A row of hand pumps on a pub bar at the Woodman pub Birmingham
Detail of the bar at the Woodman, New Canal Street, Digbeth, Birmingham, a grade II-listed pub of 1896-97 © Michael Slaughter LRPS
Detail of the bar at the Woodman, New Canal Street, Digbeth, Birmingham, a grade II-listed pub of 1896-97 © Michael Slaughter LRPS

The Public House in England

This page highlights one of England’s best-known and best-loved building types – the public house or ‘pub’ – and the increasingly vulnerable position it holds in our historic environment.

Historic England has been carrying out a series of internal and external projects to increase understanding and protection of pubs.

The level of threat

Pubs have closed in huge numbers across the country over recent decades, especially in urban and suburban areas. In 2009, a record number of 52 pubs a week closed.

This number has now fallen – research carried out in late 2012 by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) showed that 18 pubs were closing each week. However, the level of change remains significant, and has a notable impact on the historic environment and the lives of many people.

The result of pub closures has been a steady stream of conversions, with many historic features and fittings being lost in the process. It is especially common to find that former pubs are converted to restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets, something which currently requires no planning permission. In numerous other cases, pubs have simply been demolished, their grounds often providing ample space for residential blocks, supermarkets or nursing homes.

Why are pubs closing?

The closure of pubs has its roots in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the British government – influenced by the temperance movement and a growing awareness of the ‘evils’ of alcohol – actively sought to reduce the number of public houses.

Throughout the 20th century, other factors have contributed, such as:

  • Social change, and a broader range of forms of social entertainment.
  • The smoking ban, introduced to England in 2007.
  • Excessive rates of beer tax, which has increased by 42% since 2008.
  • Discounted alcohol sales by supermarkets and other shops.
  • The high and rising value of pub sites for redevelopment, especially in urban and suburban areas.

What is being done?

Various groups have responded to the threat to pubs. One of those is CAMRA, whose current campaigns include ‘List your Local’, encouraging people to nominate pubs to be listed by local authorities as ‘assets of community value’. This can help save a pub by providing communities with extra time to explore options before a building is sold or demolished.

Other champions of the public house include the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) and the parliamentary Save the Pub Group, chaired by Greg Mulholland MP.

Projects on the English pub

Inter-war pubs

This project, completed in Spring 2015, assessed the level of threat to pubs across the country and sought to increase understanding, awareness and protection of this building type. See the resulting research report on inter-war pubs. Around 30 of the pubs investigated were recommended for protection through listing.  You can read more about the listing of these inter-war pubs in our news section.

Post-war pubs

Historic England carried out a project on England’s particularly vulnerable post-war pubs to complement the inter-war pubs project. It focused more on raising levels of understanding and appreciation.

A number of post-war pubs were subsequently listed.

19th and 20th century Bristol pubs

This project was commissioned by Historic England from external consultants and was completed in 2015. It identified and assessed significant pubs of a range of types and dates, and aimed to raise awareness about the history and development of Bristol’s pubs, and the threats they currently face.  See the project report on Bristol pubs.

19th and 20th century Leeds pubs

A second externally commissioned project looked at the pubs of Leeds, and had the same aims as that assessing the pubs of Bristol. The project was completed in summer 2015.

The Public Houses of the State Management Scheme 1916 – 1973

This project investigated the buildings of the state management scheme, started in 1916 to control the supply and sale of alcohol in certain key areas – notably Carlisle, Cumbria, where the scheme lasted until 1973. See our research report on the pubs of the State Management Scheme.

England’s Pubs: part of our history, part of our future?

On June 15th TDR Heritage (with Shropshire Council) and Lincolnshire County Council have planned a one day event for the national beer day, Beer Day Britain.

This will be a symposium live over the web with speakers covering a broad range of topics from the historic place of the pub in the landscape to the hard economics of a modern business.

Rural pubs are a key part of the English landscape and they’ve been under a lot of commercial pressure in recent years – worsened by the impact of COVID-19 across the hospitality industry. Sometimes the historic significance of old pubs is only revealed when they are demolished or converted to new uses, at a point where the magic of a pub as a place where community comes together, a place hosted by the landlord or landlady, is already lost.

Historic England is funding two projects to investigate the past and future of rural pubs. These are focused on the contrasting landscapes of coastal Lincolnshire (Inns on the Edge) and rural Shropshire (Inn Sites).

These projects deploy a combination of heritage knowledge and specialist commercial expertise to understand the pressures on these businesses and the opportunities for them to thrive and innovate in a challenging environment. The Lincolnshire Project will also explore the landscapes in which these historic pubs sit and how publicans, locals and visitors make these places.

These projects are intended to help pub operators, communities and local authorities to sustain rural pubs as going concerns, not frozen in time, but with their special physical and social qualities intact.

The symposium is free but you will need to register.

Register for the pubs symposium