How Did Victorian Drinking Establishments Become Family-Friendly Pubs in the 20th Century?

The Black Horse
Bristol Road South, Northfield, Birmingham

Listed: 1981
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for the Black Horse Public House

Why do 20th-century pubs look so different to 19th-century ones?

The Black Horse pub in Birmingham, dating from 1929 and listed at Grade II, provides the answer: a combination of the perils of after-work drunkenness, the motorcar industry and the importance of family life in 20th-century social history.

The end of the gin palace

Many 19th century pubs in England were built in city centres. Their plans often included small bars where customers stood up to drink, and they were decorated with mahogany panelling, tiles and cut-glass mirrors. The effect was often brash and wonderfully full-blown - in fact, it could make you feel slightly squiffy before you even touched a drop!

While the levels of drunkenness recorded may have been exaggerated by the growing temperance movement, rowdiness in pubs was common, with a large part of workers' wages often spent in local drinking establishments on a Friday night. The 1904 Licensing Act changed this trend: it gave magistrates the power to take away an existing licence if they believed that the existence of a pub wasn't contributing positively to the needs of its local community. In the face of possible closures and with the increasing popularity of temperance, the brewers themselves felt constrained to modify their premises in the hope of changing their clients' behaviour.

'Reformed' public houses

As a result of the Act, a new type of public house was developed, often built in the suburbs to be closer to the homes of the pubs' customers. The aim was to attract respectable families from the expanding middle class, not just male bread winners. The pubs appeared all over the country, but in the early 20th century 'reformed' pubs flourished, particularly in Birmingham. Licensing magistrates were careful to make sure that, when building their pubs, Birmingham brewers followed precise planning stipulations, to suit their suburban neighbourhoods.

The Black Horse in Northfield is one of the largest 'Brewers' Tudor' pubs ever built. It is set by the side of the A38, one of the principal approaches to Birmingham, and was designed to cater for coach parties and passing motorists as well as for local residents. The sizeable pull-in drive was originally gravelled so charabancs - horse-drawn vehicles or early motor coaches, often open-topped - could park there.

Family attractions

Although dating from 1929, many of The Black Horse's features are typical of the reformed pub type of two decades earlier. Inside The Black Horse are a series of bars, dining and function rooms, including a reproduction medieval great hall, which was used as the smoking room. The quality of the workmanship is high, with examples from some of the best stone and wood carvers in Birmingham at the time.

At the centre of the ground floor is a service area with counters that open onto each bar room as well as the garden. This arrangement enabled the efficient deployment of bar staff, and also allowed customers to be monitored to ensure that there was no drunkenness.

To the rear of the building, the building's style is attractively designed in Cotswold stone vernacular, a change from the seemingly uninviting blackened Victorian brick of earlier drinking establishments. The Black Horse's exterior garden is terraced, with tables, and a bowling green and club house provide the focus of the garden. These elements are common in the 'reformed' pubs emerging in the early 20th century, designed to encourage visits from all members of a family, young and old.