Boozing, booze and boozers in our area
One of our members, Rob Stay, recently gave us a fascinating talk about the history of the pubs in our area, and has kindly provided us with his notes for our website.
This map shows how we agreed our area of interest, to indicate a locally defined area that does not intrude into areas chosen by nearby similar groups. Its boundaries largely run along the River Ouse or main roads. No part of the area lies or has ever lain within the defensive city walls of Roman or medieval York. That is very significant and while anyone now living in our area would rightly say they lived in York, that would be true only from fairly recent times. Development for housing in the area began in earnest in the early 19th century and was substantially complete by the 1930s. One part of the area was cleared and redeveloped in the 1960s. That lay along Nunnery Lane and was bounded at one end by Bishopthorpe Road. I refer several times to now long-lost streets that lay within that area.
This article is mainly about pubs. I also include working men’s clubs, bars and off-licences, but I exclude restaurants. I also briefly cover the making of alcohol and the influence of the temperance movement. Much of my information comes from the late Hugh Murray’s hugely informative A Directory of York Pubs 1455-2003. In my accounts of individual pubs I have included some anecdotes and press reports but have sharply limited the number. Press reports of drunken or riotous behaviour are legion and of limited interest. Pub anecdotes risk being little more than minor urban myths.
First a few definitions.
These are places where the general public can buy and drink alcohol without needing to buy food. I distinguish pubs from places more appropriately called bars, but accept that the dividing line is a bit fuzzy. What we now generally call pubs were in the past divided into several distinct categories.
Firstly, there were inns, which catered for travellers and provided rooms, meals and stabling. Many inns also served as important centres for the distribution of commercial goods; as centres for horse drawn public transport; as venues to hold inquests; as public meeting places; and for auctions or sales. A sub-species of inn was an ‘ordinary’, a term that is no longer in use. An ordinary was a place providing a meal at a fixed time and price. In one part of our area traditional inns dominated in the past.
Then there were taverns, a word of Roman origin and these sold wine rather than ale or beer. The word is now rather quaint and just means ‘pub’. While the city of York would at times have had taverns, I doubt if there were ever any in our area.
Finally, there were the basic boozers of their day - beerhouses, alehouses or tippling houses. The latter were distinguished because they did not brew their own ale or beer. In the past many, perhaps most, pubs brewed their own drink. That practice died out with the rise of large breweries in the 19th century, but has recently made something of a comeback. Many of our pubs originally brewed their own beer but none do so today, although one, The Slip, recently thought seriously about doing so.
Ale and beer were historically different products, although the words now mean the same. Both are brewed from malted barley, water and yeast, but beer, unlike ale, is flavoured with hops, which only came to England in the 15th century. Hops add bitterness and also extend the product’s shelf life.
There was a huge increase in beerhouses following The Beerhouses Act of 1831. This allowed any ratepayer (property owner) to open a beerhouse on payment of two guineas - £2.2s, or about £240 in today’s money.* There were a number of beerhouses in our area, several lasting until the 1950s and 1960s. This type of pub could not legally sell alcoholic drinks other than beer.
Pub names are a subject in their own right and not one I cover in detail, but pubs changing names was a commonplace and I will detail these changes.
Working men’s clubs
These began around the mid-19th century, and became significant sellers of beer. They have to be registered, but the licensing law as attached to pubs does not apply, as clubs are private, and to drink in one you need to be a member or a guest. The significance of their trade may be judged by the fact that groups of clubs came together to build and run their own breweries. There was one in York from the 1930s until the 1970s. This was the Yorkshire Clubs’ Brewery in Huntington and it supplied at least one club in our area.
These are shops that sell alcohol for consumption off the premises – the slang word was ‘offies’. The term is now associated with a virtually vanished type of shop that concentrated almost solely on drink. Technically, local shops such as Sainsbury’s and Costcutters are off-licences, but you don’t hear them called that. I will also mention the almost vanished breed of specialist wine merchants. Off sales were also provided by pubs, often from a small lobby by the door called a ‘bottle and jug’.
Where and when were our first premises selling alcohol to the public?
No one knows but the first recorded premises were in the early 18th century. Before then is an evidential desert, but that need not stop a bit of speculation.
The Romans arrived here in AD71 and founded York. Before then our area was probably devoid of significant settlements and was on the road to nowhere. In essence the land was empty, hence with no market for drink. Did that change with the founding of York. We don’t know but I rather doubt it.
As noted earlier, our area lay beyond the Roman walls and so was in what might be described as bandit country, where there were risks, especially for places selling booze and taking cash. That is not to say that inns for travellers did not exist, indeed they must have done, given the very time-consuming journeys that then had to be made, but there are particular reasons to doubt their existence in our area.
The Roman road to and from York was a major route that began (and ended) in our area, just outside of the city walls. We now call this route Blossom Street, The Mount and a bit of Tadcaster Road. Along this stretch of road inns were certainly established in the 18th century (and probably earlier), but I rule out the same for Roman times, and the key to this view lies in the proximity of our part of the road to the defended city.
At its furthest point that road was only about a mile from the walls of Roman York, even on foot only about twenty minutes away. So why would anyone want to stop so close to the relative safety of a defended city and one which would have been packed with accommodation, drinking shops and many other pleasures? And why would anyone going the other way stop so soon after leaving? I suggest they would not and hence that there was still no market for alcohol. This state of affairs was likely to have continued into medieval times, albeit with diminishing effect, as the country grew safer and as more people travelled; also because York, within its confining walls, became more and more crowded with less rooms for inns - something that would ultimately benefit our area.
While our first recorded inns were on this route, I think that the first sales of alcohol to the public in our area was elsewhere, in Clementhorpe. In that area, now buried under Lower Darnborough St, is the site of a medieval parish church. I do not know exactly when it was founded, but it was there by the 11th century and in the 12th it was joined by a nunnery, the fragmentary remains of which can still be seen in Clementhorpe. But what has this to do with drinking?
Medieval parish churches were built to serve significant communities. The Royal Commission on Historic Monuments has recorded that the street now called Clementhorpe was “originally the main street of a suburban village….” Medieval churches constantly needed money for building, improvements and repairs and one normal way of raising money was by holding ‘church-ales’ on certain days of the year. Ale was brewed for or by the church and sold at church-ales to the parishioners and to others invited in from nearby. Perhaps the nunnery later took on the brewing and nuns would have had the knowledge and equipment to do so. So, this is very probably the site where alcohol was first made. Oddly enough the history of ‘commercial’ brewing both begins here and ends nearby in the 20th century, as I shall later describe. The nunnery acquired a bit of a reputation for scandalous behaviour - including ‘lapses of the flesh’ - and it is at least possible, if admittedly unlikely, that their lapses included a bit of brewing for sale on the side. If that’s true it might have been our area’s first ‘proto-pub’ or off-licence! It is, of course, quite possible that this early village had its own pub.
*To convert historic monetary values to those of 2018 I use the Bank of England’s on-line inflation calculator.
Looking at each neighbourhood within our area
To deal with individual pubs I divide our area into three, with the first being along the route of the Roman road to and from York. My second area is around Nunnery Lane. The third is around Clementhorpe and Bishopthorpe Road. Follow the menu links on the left to find out more about these pubs and other related topics.
My thanks go to other members of the local history group who helped me and in particular to Susan Major, Simon Batchelor and my wife, Anne Houson. Beyond the group thanks also Dave Gamston and Mike Macintosh, both of whom have supplied detailed information.
A Directory of York Pubs 1455 – 2003. Hugh Murray. 2003.
Down Nunnery Lane. The Cygnet Group. 1991.
The Local: A History of The English Pub. Paul Jennings. 2007.
Pubs in and Around York. Paul Chrystal. 2018.