19th Century ‘Police and Publicans’16 minute read


Archival research is an essential tool for historical geographers who seek to think and write about places and people that have long since vanished. Effectively removed from their field sites, these academics are faced with the challenge of navigating documents in an effort to source relevant data while remaining extra critical of inherent subjectivity. For those interested in late 19th century London geography, the Charles Booth archives provide a uniquely rich supply of primary source data. A successful businessman turned social reformer, Booth conducted his famous survey on the working lives of London’s poorest neighborhoods with the help of his colleagues (London, 2016). His published volume, Inquiry into Life and Labour in London, is based on a catalog of over 450 original notebooks of qualitative and quantitative social data collected between 1886 and 1903 (Ibid).

This essay deals with the first hand descriptions and accounts collected by George H. Duckworth in the notebook titled: “13 C, Police and Publicans,” under Booth’s survey (Duckworth, 1897). The notebook draws on Duckworth’s personal observations as well as interviews with policemen and managers of public houses located in districts 14 and 16 in northeast London, roughly between Stoke Newington and Clerkenwell. Duckworth’s attention to detail is evident through his use of thick description and individual quotes – a combination that serves to better characterize people and relationships. While Duckworth’s main focus is directed towards the economics of public houses, due to the fact that social relations and economics are embedded in one another (Polanyi, 2001, p.60), the content of this volume touches on multiples areas of social life. With all this in mind, Duckworth’s personal accounts and interviews reveal a great deal about pub culture and life in London at this period on both an individual and greater societal level. He achieves this by describing the mundane details of life related to public houses in an effort to demonstrate the ways these semi-public spaces served as loci of connection for a variety of social and economic agents.

This essay begins with a review of literature that relates to the history of public houses in London, particularly at the time of Charles Booth’s survey. The subsequent analysis portion of this essay takes a closer look at the text within Duckworth’s notebook, paying special attention to quotes and descriptions that represent the lives of Londoners. First, the essay focuses on the economic lives of Duckworth’s informants. This section includes a full description of the variety of economic actors, the impact of rising rent prices, and evidence of entrepreneurship within the public houses. Next, this paper examines the role of political power in this economic setting. This section discusses the symbiotic relationship between police and publicans as well as real versus idealized culture. The analysis finishes with a review of the previous topics through a gendered lens, citing data that relates to matters of kinship, employment, and status. The essay wraps up with a conclusion and a few suggestions for further study.

Review of literature

No doubt due in part to Booth’s survey, there is a wealth of academic literature on the working lives of Londoners during the late Victorian period. Traditionally this era is connected with the surge of working class slums in London but it also saw the rise of public houses, as we know them today. To begin, the general atmosphere of modernization that characterizes the late 19th century had a profound impact on the aesthetic and commercial development of public houses. This was the beginning of pubs being recognized as “tastefully modern and respectable site[s] of urban leisure with broad social appeal” (Fisher, 2012, p.325). This shift in attitude is likely related to the gentrification trend regarding public houses. During the 19th century, the middle classes had genuine moral concerns about the drinking behavior of the working class (Guzke, 1994, p.34). Inspired by Scandinavian policy reforms, various trust institutions across London unsuccessfully attempted to draw working class people away from public houses and alcohol and push them towards other forms of “rational recreation” by investing in local libraries and community centers (Ibid, 1994, p. 37). However, apart from increasing the amount of food served at public houses, their efforts were largely fruitless because social life was already integrally embedded in that space, particularly for the working poor of London (Ibid, p. 40).

As institutions, public houses provided significant loci of economic activity for their neighborhoods. On the brewing side, the period between 1870 and 1914 is considered a “golden age of labour relations in the trade” (Reinarz, 2004, p. 112). But the business at hand does not end with the brewers. The analysis portion of this essay will elaborate on the large number of economic actors that participate throughout this process of making, selling, serving, and consuming beer.

The relationship between class and morality is a popular theme in the present body of literature on life in late Victorian London. The moral outlook on the working class in terms of its alcohol consumption was that this form of indulgence and expenditure was at once “economically damaging and socially undesirable” (Dingle, 1974, p. 608). Unfortunately, statistics regarding drunkenness and drink consumption during this period are dubious because they rely on the quality and stringency of police reports as well as “guestimates” (Ibid, p. 610). It is clear, however, that drinking had significant economic realities for the working class considering they were responsible for approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of all spending on alcohol (Ibid, p. 612). Outside of the broader economic picture, this spending had consequences in the home as well by reducing the caloric intake of working class families by 17.6% on average (Ibid, p. 614).

The literature takes care not to neglect the functions women performed in this economic sphere as barmaids, servers, and consumers. In the working class neighborhoods of London during this period, women were instrumental in the operations and moral identity of their neighborhoods (Ross, 1983, p. 4-5). Their work spanned the private and public spheres in terms of their extensive household responsibilities and contribution to the wage labor force (Ibid). The “women’s pub culture” that took place in the poorer urban neighborhoods provided an essential gathering space where women of all ages could socialize, gossip, and spend extra money (when they had any) on food and drink alike. Some neighborhoods during this period contained pubs frequented exclusively by women, and until the 1908 Children Act, babies and children often accompanied them (Ibid, p. 10-11).

This has been a brief overview of the extensive body of literature available on the subject. As a primary source, Duckworth’s notebook lends a personalized and detailed perspective on the matter of pub culture among the working class in late 19th century London. The following analysis of this primary source will look in greater detail at the structures of localized communities and workplaces. Specific details are, after all, crucial to understanding the underlying social and political attitudes at hand (Coleman, 2006, p. 747).


The neighborhoods Duckworth’s interviews and observations take place are located in Districts 14 and 16 of the Booth map, occupying the space roughly between Stoke Newington and Clerkenwell. The areas range from relatively “middle class” inhabited by a number of Doctors, to quite poor. One such street is described as having “some 3rd rate shops 3 public houses and 2 beer houses… lend[ing] an almost sure sign that there are some poor streets in the neighborhood” (p.55). This correlation between drinking establishments and the economic composition of the neighborhood sets the scene for this discussion.

The economics of public houses

At the most basic social level, late Victorian public houses were businesses. This means the space housed a network of different economic actors engaging in a daily workflow of certain market processes and devices. The first of these economic actors were the brewers. They are first depicted in this volume as innovators on account of having brewed a lighter, “four ale” beer that resulted in less drunkenness (p. 63). They are further characterized as good businessmen by “recognizing this demand” for different kinds of beers and spirits (p. 65). Although brewers worked closely with publicans, according to one seasoned manager their economic role had recently shifted. In the past, brewers were the sole lenders to pub owners, whereas in more recent times bank managers have served that purpose (p. 123). Apparently, the banks could afford to lend at a lower interest rate than the breweries, making them a more advantageous lending partner. This account suggests a significant and relatively modern shift in the economic roles embodied by the different players, particularly on the part of the brewers.

The other significant economic network of relations depicted in this text is that between publicans, managers, and other employees. A “publican” is the term for the owner of a public house. With the number of public houses on the rise in London during this period, managing to “keep abreast of the demand” (p. 67) proved a burdensome task. For this reason, publicans may have chosen to employ one or more managers to aid him in the business operation and overall supervision of the space. Managers could be employed on a casual basis and paid weekly, or earn up to £500 per year (p. 67). One informant characterizes the managers chief responsibility as keeping “noisy” and “rough characters” away (p. 67). The rest of the staff employed in a public house found themselves engaged in casual, service-oriented forms of labor as potmen, barmaids, and other servants and household staff (p. 123-124). In this way, the public house employment ladder modeled the overarching labor hierarchy that existed in England at that time.

One of the most commonly cited complaints among the publicans interviewed in this notebook is the rise of rents and property prices in London. One manager commented: “they have thought for many years that top prices had been reached but they still move upwards” (p. 65). Another manager attributes the rising property prices of public houses to following three economic circumstances: investors felt confident that alcohol would remain legal in the years to come, interest rates were startlingly low, and finally that London’s growing population increased the demand.

Overall, this text represents publicans in as diligent and knowledgeable entrepreneurs. Mr. Reeve, for example, is a 60-year-old manager who rose to that position in the Brewery from modest beginnings as an office boy (p. 69). Mr. Baxter cultivates social relationships with his customers by taking drinks with them, but “has a concoction of tea to look like rum,” (p. 73) so as to maintain control and professionalism. Mr. Clees, described by the manager of another pub as having “special knowledge of the trade and being reliable” (p. 119), boasts a no-nonsense “reputation for turning people out” if they are noisy or drunk. These accounts reveal that there is an art to running a successful pub, and characterize these select informants as demonstrative of the level of expertise one should strive for in this industry.

Police power and the State

One market device universally utilized by the managers and publicans accounted for in this text is the practice of bribing the police. This “trade custom” (p. 67) represents the role the state and its policing power plays in the economy of public houses. In general, this relationship appears to be one of symbiosis whereby publicans pay the local police with money or drinks in the hopes that the officer will return the favor by assisting with drunk and unruly customers. One manager attests “all the policemen are paid in drinks,” and that “it is more of a bribe to them to do their duty than to neglect it” (p. 67-69). This relationship might suggest a level of corruption or laziness on the part of the police force. However, based on the reported levels of crime in these neighborhoods it is easy to imagine that policemen might find themselves overworked and unable to fully supervise the area. Mr. Clees bribes the policemen with a pint of ale twice a week saying he “knows some who give nothing at all but not many,” (p. 75) thus demonstrating the ubiquitous nature of this system of reciprocity among publicans and police. Apparently without bribes, there is no guarantee a policeman will “come at once if he is wanted” (Ibid).

Making enemies with the local policeman is bad for business. One manager goes so far as to say the police “can make themselves very disagreeable if they like,” (p. 77) and another attests, “[i]f the police made a set against you they could ruin you certainly” (p. 125). These quotes demonstrate an element of individual power and judgment on the part of the police that, in turn, translates to autonomy in their working lives in terms of their enforcement of the law, or rather lack thereof. By contrast, good relations with the local police force could bring about significant advantage for publicans and managers. Mr. Richards, for example, is good friends with many policemen and subsequently gets invited to dinners and given tickets to their events (p. 125). He qualifies this relationship, however, as fundamentally professional by saying: “they do their duty and are always policemen first and friends afterward” (Ibid).

This system of bribery between publicans and police brings to light the issue of real versus idealized culture. It is plainly obvious from Duckworth’s interviews that there existed a significant informal economic relationship that drove the daily lives of the Londoners living in these districts. However, it is unlikely that a historian would find anything about this system of social organization in an official police manual from that era. This situation illustrates how all too often, there is a huge disparity between the protocols outlining what a group of people should do and what they actually do. For this reason, one must always consider the perspective and terms of accessibility of a source. This consideration leads nicely into the final area of analysis; the social and economic roles performed by women in late 19th century public houses as both workers and consumers.

Gender in this economic and social

While Duckworth’s notebook utilizes a variety of first hand interviews with different publicans, managers, and policemen in his effort to portray the social and economic realities present in public houses, he neglects to interview any women. They are, however, topics of discussion in multiple interviews so there is some record of their activity, albeit a biased one.

Firstly, women are depicted as economic actors in their own right and employed in a variety of ways, such as barmaids, household servants, and prostitutes. One manager comments on the “crowds of [prostitutes] in the neighborhood” (p. 77) and goes on to add that he does not like employing female barmaids because they are “slow in serving and dawdle talking too much” (p. 79). In this instance, women are represented as being inferior workers to their male counterparts. Sometimes the operation of the public house is described as an all-encompassing household affair, whereby wives would work alongside their manager husbands. It appears that in these cases, the husband and wife would earn a collective wage for their individual work in the same public house (p. 67).

The public houses were not only a space for women’s employment, but also a space for socialization and consumption. One manager refers to the specialized “saloon bar” upstairs with pride saying it provides extra privacy for female patrons “as a convenience for those who don’t want to meet one another [in a] public bar” (p. 71). This description of a removed and semi-private space has an overall air of exclusivity. On account of this, it sounds as if this space was meant to cater to a higher social class of female pub-goers.

Based on various interviews contained in this text, it would appear that women’s public drinking was on the rise in these districts at this time. One publican remarks on how “women put down spirits as tea,” noting that “men if anything drink rather less” (p. 77). Duckworth himself describes Clerkenwell in his introductory remarks as “[a] great neighborhood for women drinking” (p.75). When asked, one police officer expressed that women’s drinking should not be attributed to the growing number of public houses. The Sargent points out that they could always get alcohol at the grocery story, and “if a women is inclined to drink she will have it whether she can get it from the grocer or no” (p.85). It is difficult to tell from the tone of this quote whether he is resolutely expressing an inevitability, or forming a judgment on the deviant nature of women.

Conclusion and further study

Prior to Charles Booth’s survey, the poor neighborhoods of London and the people that worked and lived in them were considered by the middle and upper classes as complicit in their own poverty due to their inherent immorality and vicious nature (Mace, 2016). Thanks to the overwhelming personal detail present in this volume, Duckworth succeeds in humanizing these people by representing them as rational social and economic actors. Although the relationships presented in this text are primarily rooted in the economics of operating a public house, upon closer examination they extend to other areas of social life including power, the state, kinship, and gender.

Finally, while the text has great merit in terms of its detail in representing the real cultural dimensions that drove people’s lives and actions, it is not without its limitations. One of the prevailing disadvantages of this text is that it fails to represent the voices of women, despite their indisputable social and economic significance in the sphere of public houses. This discontinuity presents a possible avenue of future research.


Coleman, B. (2006) ‘BOOK REVIEW: Marc Brodie. THE POLITICS OF THE POOR: THE EAST END OF LONDON 1885-1914 . Oxford and New York: Clarendon press, 2004’, Victorian Studies, 48(4), pp. 747–748. doi: 10.2979/vic.2006.48.4.747.

Dingle, A.E. (1972) ‘Drink and working-class living standards in Britain, 1870- 1914’, The Economic History Review, 25(4), p. 608. doi: 10.2307/2593951.

Duckworth, G.H. (1897) George H.Duckworth’s Notebook: Police and Publicans District 14 [West Hackney and South East Islington],District 15 [South West Islington],District 16 [Highbury, Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill]. Edited by Charles Booth. London.

Fisher, F. (2012) ‘Presenting the perfect pint: Drink and visual pleasure in late nineteenth-century London’, Visual Resources, 28(4), pp. 324–339. doi: 10.1080/01973762.2012.732030.

Gutzke, D.W. (1994) ‘Gentrifying the British public house, 1896–1914’, International Labor and Working-Class History, 45, p. 29. doi: 10.1017/s0147547900012448.

London (2016) Who was Charles Booth? Available at: http://booth.lse.ac.uk/learn- more/who-was-charles-booth (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Mace, A. (2016) Week eight: Working in and working class in London.
Polanyi, K. (2001) The great transformation: The political and economic origins of our

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Reinarz, J. (2004) ‘Loyal and long-serving workers? Labour turnover in England’s provincial brewing industry, 1870-1914’, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations, (17), pp. 111–125. doi: 10.3828/hsir.2004.17.4.

Ross, E. (1983) ‘Survival networks: Women’s neighbourhood sharing in London before world war I’, History Workshop Journal, 15(1), pp. 4–28. doi: 10.1093/hwj/15.1.4.

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