11 Vintage Photos Of London Pub Life

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 15 months ago
11 Vintage Photos Of London Pub Life
A woman cleans a sign with Charles and Di on it, from an upper story window
In the Middle Ages, hanging signs were common to any commercial establishment. In pubs, they stuck around. A pub might be named after a royal for centuries, with the sign changing to reflect the individual holding the title. Prince and Princess of Wales (now closed). Southwark, 1981

What is it that makes the pub such an intrinsic part of London culture? There's the drink, of course. The camaraderie of meeting up in a familiar place with friends. But beer writer Pete Brown thinks it's something else, too.

"The modern day is always so confusing and often quite scary — we can only make sense of things in retrospect," says Brown. "The pub gives us that continuity — we're conscious somewhere that its function never changes and that generations have sat in these same seats. So long as we can still do that, so long as the pub is still there for us, things will probably be OK."

A young couple kiss at a table full of glasses
V-E Day at a pub. London, 1945

Certainly The London Pub — a book for which Brown has penned the foreword — is full of enough half drunk pints of mild, stolen kisses in snuggly booths, and boozy (sometimes tooth-deficient) grins to make even the most cold-hearted observer feel a pang of warmth in their gut. You can almost smell the Fuggles hops, the endless cigarettes smoked, and hear the banter gradually slide up in volume as afternoon bleeds into evening.

A woman on her own with a baby in the corner of a pub
The Kenton Arms faces west on a junction, like the prow of a ship, so it is often flooded with afternoon light. Hackney, 1986

The book's beautifully crisp photos (and thank god there were photographers with the foresight to snap these everyday scenes) take us on a epic pub crawl around the city, from the clapboarded/cobble streeted Victorian coaching inns (of which, famously, only the George in Southwark survives), through to Brylcreem-slathered teddy boys jiving by the jukebox, and a yuppy relishing a moment alone with a paper and a pint in some Soho gin palace.

A man, dog and woman outside a pub called the Baptist's Head
By the 20th century, most pubs were owned by breweries. Watneys (purveyors of the infamously bland ‘Red Barrel’ beer) were one of the largest. The Baptist's Head (now closed). Clerkenwell, 1954

Brown's favourite photo from the collection shows a soldier and (presumably) his girlfriend smooching in the corner of a boozer: "The table is piled up with empty glasses," says Brown, "You recognise that truth about the moment, a euphoric snog on a drunken afternoon, and suddenly you're there. You can feel what VE Day must have been like. You can taste it."

Bar staff line up and smile from behind the bar
Bartenders at The George. London, 1962

Overall, these vintage pub pictures show us a diversity that is perhaps surprising for the timespan in which they were captured. Among the war heroes and pearly kings and queens, there are also Black musicians, children and drag artists. Women feature prominently — not just pouring pints but, in one case, plucking bass guitars in front of enraptured audiences, sipping lagers at the bar, shooting pool — even cooing to their babies.

A young woman plays guitar in front of a pub full of people
Peggy Seeger playing at The Enterprise. Music has always been a feature of London pubs; countless acts from the Rolling Stones to Madness began their careers playing in pubs. Tomorrow’s stars are probably there right now. Covent Garden, c.1960

Were time travel possible, Brown tells us he'd choose to travel back to the earliest photo from the book — one from 1875, which shows a figure standing in the archway of the deliciously skew-whiff Oxford Arms in the City, now lost. "Those places were warrens of bars, warehouses, stabling and bedrooms," says Brown, Old photos of these places always look so mysterious and Dickensian, actually quite alien."

A young woman pulls pints at the bar, watched by a group of men
London, c.1950

Maybe this "alien" quality, though, is an exception to the rule. In his introduction, Brown says something poignant about the pub — that they "move more slowly than the rest of the city." This is undeniably true; while all these images carry the distinct tang of nostalgia, they are also reassuringly familiar. The smoke may have long dissipated — many of the pubs bulldozed or spun into flats, too. But everything from the hand pumps to the swirly gin palace glass to the chalkboard to the squiffy smiles plastered across punters' faces, are still recognisable. Some aspects — like dimpled 'jugs' and Watneys beer — have even been resurrected.

A group of men smoke and smile around a smoky table
Lunch hour at The Globe near Borough Market. Southwark, 1955

As for the pubs from these photos; many have actually weathered the years one way or another, and some possibly don't look so different to how they were in the 80s, 60s or 40s.

People of all ages drink in the sunshine outside a 'public bar'
Outside the pub on a bank holiday. London, 1947

We've got to be wary though; the post-pandemic, cash-stricken times we live in could be a greater threat to London's pub scene than falling bombs. As Brown tells us, "Pubs are like air or water. They're so important we take them for granted, until they're gone."

A man reads a paper with his pint in front of a gin palace window
Soho, 1981

The book was put together in the aftermath of the pandemic, and the havoc wreaked on London's pubs (pubs which didn't even stop serving during the second world war). So which drinking hole was it that Pete Brown made a beeline for once restrictions were eased? "Oh it didn't matter," he says, "As it happened it was the Anchor & Hope at Walthamstow Marshes.

"We had to sit outside and all they had was a bland mainstream lager that got served in the wrong glass but none of that mattered — I was back in the pub!"

A serviceman with a beer is surrounded by smiling women
Private Thomas Nugent celebrates finally returning home from a PoW camp in Korea. Edmonton, 1953

The London Pub, published by Hoxton Mini Press, RRP £18.95

All images courtesy Hoxton Mini Press.

Last Updated 22 November 2022

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