While they were ‘over here’ helping with the war effort and bringing Britain victory, thousands of servicemen and women from the USA, Canada and other allied countries were stationed in hundreds of locations across the country.
Rummaging through dusty tomes (and I do rummage) I have over the years come across a goodly number of references to allied servicemen experiencing life in an English pub for the first time – and then going on to enjoy it again and again. In this short article (yet another fragment of a much larger ‘work in progress’ relating to the pub in the war years), I examine a handful of servicemen’s views on that most English of English institutions but particularly focusing on the diary of American serviceman Robert S. Arbib, Jnr.
Arbib was stationed at Debach, Suffolk in 1942. On his third night there he and six colleagues decided, strictly against regulations, to wander into the countryside. They wandered as far as the village of Grundisburgh and there they were ‘officially welcomed to England’ at “The Dog”. Arbib described what he and his colleagues saw as he entered the little pub:
‘We found three or four small plain rooms with wooden benches and bare wooden tables. Each room connected somehow with a central bar – either across the counter or through a tiny window. One of the rooms had a dart board, and another had an antique upright piano. We went into the room with the dart board and ordered beer.’
News that ‘the Yanks had arrived’ spread quickly and soon the front room was filled with young men and farm workers in rough clothes, whilst the back room was occupied by ‘old gaffers, and their evil-smelling pipes’. The saloon bar filled with family groups, ‘casuals’, young couples and women. Arbib wrote of the aftermath of this ‘welcome’, ‘[H]ow we got home up the pitch-black country lanes to our tents ..I cannot recall.’
Clearly Arbib soon developed a taste for the English pub. When he was transferred to Watford, Herts, Arbib frequented “The Unicorn”, a small public house comprising of four rooms which included a Public Bar that he described as ‘a plain room with plain benches and tables.’ According to Arbib, “The Unicorn” was ‘typical of this entirely British institution’, a pub most definitely for beer drinkers ‘with a dart board thrown in for sport and conversation’. Apparently all in Arbib’s Company agreed that the pub was ‘a good thing, a great idea, [and] both a social and democratic institution.’ Indeed, Arbib piled further praise on to the pub when he wrote
‘The public house means much to England – as a meeting place, a poor man’s club, a public forum, a sanctuary and a retreat; it fills a need for companionship and social life in villages where there is little other, or in communities where the average home is not pretentious enough to welcome guests.’
It seemed strange to Arbib that there was so little ‘visiting’ done in England as there was back home in the United States. However, he appreciated that the village pub partly fulfilled that role by providing ‘a common living room for all friends’ which enabled them to meet ‘without any invasion of privacy of the home.’ Arbib recognised that this was founded upon an entirely different system of living to that which he and his countrymen were accustomed to and he realised that to try and reproduce the English pub anywhere else would surely fail. Indeed, he wrote, ‘…those Americans who dallied with the idea of introducing the public-house institution to American life soon realized that it would never work’.
As a darts historian, I cannot leave this brief examination without a reference or two about visiting servicemen and darts. (Indulge me momentarily please.)
Edie Beed, whose family ran “Ye Olde White Lion”, Bradninch, near Exeter, for six decades (1918-1978), recalled the presence of the overseas visitors in the village during World War Two. The servicemen occupied Nissen huts which had been built all around the cricket field and found Edie’s pub ‘much to their liking.’ One evening a customer asked an American soldier if they played darts or rings (quoits) in his country and the man replied, “No, we don’t throw nothing at walls.”
C. G. McLean served with the Canadian army in the Second World War and was stationed in various parts of the UK. During that time he was always able to find ‘a friendly pub’ where he and his colleagues were warmly welcomed and where locals were always ‘willing to show us how to play [darts]’. Indeed, McLean took the game home with him and in 1997 was still playing in two darts leagues; one at his local branch of the Canadian Legion and the other where he lived in a complex in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
Dan Drozdiak of the Royal Canadian Air Force) was posted to England in 1943, originally to Bournemouth where he and his friends spent many happy hours playing darts in pubs. From Bournemouth Drozdiak was transferred to the Canadian Overseas Postal Depot at Wembley. Such was his enthusiasm for this ‘new’ game that he declared in a letter to me that he and his friends ‘would sooner play darts then eat’ and formed a formidable team. His which went from strength to strength. ‘We were very successful’ Dan told me, ‘We met all pub challenges and, I don’t wish to brag, but we seldom had to buy a round of drinks.’ When he returned home after the war, darts became very popular in Legion clubs and in 1997, Drozdiak was still playing darts in his hometown of Duncan, B.C.
Both the institution of the English pub and the pub games played within them brought much pleasure to those who came over to the UK to help defend our country in our darkest hours. It is interesting to note that it has been impossible to replicate the traditional English pub across the ‘Big Pond’ but note too that the development of the traditional steel-tip game of darts in both America and Canada has also proved problematical.
© 2008-2019 Patrick Chaplin
Arbib, Robert S. Jnr. Here We Are Together – The Notebook of an American Soldier in Britain (London: The Right Book Club, 1947)
Beed, Edie. 70 Years Behind Bars (Bradninch, Devon: Published by Author, 1984)
Drozdiak, Dan. Letters to Patrick Chaplin dated 9th and 18th September 1997.
McLean, C. G. Letter to Patrick Chaplin dated 11th September 1997.
Cartoon source and credit:
Undated cutting. Exact source and details unknown but believed to the work of Sgt. Dick Wingert, c. 1944 and the main character is ‘Hubert’. Wingert drew cartoons for the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes.
Undated cutting. Exact source and details unknown but believed to be from an edition of War Illustrated c. 1944.
The original version of this article appeared in the Pub History Society’s Newsletter Spring 2008. For further details about the PHS and how to join the Society please check out www.pubhistorysociety.co.uk.