openDemocracyUK: Feature

Pubs, police and radicals: a long history of eavesdropping

As pubs across England reopen their doors, we must look to the past to reconsider their futures

Keith Flett
19 May 2021, 3.58pm
For centuries whenever the Left met in pubs, the police were also there
Edward Simons / Alamy Stock Photo

After a pandemic-dictated period of closure, pubs have this week reopened indoors in England and Wales. Some – those that sell mainly beer, with little or no food – have been shut since the first lockdown in March 2020. And some will not reopen at all.

The COVID legal requirement in force in England for periods last year, that you could only drink in a pub if you also had an ill-defined “substantial meal”, also brought into relief the extent to which many modern pubs had already been forced to rely heavily on food for their profits, given that tax is a major element of the cost of drinking.

But the debate also highlighted the persistence of older assumptions and manipulations of the contested role the pub plays in society. As the doors reopen, it is worth thinking about what kind of pub we want, in future.

Pubs are sites for informal gatherings; for social, and socially controlled, drinking. But they are also sites in which global breweries (“big beer”) and the PubCos are free to make profits (and avoid taxes on them where they can), even as the tax on beer in the UK – paid for by the ordinary drinker – is the second highest in Europe.

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This past year has also heard echoes of the historic temperance-related view that if you eat, you will drink more responsibly. And of the view that pubs where drink, not food, is the focus, attract the ‘lower classes’.

And who knows what such persons get up to, discuss, plan and plot in such places?

A short history of pub surveillance

One group of people with an interest in that question is the police. For centuries, when the Left met in pubs around the world, the police were also there.

The current SpyCops hearings in London revealed – along with grim details of the police officers who used false identities to befriend, sleep with and have children with left-wing women activists – the extent to which police also infiltrated and spied on the Left by gathering information in pubs. Based on evidence from the Autumn 2020 hearings, Tom Foot of the Camden New Journal surveyed all the pubs in which radicals had met and undercover police officers had also drunk in, observing the minutiae of Left life, making notes, and passing them on to superiors. There were a considerable number of such pubs, a particular favourite being the one that is now Camden Brewdog.

And there is no reason to think the police spies are not still listening in. Which is good news for historians, perhaps, but concerning for those who have may have thought they were having private and personal conversations.

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Police intelligence gathering in pubs is a practice with a very long history. The London Corresponding Society (LCS), a federation of radical reading clubs that sympathised with the French Revolution, met in pubs in central London, including the Globe Tavern in the Strand in 1794. When leading LCS members were put on trial for sedition, the government had a full report of events at the Globe, which involved upwards of 500 people sitting down to a dinner on the first floor of the pub, with speeches and toasts. The report came partly from an informer who was present.

The LCS laid down a pattern of radical meeting places that largely persists to this day. Pubs were chosen because they often had a room that could be used at low or no cost and could provide space for relatively private discussions. The alcohol and food consumed is a reminder that such gatherings had a wider convivial purpose – though one, it should be noted, which was more welcoming to men than women radicals of the time.

Much of the discussion and planning for the 1819 Manchester demonstration at Peterloo took place in pubs, too, with politically directed police spies and informants often present, most famously the man known as ‘Oliver the Spy’. The class divide was on clear display, of course – those who owned breweries and ran pubs were rarely in sympathy with democratic sentiments, and many, known as the Beerage, actively supported the Tory party. Some of the yeomanries who charged the crowds on horseback at Peterloo, killing and injuring demonstrators, were publicans who had reputedly encouraged drinking amongst their compatriots beforehand.

Two years later, when the Cato Street conspirators plotted to assassinate the entire British cabinet in revenge for the massacre at Peterloo, both police spies and conspirators drank porter in the same pub, the Horse and Groom off Edgware Road in central London.

The 1830 Beerhouses Act loosened legislative restrictions, allowing for pubs that primarily sold beer, leading to the opening of many new pubs. And again, they often served as meeting places for radicals, including the growing pro-franchise Chartist movement – and thus, to a flowering of sources of information for government agents and freelance informers.

In 1848, after a huge Chartist rally for the vote on Kennington Common, a series of summer meetings were held in pubs in central and south London to plan an armed revolt in central London. The revolt was scheduled for Seven Dials off Oxford Street that August, but failed because the government, having infiltrated their meetings, knew all about it. William Cuffay, the Black leader of London Chartism, was arrested and sentenced to transportation to Australia.

So where do we go? An alternative future for pubs

In response, the Chartists developed a counter-strategy. They held large outdoor meetings well away from city centres where the police spies hanging around were much easier to spot.

The strategy was quite effective – but meetings were chilly and damp, compared to the pub. As anyone who has been for an al fresco drink in England at a pub in the last month may reflect, outside meetings are OK, but only up to a point.

The radical and working-class movement continued to meet in pubs, which were cheap and convenient places to gather – both in England and elsewhere. Writing in ‘Red Banners, Books and Beer Mugs: The Mental World of German Social Democrats, 1863-1914’, historian Andrew G Bonnell notes that: “A particularly valuable source of working-class opinion is the collection of police surveillance reports of workers’ pubs in the Hamburg State Archives”.

This past year has also heard echoes of the historic temperance-related view.... that pubs where drink, not food, is the focus, attract the ‘lower classes’

Inside the pub is more comfortable and warmer, but what kind of pubs, ours, or theirs?

In recent times, partly thanks to the efforts of the 170,000 strong Campaign for Real Ale, it has become possible for local communities to take control and run pubs themselves.

A pub under threat – of redevelopment for flats, for example – can legally be declared to be an Asset of Community Value, whilst campaigners see if they can organise a buy-out. In some successful cases, pubs are run as community co-operatives and are genuinely inclusive spaces.

As pubs reopen this week, perhaps this is something to keep in mind over that pint – while planning with others how to stop the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, too.

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