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The Pub and the People

In this article Victoria Wells discusses the work entitled the Pub and the People published in 1943.
Photograph view of a bar counter.
© Victoria Wells/University of York

In 1943 a book entitled “The Pub and the People: A worktown study” was published by an organisation called Mass Observation, with two principal authors, Tom Harrisson and John Sommerfield (McGregor, 2020) at the helm. Mass Observation was an independent research body which, for five years, documented many aspects of social life in worktown, not just pubs. This research resulted in “The Pub and the People” which although out of date in many ways (and not in others) is still one of the most fascinating and certainly the most comprehensive study of pubs there has ever been.

Worktown was a real place and although not discussed in the book it was actually the Lancashire town of Bolton. Over three years a team of nearly 100 observers (both paid and voluntary) worked on the project visiting pubs, churches, workplaces, dance halls etc. and even accompanied locals on holiday in an attempt to produce a snapshot of the habits and customs of the people of Britain at the time. Pubs were visited, described, and enjoyed (with the observers often having a few pints). Observation, sometimes with active participation took place, key informants gave opinions and this was supplemented with statistics and published sources of information. Mass Observation stated:

“For the first two years we were practically unnoticed, and investigators penetrated every part of local life, joined political, religious and cultural organisations of all sorts, worked in a wide range of jobs etc” (page 8).
Minute details were recorded of every aspect of pub life from who visited the pub, with who and when, sales records of every type of drinks were collated (and which were available and who drank them), the games that were played etc. Drinking speed was also noted and social interactions detailed. Even small features of drinking were recorded, for example how people fiddled with their glass while drinking. They state that:
“Most drinkers fiddle with it (the glass of beer) while it is being drunk, often in a rhythmical way. Some people – “swiggling” their glasses, which consists in moving them rounds and puns in circles, either on the bar counter or table top, or in the air. The movement of the glass is the air is usually done when it is nearly empty, so that the beer eddies round and round. The wetness of the bar counter or table top, which makes it easy to slide the glass on it, is a contributory factor. People have been observed to move their glasses over from a dry to a wet place on the counter before they begin swiggling. The swiggling varies from a definite circling movement, with a radius up to approx. six inches to a mere irregular pushing about of the glass” (page 185/186).

Conversation topics were noted (with betting and sport being highly ranked) and how the staff called time at the end of a night’s drinking. Detailed diagrams of layouts of pubs were made and the architecture and style of each venue was recorded. This even went as far as to detail what materials tables, bars and other in situ elements were made of.

In some ways very little has changed since Mass Observation. The book states that people sit and/or stand, drink, talk and think in pubs – this has not changed. However they also note that people smoke and spit in pubs, two behaviours that are no longer seen in pubs. Spitting has disappeared completely now but many of the pubs in worktown had sawdust on the floor for spittle and many rooms had spittoons.

“The Pub and the People” is an absorbing read and was the first piece of work to really show how important the physical and social environment are in drinking behaviours (MacGregor, 2020). It confirmed other work that shows that people rarely go to pubs to get drunk (although they sometimes do) but to share in community, conviviality and conversation. While more recent work has focused on the problems of drinking and on specific audiences the mass observation study looked purposely at everyday drinkers and because of this we benefit from a comprehensive understanding of pubs at that time.


Mass Observation (1943) The Pub and the People: A worktown study, Faber Finds (2015)

McGregor, S. (2020) The Pub and the People. A Worktown Study by Mass Observation, Addiction, Vol 116(Issue 2), pages 407-411.

© Victoria Wells/University of York
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