Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Disinterested management and the Carlisle experiment

In this article Victoria Wells discusses disinterested management of pubs and the Carlisle experiment
Photograph of busy bar with bar staff serving customers.
© Taylor Davidson on Unsplash

We’ll speak about management of pubs a lot more in Week 3, but there is one form of pub management that came and went but it is worth us stopping to look at while we’re examining the history of pubs. This form of management was called (perhaps oddly) disinterested management, but is also known as the Carlisle experiment.

We have already noted that pubs were greatly affected by the first world war when there was a significant worry that drunkenness might negatively affect war efforts. This was especially the case where there were well paid workers with little else to spend their money on which was the case in Greta where a factory produced cordite (a key munition component). Workers would then travel to Carlisle to spend their earnings, often in pubs. To counteract this the government decided to take state control of pubs and breweries and in and around the Carlisle area as part of the Defence of the Realm Act by the Central Control Board. The first of these was called The Gretna Tavern. Once under state control, alcohol was restricted, often only sold with food/at mealtimes and beer was lowered in strength, all in an attempt to keep workers as sober as possible.

In these state-run pubs, more focus was put on food (with specialist food taverns also opened at the same time), hot meals were served, activities like reading and writing were also encouraged, decor was improved, darts, dominos and other pub sports were introduced making these pubs multifaceted spaces to relax and socialise with the focus not always being on alcohol. New pubs that were built had open inside spaces so any drunken behaviour could be observed easily and dealt with quickly. The State Management Story website states:

“… back entrances were closed, a discreet shrunken house name appeared above the door or on the wall, and subdued green curtains graced unadorned windows. ‘There is no more indication that the house is a public house than is absolutely necessary,’ remarked an amazed Birmingham Daily Post reporter visiting Carlisle. Interiors……Partitions and secluded snugs disappeared, transforming stifling, gloomy, dark rooms into cavernous quarters, as striking for their vastness as for their light, openness, and ventilation. Redolent of posh hotels, the seats, tables, chairs, and truncated bar counters promoted sociability as consciously as the waiters who replaced bar service in saloon bars. Board reformers also laboured to introduce aesthetic decor, described by one enthusiast as ‘utility with beauty’’. White cloths and flowers bedecked tables, and artistic prints and lithographs, illuminated with shaded lamps, lined walls and projected a homelike quality. Immense, undivided café or restaurant rooms, creating a hybrid between pubs and restaurants…”

The managers of these pubs were basically civil servants and, unlike normal pub landlords, they were paid a wage and no bonuses were paid for higher alcohol sales, encouraging the managers to make money through other parts of the public house (food/entertainment), hence why it is called disinterested management. Disinterested management was also tried away from the war effort with some pubs being held in trust by rectors, for the good of the parish, and some other smaller pub companies, such as the People’s Refreshment House Association having a number of pubs where managers only received the profits from food and non-alcoholic drinks (Jennings, 2021).

Further detail and photographs of the state-run pubs can be found on the Historic England website and on the National Archives website. There is also a comprehensive discussion of the scheme on the State Management Scheme website.

Carlisle was not the only place where state-owned pubs were used in this period although it is the most famous. A number of other areas, affected by the war effort, also saw state control. The Carlisle experiment did not stop at the end of the war and the pubs remained in state control until the 1970s when they were sold off. It is not clear why the pubs stayed under state control for so long but it is reported that the pubs made a profit for every year in operation, so there was little reason for them to be sold off. The Carlisle experiment had a lasting effect on pub design and the inclusion of food and other pub games into public houses although in many ways it has been forgotten and many pub goers today know nothing about this fascinating period.

Over to you

Do you think state control could work now? Why might it work? Why might it not?

Add your thoughts to the discussion below.

© Victoria Wells/University of York
This article is from the free online

Pubs: History, Consumers, Management, and Protection

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now