Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Poor Man's Club": The Middle Classes, the Public House, and the Idea of Community in the Nineteen-Thirties

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Poor Man's Club": The Middle Classes, the Public House, and the Idea of Community in the Nineteen-Thirties

Article excerpt

This essay analyzes the ways in which interwar writers such as Hamilton, Hampson, Massingham, Orwell, and those involved with Mass-Observation rewrote Victorian ideas of pubs as the products of personal failure, figuring them instead as communal centres. It explores images of the public house as a refuge from advanced capitalism and the social functions it actually served.

The public house is as much a mythic institution as a material one, at once a familiar, even mundane space and the object of fantasy; a business operating within specific economic and legislative structures, serving specific social functions, and a site of desire, in particular the desire for community. The very name "public house" combines the notion of general admission and belonging. As Steven Earnshaw argues, the pub seems to offer "a home from home available to everyone" (1). As public houses primarily served the working class, at least until the late twentieth century, they seemed to offer a point of entrance to working-class communities, not least for members of the middle classes, who could not attain access to proletarian occupational or family groups, but could spend time in the pub for the price of a drink. The complex internal geography of many public houses, which featured a variety of different bars, each with its own function and status, provided spaces for more prosperous drinkers, perhaps particularly in London. There was even a middle-class pub culture in "bohemian" areas such as Fitzrovia. The majority of drinkers were working-class, though, and pubs were central to working-class communities in a way that they were not to the middle classes, who, as Ernest Selley observed in The English Public House as it is, had access to "greater home conveniences and ampler amenities" (21). Changes in their identity and associations through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflect shifts in the dominant ideas held by the middle classes regarding their poorer fellow citizens as much as developments in the working class or the institution itself. In particular, they register the movement from Victorian images of the destructive "masses" to ideas of a working class with a distinct, valuable culture. Middle-class idealization of the public house was always interwoven with a fascination with the class it served, and the belief that they preserved forms of community that the more prosperous had lost.

For many middle-class writers and intellectuals in the nineteen-thirties, such as George Orwell and those who worked for the radical social research organization Mass-Observation, the pub seemed to provide a point of contact with the class which, Marx and Engels famously insisted in the "Manifesto of the Communist Party," "holds the future in its hands" (10), a place to, as Cecil Day Lewis argued in his "Letter to a Young Revolutionary," investigate the "temper of the people" (41). At least as importantly, it promised entrance to communities that offered a positive alternative to fragmented, anonymous middle-class life under advanced capitalism, a term here preferred to "late capitalism" because, as Eagleton argues, "we have no idea how late it is" (Idea 64). It was the site of independent working-class organizations, from political groups to savings clubs, but also of less formal relationships sustained through communal practices, from singing to the buying of rounds, which reinforced broader solidarities. In a society which, Marx and Engels insisted, recognizes "no other bond between one man and another than naked self-interest, unfeeling 'hard cash'" (3), public houses seemed to support authentic communities that could not be reduced to expressions of rational self-interest, though in practice access to them often depended upon having at least the price of a drink. In order to focus on this social function, writers challenged images of the pub as the site of drunkenness, dissipation, and violence that had gathered force in the late nineteenth century and persisted into the twentieth. …

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