Leeds nostalgia: Working class drudgery and the rise of the ale house

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This week, historian Mike Harwood looks at the rise of the ale house and how it came to define the working classes.

From the 1810s and 1820s purpose-built public houses began to appear in growing numbers in London and other major centres. Hitherto alehouses had been ordinary dwelling houses adapted for the drink trade with a limited number of alterations.

Now brewers, landowners, builders and publicans started to construct premises with ground-plans, fixtures, furnishings and facades designed for licensed victualling.

During the 1830s architectural publications offered a choice of building plans for public houses - from large, main road establishments in debased Tudor style, to village premises in Italian—Gothic, to a castellated ‘hedge alehouse of the smallest size’.

Beer-shop premises were often small and poky, located in courts or down lanes, not infrequently kept in back rooms. The customers were generally the poor who could not afford the higher prices of the publican’s taproom. In addition, the beer-shop offered some basic services for the labourer which the respectable public house had come to neglect.

Overall, the beer-shop seems to have occupied part of the social territory which the alehouse had vacated when it became more respectable and commercialised in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Francis Place, indeed, made a direct comparison between the new establishment and the early tippling house, recalling how “as the common people emancipated themselves from their state of vasselage they made themselves obnoxious to their superiors by their independent conduct [and] congregated in alehouses, as our farm labourers are now doing in beer-shops.”

Extracts from P Clark’s The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200- 1830, taken from Kirkstall, A Dip Into History by Mike Harwood.