The trend of popular legislation is in the direction of the diminishing of the number of licensed premises and the destruction of inns. Very soon, we may suppose, the “Black Boy” and the “Red Lion” and hosts of other old signs will have vanished, and there will be a very large number of famous inns which have “retired from business.” Already their number is considerable. In many towns through which in olden days the stage-coaches passed inns were almost as plentiful as blackberries; they were needed then for the numerous passengers who journeyed along the great roads in the coaches; they are not needed now when people rush past the places in express trains. Hence the order has gone forth that these superfluous houses shall cease to be licensed premises and must submit to the removal of their signs. Others have been so remodelled in order to provide modern comforts and conveniences that scarce a trace of their old-fashioned appearance can be found. Modern temperance legislators imagine that if they can only reduce the number of inns they will reduce drunkenness and make the English people a sober nation. This is not the place to discuss whether the destruction of inns tends to promote temperance. We may, perhaps, be permitted to doubt the truth of the legend, oft repeated on temperance platforms, of the working man, returning homewards from his toil, struggling past nineteen inns and succumbing to the syren charms of the twentieth. We may fear lest the gathering together of large numbers of men in a few public-houses may not increase rather than diminish their thirst and the love of good fellowship which in some mysterious way is stimulated by the imbibing of many pots of beer. We may, perhaps, feel some misgiving with regard to the temperate habits of the people, if instead of well-conducted hostels, duly inspected by the police, the landlords of which are liable to prosecution for improper conduct, we see arising a host of ungoverned clubs, wherein no control is exercised over the manners of the members and adequate supervision impossible. We cannot refuse to listen to the opinion of certain royal commissioners who, after much sifting of evidence, came to the conclusion that as far as the suppression of public-houses had gone, their diminution had not lessened the convictions for drunkenness.
But all this is beside our subject. We have only to record another feature of vanishing England, the gradual disappearance of many of its ancient and historic inns, and to describe some of the fortunate survivors. Many of them are very old, and cannot long contend against the fiery eloquence of the young temperance orator, the newly fledged justice of the peace, or the budding member of Parliament who tries to win votes by pulling things down.
We have, however, still some of these old hostelries left; medieval pilgrim inns redolent of the memories of the not very pious companies of men and women who wended their way to visit the shrines of St. Thomas of Canterbury or Our Lady at Walsingham; historic inns wherein some of the great events in the annals of England have occurred; inns associated with old romances or frequented by notorious highwaymen, or that recall the adventures of Mr. Pickwick and other heroes and villains of Dickensian tales. It is well that we should try to depict some of these before they altogether vanish.