National Hostelry Service: When state-owned pubs with high prices and watered-down beer were all the rage – Susan Morrison

David Lloyd George’s drive to increase munitions production in the First World War saw the government get involved in the pub trade

The Great War wasn’t going particularly well in 1915. The battle of Neuve Chappell failed to make the hoped-for impact, and the dread name of Ypres was about to make the headlines in Britain. To make matters worse, there was a serious shortage of munitions. Hardly surprising. The artillery barrage prior to the Neuve Chappell offensive used more shells in 35 minutes than had been fired in the entire Boer War, only 15 years before.

Commanders-in-chief, politicians and newspaper barons whipped themselves into a frenzy over the Shell Scandal. Britain, they thundered, was being out-gunned by the Bosch. Munitions factories weren’t producing the goods. Lord Kitchener blamed drunkenness in the British workforce for slacking on the job. Something had to be done. David Lloyd George agreed. The ‘Welsh Wizard’, with his customary energy, threw himself into the problems of not enough bombs and too much booze.

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The town of Gretna was a quiet Scottish border town better known before the war as a marriage destination for eloping couples. Now it was to have the largest cordite factory in the First World War built on its very doorstep. More than 10,000 navvies were drafted in, and with it came Lloyd George’s second problem.

500 whiskies on the bar

These men were landing on a tiny Scottish town, no bigger than a large village. Many of them boarded in Carlisle, a city of about 50,000. They were not popular. The Rev G Bramwell Evens wrote in 1915 the men were “turned out into the street until tea-time. The landladies did not want them inside the house; their money was wanted but not their company”. The only refuge for the workers was the pub.

The building boom at Gretna turned Carlisle into a frontier town. Two wooden townships were built to house the men, but no pubs. They had to get to Carlisle for that. A local historian wrote that “before getting on the train (to Carlisle) the… workers would take a silver collection… they bribed the driver to get them into Carlisle with a few minutes to spare. On arriving, the workers would make a run to the nearby Boustead’s bar where… Sammy Boustead would have between four and five hundred whiskies ready poured for them.” It only got worse when the women munitions workers arrived. Women were seen, in public, drunk. The shame of it.

Part of the UK Government's response to the 'Shell Crisis' was to commandeer pubs to stop workers getting too drunk (Picture: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)Part of the UK Government's response to the 'Shell Crisis' was to commandeer pubs to stop workers getting too drunk (Picture: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Part of the UK Government's response to the 'Shell Crisis' was to commandeer pubs to stop workers getting too drunk (Picture: Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The solution, to Lloyd George, seemed obvious. The government would commandeer the bars. The ‘North Western Border Area’ was created in November 1915. Pubs and hotels around Gretna and Carlisle found their hours restricted, and the sale of spirits severely curtailed. The English found themselves emulating the Scots and shutting the pubs completely on a Sunday.

By 1916, the workers seemed sober(ish), happy and cordite production was booming. The scheme was working. So well, in fact, that the government decided to go into the pub business for itself. Lloyd George proposed taking some English breweries, their tied pubs and hotels into public ownership. The Admiralty, mindful of the fleet sitting at Invergordon, asked that hotels and pubs around the Cromarty Firth be taken into “direct control”.

Temperance Society ignored

It was to be known as the State Management Scheme, a sort of National Hostelry Service. Taking over the breweries was a smart move. The government could lower the alcohol content of the beer whilst raising the prices at the same time. There was surprisingly little opposition to this state-sanction meddling in what one ex-Prime Minister once referred to as the “ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go to the pub”.

The Temperance Society wasn’t happy. They were not amused to find His Majesty's Government planned to become Britain’s biggest pub landlord. They were ignored. By and large, the navvies and the munitions girls seemed content that the pub was still there, and beer was still being sold, even if it was weaker and more expensive.

Government meddling didn’t stop at the pub door. Regulations were drawn up. Only one drink was to be ordered and drunk. That led to a few complaints that customers could no longer order a ‘heater and a cooler’, a dram and a beer. Youngsters were out. No one under the age of 16 was allowed in. And ‘treat’ drinking was expressly forbidden. One drinker, one drink. No rounds to be bought.

A place of entertainment

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As extraordinary as it may seem, given the view of women and alcohol at the time, efforts were made to make the interiors more inviting to encourage them to go to the pub. It was thought that their presence would civilise the drinking men around them. It must be remembered that the men who drew up these plans had never seen a Scottish hen party hit Newcastle on a Saturday night.

They not only took pubs over, such as the Ferry Inn at Balblair, but also built pubs, with a view to making a public house a place of entertainment and not just boozing. In Annan, they opened Gracie's Banking in 1916. We’d call this a leisure centre today. It had a restaurant, a cinema, a bowling green, and rather oddly, a post office.

The State Management Scheme lasted astonishingly long after not just the First World War, but also the Second. The governments of all hues didn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to get rid of it. Well, it was making money.

In 1970, Hector Munro, Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, kicked off a debate to end the scheme by saying that the people of Gretna had lost their “enthusiasm for being a guinea pig for a social experiment”. This astonishing level of government control finally called time in 1973. David Lloyd George would consider Scotland’s minimum alcohol pricing policy very small beer indeed.

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