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Enfield’s nationalised pubs

Discussions of alcohol consumption are prominent in today’s society, with many commentators arguing that the binge drinking culture could be curbed by stricter management and restricted opening hours for pubs. The idea of limiting alcohol intake is certainly not a new one, however. Stuart Bowes explores a scheme that, in 1916, sought to regulate drinking in four Royal Small Arms Factory [RSAF] pubs in Enfield.

hotel with people stood outside

The Royal Small Arms Hotel, early 20th century

The threat of alcohol

During the First World War it was believed that it was not only the nation’s health that was at stake, but its ultimate safety. Indeed, David Lloyd George (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) declared in March 1915: ‘We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink, and so far as I can see the greatest of these deadly foes is drink’.

In response, the Government set up the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) [CCB] in May 1915 to regulate the consumption of alcohol. Among its powers, including restrictions on licensing hours and forbidding the buying of rounds, was the authority to take licensed premises under state control. This was the State Management Scheme. In the end, this policy was only ever implemented in three areas – Carlisle, Cromarty Firth, and Enfield – all of which housed armaments and munitions factories that were crucial to the war effort.

The Enfield pubs slaking the thirst of the RSAF

It was in Enfield that the scheme was first trialled. On 2 February 1916, four pubs in the vicinity of the Royal Small Arms Factory [RSAF] in Enfield came under state ownership, the Greyhound, Royal Small Arms Hotel, Ordnance Arms, and Swan and Pike. These four pubs were chosen because their clientele was overwhelmingly formed of RSAF workers.

pub on a canal path

The Swan and Pike, early 20th century

The rationale was simple. If workers at armaments factories like Enfield drank too much then productivity would suffer through missed hours and underperformance, leading to critical shortages on the fronts. Government ownership was designed to prevent this damaging outcome through a variety of controls, such as regulating the strength of beer, reducing opening hours, and redesigning interior layouts so landlords could monitor all their customers. In Enfield, for instance, the state-owned pubs were only open for four and a half hours around factory meal times. Spirits were seen as particularly dangerous to productivity given their relative strength. So in a letter of 25 January 1916 to Board of Customs & Excise the CCB related that it had ‘been necessary to remove spirits from Enfield’.

letter removing spirits from The Greyhound pub

Central Control Board Letter of 1916 Demonstrating Removal of Spirits from Enfield © National Archives

The scheme was not all about restriction though. It also sought to improve the standards of Enfield’s pubs for the benefit of its patrons. This was largely pursued in two distinct but related strategies. Firstly, the state-owned pubs were refurbished to increase space and create a more pleasant atmosphere in which punters would feel less inclined to drink to excess. When the Greyhound reopened a member of the CCB, Henry Carter, praised it for being ‘spacious, airy and comfortable’. Secondly, there was an increased emphasis in these pubs on serving food, facilitated by the construction of larger dining rooms. By providing cheap and well-cooked for meals, it would fill the workers up and mitigate some of the negative effects of the alcohol they consumed. After the reconstruction of the Royal Small Arms Hotel in June 1917, its main dining hall was able to seat 600, allowing it to feed 2,000 to 3,000 workers a day.

pub on a canal with a horse and cart in front

The Greyhound, early 20th century


By all accounts these innovations seemed to be received well by both the RSAF workers and the authorities. Following the reopening of the Greyhound a group of workers sent an address to the chairman of the CCB – Lord D’Abernon – commending its sensitivity to the workers’ comfort and even praising it ‘as a model of what all public-houses should be in industrial places’. Likewise, it met general approval from its state sponsors: ‘by general consent the Enfield Lock enterprise resulted in an increase of sobriety, good feeling, and working ability’. Not all were pleased though. The pub owners felt that they had been cheated of the lucrative profits brought by the expanded workforce of RSAF Enfield during wartime. Thus there are hundreds of pages in the CCB documents devoted entirely to discussions of compensation, in which the publicans strongly pressed their case.

man walking a horse along a canal with pubs in the background

The Swan and Pike (left, in background) and Ordnance Arms (right), early 20th century

A short lived experiment

In spite of the support of most of those affected, the scheme was not to last. Unlike in Carlisle where the State Management Scheme lasted into the 1970s, in Enfield it proved relatively short-lived. Reduced demand at the end of the war saw the Ordnance Arms and Swan and Pike close in 1919. Finally, in 1922 the two remaining pubs were returned to private ownership. Enfield’s experiment in state-regulated drinking was over.

It may be nearly a century since the State Management Scheme in Enfield ended, but there is much it can still tell us. The crucial significance of factories like RSAF Enfield to the British government during the First World War is demonstrated by the fact that ministers were willing to invest manpower and resources to regulate just one aspect of the workers’ lives that could have a detrimental effect on armament production. The importance of pubs as the linchpins of communities is evidenced by the great interest with which the RSAF workers followed the scheme and supported any alterations to these cherished institutions. Furthermore, it provides us an opportunity to investigate the inner workings of this unusual and tightly-knit society based around a government arms factory. Ultimately though, it shows us how we are not that different from our forebears in our desire to have a drink.

This piece has been created from research undertaken during the Royal Small Arms Factory (Enfield) Roll of Honour Project. This project, carried out with the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund, seeks to uncover the lives of the workers at RSAF Enfield during the First and Second World Wars. A major part of the project is investigation of the documents, photographs, and objects concerning the factory held in the Royal Armouries collections.


Kew, National Archives, HO 185/208
Kew, National Archives, HO 185/339
Tim Putnam and Dan Weinbren,  A Short History of the Royal Small Arms Factory Enfield (London: Centre for Applied Historical Studies Middlesex University, 1992)

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