The Substantial Meal – prohibition and the UK

SUBSTANTIAL MEAL: There have been a lot of fun conspiracy theories about the influence of the temperance lobby on UK policy recently. It is pretty clear that hospitality has been unfairly singled out for tighter covid restrictions than other sectors, particularly retail. As a consequence, the implication is that somehow blame for the continuing pandemic can be significantly apportioned to pubs and restaurants, even though the data that we have seen so far does not support that conclusion. I think that pubs, and alcohol, are being used as a scapegoat by the government, but there are more informed commentators than me writing on the subject right now. I wanted to take a moment to look at the much maligned ‘substantial meal’ provision of current coronavirus restrictions. We are in the Tier system (2nd incarnation) at the time of writing, where Tier 2’s guidelines read:

Pubs and bars may not provide alcohol for consumption on the premises, unless with a substantial meal, so they are operating as a restaurant. 

Government website –

Nobody knows what a substantial meal is. The government have refused to define it, saying the industry knows perfectly well what it means. So once more, they have created an unenforceable regulation and we’ve all been pleased to hear that a scotch egg does in fact count as a substantial meal. Read all about the home delivery scotch eggs I had during the first lockdown here. More to the point, Pete Brown has written an excellent piece about why it’s a waste of time even attempting to define what a substantial meal is.

The Carlisle Experiment

The reason I find this all so fascinating is that this is not the first time that the UK has dabbled with what amounts to the prohibition of alcohol in times of national crisis. It’s also not the first time that this idea that eating a meal somehow makes it safer, or more acceptable to drink alcohol.

During the second world war, our pubs were seen as vital for morale. They were even allowed to stay open during air raids! Cast your mind back to the sheer joy that you felt, or saw on Twitter, as the first lockdown gradually lifted and people were able to sup their first pub pint in months. I think we can all appreciate the verisimilitude of the idea.

During the first world war, things were very different. Chancellor (and later Minister of Munitions) David Lloyd George started a very public campaign against the drink. There were fears that alcohol was having a negative impact on productivity for the war effort. This was at a time when wages were rising for key workers like those in ship building and munitions factories. Workers were urged towards moderate consumption of alcohol in areas where there was nowhere else to spend their pay packets but in the pub.

Local Restrictions

While the national rules enshrined in the Defence of the Realm act are argued to have had an impact, more localised restriction were also tested to deal with specific hotspots. Ring any bells? in the area of Gretna (the site of an important Cordite factory) and the city of Carlisle (where the munitions workers were getting drunk and disorderly, leading to poor productivity in the factory). In June 1916, over an area of 300 square miles, the state took control of the drinks trade. The Central Control Board took over the 5 breweries and 363 licensed premises in the area. 40% of the pubs were closed as they were deemed too difficult to manage or adapt, and off sales were banned.

Known as The Carlisle Experiment, it aimed to force people to consume alcohol moderately by controlling access to it. New rules were set for the pubs which were allowed to open. This included restrictions on opening hours and the sale of food being encouraged. Any of this sound familiar? The advertisement of alcohol was also prohibited, while the strength of drinks was reduced and prices were increased. Games rooms and entertainments were encouraged to break up the drinking. Prices were also fixed to prevent competition between venues driving prices down.

The Substantial Meal

Food taverns were opened to act as the model premises. The first was the Gretna Tavern which opened on July 12 1916, while other pubs adapted their offer. The Gretna opened for breakfast and we know 75% of its takings came from food sales in April 1917. A ‘Working Girl’s Cafe’ on the first floor of The Pheasant sold cheap hot lunches to local mill girls. This is particularly interesting as food was still scarce outside of the munitions areas. Many of these female workers would have been sending money home to help feed their families.

CAMRA in the Two Tailed Lion Leicester

As well as introducing a new type of pub, the Carlisle Experiment also had a lasting impact on the shape of pub interiors. Multi room pubs being ripped out in favour of single room, open plan spaces. These were easier to supervise.

The scheme was arguably a success. It was set up as a temporary programme but in the event was extended long beyond the war. The scheme existed in law right through until 1971. Interestingly, the Temperance Movement actually argued against the scheme. They were angry that it was encouraging more women to use pubs for the first time. Others argued that reducing the number of pubs and access to alcohol doesn’t necessarily reduce alcohol consumption. This is reminiscent of some of the arguments around minimum unit pricing today. There really is nothing new under the sun!

Temperance Movement

‘The nationalised public-house is, in a city like Carlisle, the inevitable rendezvous of such women with all that alcohol plus vice means in terms of race poisoning by alcoholism and syphilis, potential crime, suicide and domestic tragedy These Women’s Bars instead of being. . . . the safest and most modest place in a public-house, are just the deadliest and most shameful.’

Rev W Stuart

There are some documents relating to this in the National Archives which I would be interested to see. Of course I can’t get there right now because of living in a Tier 3 area! I would be fascinated to find a menu and see what counted as a Substantial Meal during the Carlisle Experiment.


Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

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