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High Street History: Pubs

Updated Tuesday, 3rd July 2007

A reflection of their times, gentlemen, please.

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Red Lion Hotel, Crich Tramway
The Red Lion in Stoke was dismantled and rebuilt on a new site in Crich Tramway, Derbyshire after its original location found itself in the middle of a road development.


Pubs and inns have long been a central part of British community life; they are part of the long heritage of urban life. Many will date from the nineteenth century, but quite a few go back further.

Coaching inns, of which you’re just about to see an example, were built as stopping off points for long journeys in the days before rail travel. They frequently pre-date the Victorian period. However, Victorian pubs reflect changes in attitudes towards public drinking. The image portrayed of drinking at that time was a hostile one: the Georgian period was the age of the gin palaces. The explosion of pubs in the later 1800s represented an attempt to control drinking and make it respectable: hence the often very elaborate decoration and fittings.

As with houses, you can often tell the age of a pub simply from its façade. Today, new pubs inhabit many buildings that once housed very different activities – perhaps former churches, cinemas, banks, and shops. Even this tells us something about history, though, since it may indicate the decline of some social phenomena, like organised religion, and the rise of others like social drinking.

White Horse Pub

White Horse coaching inn

Here we have a seventeenth century coaching inn. The arch on the left leading to a courtyard is the vital clue. Probably, the courtyard would have housed stables. In days prior to the arrival of fast transport like the railways, coaching inns provided a welcome break from uncomfortable journeys on poor roads.

Royal Inn pub

Royal Inn

The abundance of glass and the heavy ornament, especially on the heads of the pilasters (half pillars) mark this out as a Victorian pub. It is a leading example of the attempt in the late nineteenth century – spearheaded by breweries, admittedly – to make social drinking more respectable.

Former pub

Former pub

This pub is now a house. Possibly local competition drove it out of business. The brewery, Barclays, was acquired by Courage in 1955 and this too may have affected the pub’s fortunes. The green tiles were a common livery amongst older breweries (United brewery also used them extensively). Note also the blind window on the top floor – a consequence of building to a pattern, not the window tax!

Plough Inn Stony Stratford

Plough pub

In the last shot, we saw a pub that had been converted into something else; here, we have a pub that used to have a quite different function. This was built in 1873 as a church school. Several of its original features stand out strongly – most notably the bell tower.

Taking it further

Understanding cities (DD304) is a course that may be up your street. If you are interested in the medical aspects of drinking as an historical ‘social problem’, the OU offers Medicine and society in Europe 1500-1930 (A218).


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