ensuring that there was plenty of choice in what you drank.
However by 1890 the economy was getting softer, and breweries were finding it much more difficult to make a living. In 1899 the bottom dropped out of the market altogether. Breweries went to the knacker's yard, selling their stock and property at bargain rates. People stopped building pubs. What was the point, after all? Nobody was going to invest money in a failing venture.
In 1890, for instance, there were 11,322 independent breweries operating throughout England. By 1900, there were only 6,420. The number of pubs that brewed on the premises also sharply reduced over the same period, from 12,417 in 1880 to 1,447 in 1914.
This didn't just mean financial ruin. It also meant that, if you intended to survive these apocalyptic times, you had to be smarter, more ruthless, and more efficient than your competition. You had to dominate your market. Northern breweries were the first to realize this, and they began buying up pubs left and right, claiming the market by claiming the supply chain. Then everyone else wanted to get in on the act, and before long the breweries went into a pub-buying frenzy.
This led in turn to a sudden spike in pub construction. Not so much in new pubs - those were still a drug on the market - but in refurbishing the existing ones. Look at it from the owner's point of view. You know the brewers are going to be knocking on everyone's door. Unless you're addicted to independence, and poverty, you want to sell, and for the best possible price. You need to convince the brewers that your pub is the very best in the locality, with plenty of thirsty customers. Which pub is the best? Why, the largest pub, of course. Does your pub really need a ballroom that can seat two hundred? Who the hell cares; the brewer's some damn silly Northerner who doesn't know the London market, and if you have that ballroom, the brewer will think you have the drinkers to go with it.
This is when we start seeing innovations like the Saloon Bar, the Public Bar, and a separate tap room. It's all space, and the fancier a place looks, the more likely it is that the buyer will pay top dollar. Do you have snugs, little hole-in-the-wall spots sealed off by frosted glass and wooden walls, so your drinkers can enjoy themselves in privacy? That's money in the bank. Do you have a cheaply furnished public bar for the plebs to get drunk in, and a more elegantly appointed saloon bar for those prepared to pay a little extra? That's money in the bank.
So down come the brewers and buy the publicans out. By the 1920s there are very few independents left, still fewer by the 1930s. However the grass isn't always greener on the other side. Those publicans within the brewery system are living in what amounts to indentured servitude. They owe everything to the brewer, from the beer in the cellars to the carpets on the floor, and the brewers make very sure the landlords will never get out from under that mountain of debt. After all, if they did, they might want their independence again, and that would never do.
George Orwell says as much in his essay The Clink, about an unsuccessful attempt to get thrown in prison. He spends a short time in a police court cell, where he meets, among others, a disgraced 'guv'nor.'
The florid, smart man was, it appeared, a public house guv'nor (it is a sign of how utterly the London publicans are in the claw of the brewers that they are always referred to as guv'nors, not landlords, being, in fact, no better than employees), & had embezzled the Christmas Club money. As usual, he was head over heels in debt to the brewers, and no doubt had taken some of the money in hopes of backing a winner ... the magistrates are hard on these cases - he did in fact, get four months later in the day. He was ruined for life, of course. The brewers would file bankruptcy proceedings and sell his stock and furniture, and he would never be given a pub license again.
Because the brewers own the pub, they can order things as they like. By the 1930s, this becomes a damage limitation exercise. The powers that be, which in the 1930s meant the educated middle to upper classes, have a down on pubs. They promote vice, distract the workers from their jobs, and generally are a haven for criminals. All those private little snugs, saloon bars and so forth; how is a constable supposed to police a place, if he can't see everything that's going on as soon as he walks in the door?
So the brewers bring in their in-house architects for yet another round of pub refurbishments. This time it isn't about money. It's about what we would now call branding, throwing out the old and replacing it with new. The same old new every time, in fact. After all, why go to all the trouble of coming up with a different design for each location, when you can use the same design for all of them?
However since this was very much the governing classes dictating to the governed, the 1930s designs were about creating pubs that the governing classes would like to drink in. Not that they ever would, of course. "It is all to the good that some of England's public houses should be reformed, reconditioned or improved, and made fit and decent places for refreshment and recreation of the people," said a Temperance advocate.
This led to, among other things, an increase in the number of workingmen's clubs. In 1905 there were less than 7,000 clubs altogether; by 1935 there were well over 15,000, with a combined membership of half a million. The pubs were no longer independent, but the clubs were. They could buy whatever beer they liked, and decorate the place as they pleased. But while this may have been wonderful for the working classes, it meant that the pubs started losing customers, further contributing to an already weakened pub market.
It also led to an interesting innovation: the death of pub signs. In days gone by each pub needed an innovative and eye-catching sign, not just because its customers probably couldn't read, but also because a good sign is a form of advertising. People can say "go to the Swan, you'll never get a better pint," and everyone will know what and more importantly where the Swan is, by the lovingly decorated signage which may or may not actually be a carved Swan. However that only advertises the pub. It does not advertise the brewer, and by the 1930s it had become very important that people know the Swan, for example, is part of Fuller's, or Adnam's, or Theakston's. So the elaborate signage went on the scrapheap, replaced by signboards on the side of the building that said not only what the pub was called, but also which brewer owned it. So the drinker knows that, if he likes Fuller's or can't stand Adnam's, that he'd better go to or avoid the pubs that brewer owns.
Meanwhile the brewers began eating themselves alive. The last time the market went downhill, the brewers that survived did so because they bought up the pubs. Now there were no more pubs to buy, and the only way to stay competitive in a vicious market was to make sure there was as little competition as possible. In previous years brewery takeovers had fueled expansion, but by the 1930s they were the only way to keep the remaining breweries alive.
So in your game, what does this mean?
It means the pub is always changing. If there's a rickety Victorian glamour palace at the corner, complete with snugs and saloon bars, it's under threat. If there's an actual independent pub in the neighborhood, it's practically the alcoholic equivalent of a unicorn, on the brink of utter extinction. No doubt the owner is being besieged by the brewers night and day, but old Charlie would never sell out. His thieving son Archie, on the other hand ... Meanwhile the dear old pub of yesteryear, with its original features and Victorian touches, could be gutted at any moment, to be replaced by fake Victoriana and horse brasses. The brewer's in complete control, until the brewer collapses under a mountain of debt, leaving confusion and chaos in its wake.
Remember, the pub is the center of the community's life. There's a reason why so many people have tried to control it over the years, from the brewers to the coppers to the blue-nosed temperance advocates who want everything to be clean-cut, British and manly. This is, after the church, the place where everyone goes. Think what it means, for example, to operate a Christmas Club, as Orwell's guv'nor did. It means you have hundreds of people coming in all the year round, contributing their pennies and shillings to the fund. It means you have regulars.
From your characters' perspective, it may be all about class. Are your Bookhounds hoping to claw their way to the upper reaches of the class system? Then you'll never see them in the public bar; rubbing shoulders with the ho-polloi is the last thing they'd want to do. Except if there's money in it, of course. At the same time the shop workers are either in the public bar or the workingmen's club on the corner, breathing fire and revolution, and voting Labour. Drinking in the right place shows where you consider yourself to be, in the scheme of things. Or where you would like to be.
Moreover people tend to congregate in the same pub, often for generations. If your pub happens to be on Fleet Street, as the Cheshire Cheese is, then it has been a newsman's haunt for many, many years, well known to literary men. So if your characters want to find a particular author, or newspaper editor, their best bet is to haunt the Cheese and wait for that person to come in. It'd be a Streetwise spend to work out which pub the person they want to see is most likely to go to. Where do the Radicals hang out? The Toshers? The medical men, the lawyers, the banker's clerks? Each group has a pub that it prefers to go to, and if the characters want to catch up with a particular person, they need to know which pub they go to.
Or say you want to play on a place's historic links. Going back to the Cheese again - an excellent pub, by the way, well worth a visit for the atmosphere alone, and Samuel Smith's does a good bitter too - there's its links with important figures like Dickens, its potential history as a brothel, and the alleged bones of murdered babies on display, all to play with.
This is a history that could be repeated again and again, in a time-spanning campaign. Something like the Dracula Dossier, for example, could feature repeated visits to the same pub over many decades, if not generations of spies. Say for the sake of discussion that the Cheshire Cheese is a meeting place for Edom in the 1890s. There's no reason why it couldn't have hosted many such meetings over the years, and feature in stories set in the 1940s, 1970s or current day. After all, the pub's still there, almost unchanging, over all that time.
As a closer, here's a brief scenario idea, suitable for Trail or Bookhounds.
The Unicorn is a pub of long standing in Blackfriar's, on Queen Victoria's Street, not far from the church of St-Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe and Blackfriar's Train and Tube station. It has links of long standing with the Worshipful Society of Apocatheries, one of the twelve great livery companies of London. Opiferque Per Orbem Dicor and a golden unicorn has been its signage for as long as anyone can remember; both the motto - throughout the world I am called the bringer of help - and the unicorn are used by the Worshipful Society. Medical men and members of the Society frequently call on the Unicorn; you can often find the best surgeons and doctors in London enjoying a pint in the saloon.
One of its prize possession is a poem alleged to be the work of John Keats, though its authorship is disputed. Keats is known to have been an Apocathery, and it's thought that the poem was a gift to the daughter of the pub's then owner. Signed only with a K, the framed original, To A Friend, hangs in the saloon bar.
The Unicorn is owned by the Brocklebury Brewery, Yorks, and the owners are contemplating a complete refurb. Out with the old, in with the new, and that includes the ancient signage and the alleged Keats. Then the accidents start happening; the architect, the architect's business partner, and two builders die, one after the other, each after visiting the Unicorn. Meanwhile the guv'nor's losing sleep; something's haunting the place, he claims, something that glistens black as midnight, and the strange tittering noise it makes is more than he can stand ...