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  • Coventry Pubs by Fred Luckett

    The Woolpack in Spon Street is an early photo from the 1860's, the pub has since been demolished. (Author's collection)

    Drinking in an old English town

    The history of the alcohol trade in Coventry

    Whilst beer, along with agriculture, was being created in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, Coventry remained a patch of virgin forest in the Arden County until well into the Cristian era. Mercia was settled by Anglo-Saxons from the sixth century onwards, but Coventry itself is thought to have originated with the founding of an abbey under Saint Osburgh in the tenth century. This was destroyed by Cnut's forces in 1016, to be followed by the first definite event in Coventry, the founding of the priory of St Mary by Leofric and Godiva in 1043.

    In Anglo-Saxon society men had the roles that required upper body strength, such as field work and animal husbandry, and women were the head of the domestic household. Brewing was a household pursuit so women were the brewers. These brewers were termed 'alewives' and would have been members of families wealthy enough to have a surplus of grain and hence be able to brew ale over and above that needed for domestic requirements. Such supplies of ale would have been intermittent and hence a temporary ale stake was used to indicate that ale was for sale, rather than a permanent sign.

    The role of the alewife was gradually challenged by the monastic brewery and Coventry always had a plentiful supply of monasteries, with large permanent populations of monks and lay brothers needing a regular and dependable supply of ale.

     

    The Old Windmill in Spon Street, reputedly Coventry's oldest pub. (Author's collection)

    The first permanent retail outlet we learn of in Coventry was the White Cellar, a tavern, in c.1230. A tavern was a premises that sold wine, which would have been a specialist, high-value trade at that time. These early premises were followed by inns and other taverns as travel increased throughout the area.

    Once monastic brewing ceased in Coventry with the Reformation, commercial brewing expanded to supply the market and we begin to see brewing dynasties in Coventry such as the King, Ash and Rawson families, whilst the role of the alewife disappeared, although women were never excluded from brewing. In the eighteenth century we have Mrs. Cave King in Coventry, whilst in the West Midlands in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries we have Julia Hanson, Sarah Hughes, Doris Pardoe, and on to modern-day female brewers. Permanent public houses were created to sell to the urban population no longer able to enjoy monastic, guild or even private hospitality.

     

    Jack Tatlow is drawing beer at the Rainbow in Allesley the 1930's. (Author's collection)

    At this time the regulation of the alcohol trade was in the hands of the corporation. Later the role was given to the magistrates, until very recently when it was given back to the city council. Licensing records begin in 1745, although at this time it is the person who is licensed, there is no mention of the premises. So, when a licensee moved house, his sign was likely to move with him. For example, the Crown in Bayley Lane closed in 1788 when the licensee, Charles Hunt, moved to White Friars Lane. The Crown in White Friars Lane opened immediately. From the mid-eighteenth century to the Second World War the number of public houses wavered between 200 and 250, which means that, with a growing population the ratio of pubs to people has constantly declined.

    During the early nineteenth century the spread of the tied house system, and the growth of large brewers, particularly in the home counties, caused concern over the reduction in competition. The growth in spirit drinking likewise was a problem. So, in 1830 the Beerhouse Act was passed allowing anyone to sell beer on the payment of a 2 guinea fee to the excise. A huge number of beerhouses sprang up, leading to an inevitable reaction. This, allied to the influence of the temperance movement and declining demand, lead to a reduction in the numbers of public houses, taverns, and inns in the city centre. This trend was accelerated by the widespread destruction of the city centre during the blitz, with many licenses moved out to the new suburbs.

    In more recent years many suburban pubs have closed, leading to licences being concentrated around entertainment or local centres.

    Fred Luckett's new book Coventry Pubs is available for purchase now.

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