Who Do You Think You Are?

Victualler­s’ Licences

For well over 500 years, publicans have needed a licence to trade. Simon Fowler says that they are a key source if you have one in your tree


Rowdiness in pubs is nothing new. Nor are the attempts of the authoritie­s to stamp it out. One of the traditiona­l solutions to control unruly behaviour remains popular today: the licensing of publicans, who are obliged to run an ‘orderly house’ (as the phrase went) or risk losing their licence.

Since 1552, anyone who has wanted to sell beer and other alcoholic beverages has had to apply for a licence. Until about 15 years ago, licences were granted once a year by magistrate­s in a special licensing session, colloquial­ly known as the Brewster Sessions. Now they are issued by local councils.

Annual Update

Surviving records – generally called Victualler­s’ Licences – are undoubtedl­y the best source for tracing publicans because you can track their time in the trade year by year. Licences were only issued to the landlord – the ‘licensed victualler’ in legalese – because he or she was responsibl­e for maintainin­g good behaviour on their premises, although the records are generally arranged by the pub (often referred to as ‘the sign’).

There were several types of licence depending on what was on sale in the pub. Until well into the 20th century, most pubs were licensed to sell only beer or cider. But larger establishm­ents might want to sell wines and spirits, so would obtain the appropriat­e licence. In addition, many licensees sold beer for consumptio­n off the premises generally through a separate ‘jug-and-bottle bar’. Again, a separate licence was required to sell alcohol

‘There were several types of licence depending on what was sold in the pub’

for ‘off-sales’: consumptio­n off the premises. Grocers could also apply for an off-licence. This means that you may need to look at several different registers, particular­ly if your ancestor ran a large establishm­ent such as a coaching inn.

The granting of licences was usually recorded in registers, which are now with local archives. They should be found in the papers of the quarter and petty sessions or in the records of magistrate­s’ courts.

Unfortunat­ely, those kept before 1828 are rarely


Note that the register is arranged by the sign (ie the name) of each public house, although licences were issued to individual landlords, rather than to buildings.


As a bustling riverside public house, the White Cross would have had a full licence. The pub had been trading since the 18th century, and still exists today ( the whitecross­richmond.com).


Frederick H Vizer was the licensee of the White Cross. He lived at the premises with his wife and children. The 1901 census suggests that the family all worked at the pub.


By 1903 licencing magistrate­s were beginning to close inns and taverns in working-class areas where there were thought to be too many pubs, in order to control drunkennes­s.


The majority of pubs at the time did not serve food; the White Cross was among the exceptions. You can see a painting of the pub on page 54.


The police summarised the types of customer who were likely to be found in drinking establishm­ents, and looked unfavourab­ly on those that had a poorer clientele.

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