Shades, dives and other varieties of British bar

The public bar, for working men only

When I lived in Hertfordshire, I was puzzled to discover that around the time Edward VII ended his long wait to become king, there was a pub in the small market town of Baldock called the Pretty Shades. It seemed highly unlikely this was some sort of pre-First World War Tiffany lamp theme pub. So what was the origin of the name?

Years later I discovered that a “shades” was originally the name given in the South of England to a basement bar. According to Words, facts, and phrases; a dictionary of curious, quaint, and out-of-the-way matters by Eliezer Edwards, published in 1882

The name originated at Brighton. In 1816 a Mr Savage, who had acquired the premises in Steine Lane formerly occupied by the Old Bank, converted them into a drinking and smoking shop. Mrs Fitzherbert [the Prince of Wales’s mistress] at that time lived exactly opposite, and Savage was fearful of annoying her by placing any inscription in front of his house designating its new character. It struck him, however, that as Mrs Fitzherbert’s house, which was south of his, was so tall as to prevent the sun from shining on his premises, he would adopt the word “Shades”, which he accordingly placed over the door where the word Bank had before appeared. The name took, and a large business was secured. Numbers of other publicans in London and elsewhere adopted the name Shades, which is now fully established in the language as a synonym for wine vaults.

I’m not sure I believe that, but the Oxford English Dictionary confirms that “the Shades” was “originally, a name for wine and beer vaults with a drinking-bar, either underground or sheltered from the sun by an arcade. Hence subsequently used, both in England and in the US, as a name for a retail liquor shop, or a drinking-bar attached to a hotel.”

John Badcock’s Slang: A Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit …, published 1823, revealed two establishments called The Shades in London. One was at London Bridge under Fishmongers’ Hall (“Sound wine out of the wood reasonable and tolerably good are characteristics of this establishment”), while The Shades at Spring Gardens [presumably the Old Shades, Whitehall] “is a subterranean ale shop.”

By 1949 Maurice Gorham could write, in Back to the Local, that “Shades” was “originally a generic term for cellars, now the name of one famous pub at Charing Cross [the Old Shades again] and of various London bars. When used for one bar in an ordinary pub, roughly equivalent to Dive”. So that explained half of the mystery. I’m still looking for a reason for the “Pretty” part.

The saloon bar, for the white-collar worker and his wife

The “shades” was just one of more than a dozen different types of bar that could be found in British pubs, besides the common public bar and saloon bar, many with careful, strict social gradations from one to the other, with a system of purdah and caste strict Hindus would appreciate: no woman would ever be found in the tap room, for example, nor any man coming straight from manual labour in the lounge or the public parlour, while only the landlord’s intimates or regular customers would be served in the snug.

Maurice Gorham stated perfectly the situation as it still stood just after the Second World War:

“One of the most fascinating things about the pubs is the way they are carved up by interior partitions into the most unexpected and fantastic shapes. It is often quite startling to look up at the ceiling and realise that all these compartments, varying so widely in their geography and in their social significance, are merely sketched on the ground plan of a simple rectangular space. Pull down the partitions, and instead of a complicated series of bars you would just have a medium-sized room.”

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