Transcript for 37a

I have been asked, over the years to talk about Beer. I don’t know what your memory is like, but I find that I remember some tiny irrelevant things that should be lost in the mist of time with complete eye watering clarity. Normally they are embarrassing things I did which I’d really, really like to forget. And yet mega important things are lost to me within a couple of weeks such as, just for example, the age of my children. I do not know why this is – and don’t tell my children who fortunately, and utterly predictably, don’t listen to this podcast. Anyway, I have remembered that request for a podcast on beer for I think 5 years. There is no limit to the fundamental weirdness of life, of which this is but a small example.

Anyway I was then asked to do a talk on Escape for the Intelligent Speech conference earlier this year, I had a think and I remember a recommendation from a mate called Timmy through the fog of my panic, about the role of alcohol in helping people to escape the realities of life – ‘one to take the edge off’ as the expression goes. And so I thought why not callously murder several birds in their bushes with one stone from my hand, and write about the English and drinking generally? So that, gentle listeners, is what I propose to do. I will talk a bit about Beer in that, but also other drinks like the outrageous amounts of rum people used to drink. Are you ready for an anecdote by the way, just to get you all in the mood?

There was this Anglican clergyman from Norfolk of the 18th century called James Woodforde, who kept a diary. James records in his diary that his niece once unfortunately had an attack of sickness and vomiting. So, what to do? Well James had a strong belief in the efficacy of alcohol for medicinal purposes – a tendency which still resolutely survives the attack of science even now, but which used to be yet stronger. So James prescribed to his niece to cure her sickness half a pint of rum. Half a pint ladies and gentlemen, half a pint, even allowing for a possibly watered-down version, impressive even for the lads and lasses on Butchergate in Carlisle late on a Saturday night. Sadly, despite his help, his niece continued to spew, who’d have thought it after half a pint of rum, and so nothing daunted and inspired by the English love of the amateur, James prescribed more rum, as you do, this time laced with ginger and rhubarb. Now I’m a fan of Rhubarb as it happens, but predictably this did not do the job either!

Not quite sure why I told you that anecdote so to get back to it, I’ll talk about the kind of drinks, the environment in which drinking took place, and how drink fitted into daily life. Obviously, it’s a big subject so I will be super guilty of summarising, but there’s quite a literature around the topic. The rather obvious theme, if there is one rather than me just prattling on about real ale, is how drinking, and where drinking happens changes in line with social, cultural and economic conditions. So drinking for example is heavily gendered for most of the time, as reflecting the gender politics of society; it’s heavily affected by class and income and all that, and throughout, as you listen, I want you to repeat the line ‘must join CAMRA and you are also required to wear open toed sandals while also wearing socks and shorts. I realise that’s a harsh requirement, but I think fair.



Let us start then with the reputation of English for drink. Now to the casual observer it might appear that the English do not like or value the French for example, and indeed the English are often accused of Xenophobia – with some justice on occasion, as evidenced by the Peasant’s Revolt and the search for people who could only pronounce cheese in the style of a Fleming. But in fact I have to tell you that this is a long way from the truth, and the truth is that secretly the English admire, love and respect the French. There’s evidence for that in surveys; in 2020 a survey showed that when asked 61% rated the French positively, and only 25% negatively. Quietly we think the French are cultured, sophisticated, great at sex and dressing nicely and have a much better attitude to the work life balance. Actually, the French don’t hate us as much as we think, in the same survey 56% of them were positive about the British, as opposed to a ‘they suck’ rating of 28% which I’d argue after Brexit is something of a result. Sadly, while I’m on the topic, the Germans are not keen; while the French might call us ‘les rosbfis’ the Germans I am told call us the Apes from the Island which is a little rude. But it’s the Scandinavians we really love to bits, and who quite like us too, so Skol!

Anyway why on God’s Earth am I wittering on like this? It is clear that I have become a podcaster because as my mother noted, I am just over fond of my own voice. The point I am trying to make is that the English feel quite self conscious about their own reputation for drinking, specifically because we have a reputation for binge drinking; Frank Dobson, the politician, reflected a generally held belief when he said that the English ‘have been binge drinkers since time immemorial’, and we look to southern Europe and admire the fact that they seem to be able to drink in a cultured, controlled, affable sort of way. Although the truth is that in comparison to the total per capita consumption in Europe, 13 other countries in Europe have higher consumption than us Brits, and a doctor will tell you it’s quantity that knackers your liver come what may, forget the nuance of binge vs a steady stream. The French in the 1860s drank 15 gallons more of wine than the English did of beer, plus they also drank half as much beer and twice as much spirits, so who’s got the drinking problem now then? But still, somehow drinking fits into everyday life in southern Europe. Whereas our habits reflect that, as Michael Macintyre observed, you can pretty much use any word in the English language as a word for getting drunk. Try it out with the objects around you. ‘Good lord, darling, I got absolutely microphoned last night’. See what I mean?

Anyway, our reputation for hard drinking is well established whatever the stats tell us. It seems to have started as early as the 8th Century; here’s the English missionary St Boniface who wrote home from his travels on the continent

In your dioceses the vice of drunkenness is too frequent. This is an evil peculiar to pagans and to our race. Neither the Franks nor the Gauls nor the Lombards nor the Romans nor the Greeks commit it [1]

I’m reasonably sure the Greeks got frequently microphoned as it happens, but hey, that’s St Boniface. William of Malmesbury reckoned the English blew the battle of Hastings because they were half cut, and John of Salisbury in the 13th century wrote that

The constant habit of drinking has made the English famous among all nations

For once, I have found a use for Shakespeare; here’s Iago. Potting by the way is slang for drinking, rather demonstrating the point I have just made; ‘by gum Othello, I was absolutely potted last night’. Anyway, that’s not the immortal bard, here he is

I learned it in England, where indeed they are most potent in potting: your Dane, your German, your swag-bellied Hollander, – drink ho! – are nothing to your English. [2]

Interestingly enough, Daniel Defoe also mentioned the drinking habits of the Dutch and Germans before writing

But I believe I may venture to challenge all the world to show the like quantity of beer, and ale, and wine, and cider, and brandy, arrack and Geneva, and other strong waters, consumed in so narrow a compass of land, or among an equal number of people as is now in this country of England

I think I may have made my point, if you needed any persuading, but just a few more to hammer the argument home, to punch the brusie. First of all, to convince you that this is not just the English view of themselvs, here in 1598 is Paul Hentzer a visitor to Britain

Beer is the general drink and excellently well tasted, but strong and what soon fuddles.

Clearly Paul couldn’t hold his ale. And that, my friends, is an example for you of the largely male attitude in my experience that drinking loads without dying is the ultimate sign of manliness. Just making sure you’re all with me. That reputation has survived into modern times; a survey by the British council in 2014 found that drinking too much was the most commonly selected option of English problems from respondents in Brazil, China, India, Germany and the US.

Obviously, such a performance should probably be a matter of shame but really, it ain’t. In fact it is a sign of national pride. In that we were not alone of course; the Scots are known for their identification with whisky, the French with wine, or is that whining – jokes, jokes don’t email me – but for the English its beer. Sydney Smith declared in 1823

What two ideas are more inseparable than Beer and Britannia!

A drinking song meanwhile expressed the same sentiment while displaying the traditional confusion between English and British:

Let us sing our own treasures, old England’s good cheer

The profits and pleasures of stout British beer

Your wine-tippling dram sipping fellows retreat

But your beer-drinking Britons can never be beat

I feel like going on a bevvy right now. It should be said that we are not alone at any point of history. A hieroglyph survives from ancient Egypt of a woman vomiting while seated, while her attendants come up to offer another cup of wine, which is of course super impressive; for the Egyptians, getting legless was what it was all about.[3] As far as the Greeks were concerned, Wine was part of what civilisation was all about; the Persians drank beer, and that made them barbarians. In fact the way you drank your wine even, was essential; the Thracians drank their wine undiluted, and that made them barbarians too.

Beer of course will play a major part in this narrative, and is the alcoholic drink earliest recorded, and recorded back at the start of civilisation with the Sumerians. So, let me tell you this, and see if you can guess what it is

A dog walked into a tavern and said ‘I can’t see a thing. I’ll open this one’

What that is, is the very first example in history, from the Sumerians again, of this

Horse goes into the pub, goes up to the bar, and the barman says ‘why the long face’

i.e. the fine genre of animal walks into the bar jokes. Sadly, we do not know why the Sumerian example was funny; fashions in humour change all the time, and certainly over 4,000 years. Quicker than that actually, since, for example, I was made aware that my favourite bar joke is in fact not funny, though let me try it anyway

Meat and potato pie goes into a pub, asks the barman for a pint of ale and the fish and chips please. The barman shakes his head and says ‘Sorry we don’t serve food here’.

How can that not be funny? Just tell me that?

One of the reasons for the importance of beer was that it used just to b an aid to having a good time, since though I’m told it’s possible to have a good time without drinking, though not sure I believe it, but instead beers was a core part of the daily diet – both the need for liquid and for calories. I have been confused by a sort of low level war going on about the contention, often made, that people had to drink alcohol in the Dark and middle Ages because the water was undrinkable. There has frequently been scorn poured on this concept – of course people drank water some say, and yet the opposite view persists, a bit like the erroneous idea that Cromwell cancelled Christmas. Well, in the finest British tradition, I would like to propose a compromise; that often water was useable, but supply could be of uneven or uncertain quality, given the various uses of a stream, and ale was anyway preferred. One Abbot Aelfric had a dictum that comes down to us:

Ale if I have it, water if I have no ale.

There’s another reason – which was that ale was a fundamental source of calories; in fact, the other name for ale, beer, come from the latin root, biber, to drink, so fundamental was beer as a drink. Ale, then, was made from water and usually barley malt; though an alternative was wheat, oats or a combination of barley and oats known attractively as dredge, a name which isn’t really selling the thing if I’m honest. The drink was of frankly very variable quality and really very little like what we’d call ale these days. It was dark, and thick, like a soup or even porridge; I understand that the Viking women that served ale in the drinking halls of the mighty bearded ones did so through a little sieve they carried round their necks and I can’t express what a gross thought that is. The taste sounds as though it definitely required some work to be acquired; so grim was it that ale was frequently flavoured to make it more palatable. Just one of those flavourings incidentally was the humble hop, with its bitter taste, but there was stuff like yarrow, or horseradish in particular.


There’ll be a story there, if you give it a minute, watch this space. For the moment, though I feel the need to share a poem about ale. It was written some time ago by a Cornishman, who of course consider themselves to be part of a gentle, lyrical Celtic tradition rather than the more basic and functional Anglo Saxon, they are in close harmony with finer feelings:

Ich am a Cornishman, ale I can brew

It will make one to cack, also to spew

It is thick and smoky and also it is thin

It is like wash as pigs had wrestled therein

Poetry is so purifying for the soul, don’t you think?

Once you’d acquired the taste of your ale, it made good food was the point, better than bread. It was easier to make than bread, it contains plenty of vitamin B; it’s easier to digest because of the action of the yeast, it stores well and the alcohol kills the bugs so it’s healthier. QED. Though in point of fact, ale didn’t last very long – maybe 2 or 3 days before it went bad.

In the dark age and Medieval times, Ale was therefore ubiquitous. The whole population drank it – children, women, men, monks. As one historian put it ‘most people drank most of the time’, and this meant that it was part of daily life, and goodly quantities were drunk of it. Sailors, Soldiers, monks servants seem to have been allocated a gallon a day – 8 pints for the younger among you. Even the aged and poorest lived on the stuff; so at the hospital at Chester an allowance of ale was made for ‘the sustentation of poor and silly persons’ amounting to half a gallon on ale a day. Consumption also seemed to be rising; harvest workers in Norfolk in the 13th century were allowed 3 pints daily; after the black death it was six pints.

So you might think that everyone was therefore wandering around completely trolleyed. Bu You might reflect that drinking was by and large steady all day; also the alcoholic content was different to today’s beer. Sadly, it was higher. Estimates vary, from 8% by volume, which is quite high by modern English standards, maybe not so wild by Belgian standards, but even then, still strong. However, the mitigation for this one, was that there were two types of ale – the thick stuff and the thinner stuff; children, women, servants were often given the weaker ale, while the ones who desird hairs on their chest went for the strong stuff. It’s not quite clear what the relative strengths were; but by the 17th century, there is identifiably Strong beer, with was even stronger at 10-12% which is mighty even for Belgians; and small beer, which seems to have been about 40% of the beer brewed, which was a mere 2%. By this time it should be noted that consumption had fallen very considerably from the Dark ages, with an average consumption of maybe 15 pints a week.

Now you might have noticed that my parlance has changed from Ale to beer. That was not idle talk, possibly costing lives, it was very deliberate. And let me take you to Bavaria to explain why.

Monks generally speaking were big beer drinkers, brewing up to maintain a large community, and therefore they developed considerable expertise; I’m going to mention Belgium again, where I think the tradition is maintained. Anyway the scale of this production led to a certain amount of expertise and Bavarian monks in the 8th or 9th century rediscovered something the Egyptians had known – that hops made a great flavouring for beer; far better than, for example, the frequently used bog myrtle. The hop gives beer a bitter flavour, which is now worshipped by Hipsters all over the western world. But critically, hops preserved the ale much longer; until that point the only way of increasing the life of ale had been to increase the alcohol content, but it went off in a matter of days; if stored well, beer could be kept as long as a year, and the benefits were therefore immense. Beer for a while then was specifically different from Ale, in a way it isn’t really now – although we’ll come back to CAMRA at some point.

Anyway, beer spread throughout Europe, the Czech hop being particularly prized, but it took a while to be adopted in England, we are a stubborn lot as our incomprehensible systems of measurement demonstrate; even in the 16th century, long after beer had become popular in England, people were still moaning about the new fangling going on; in 1542 one Andrew Boorde complained of Beer that

Of late days it is much used in England to the detriment of many English people

He went on to complain that it killed people and ‘doth inflate the belly’, and I can certainly confirm the latter at the very least, it doth inflate the belly alarmingly quickly, and my belly sadly, doth inflate. But then there is no pleasure without pain.

But by the 16th century ale had retreated before the deluge of beer to just specific purposes and uses rather than general consumption; William Harrison in 1577 noted that it had become an ‘old and sick man’s drink’ and its last use was in northern counties in the 17th century, and beer and ale had once more effectively become the same thing, the words interchangeable.

Ale and beer then were very much an integral part of medieval life, drunk in great quantities, and in many places. The production of ale was very different to today; most production took place at home or at the place of work. So large estates would brew for both the household members, and estate workers; contracts might include specified amounts of ale and food to be provided. The same applied to institutions such as monasteries, schools, university, hospitals, asylums, workhouses and the military – all over the place essentially. Private production remained a major part of the production of drink well into the 19th century, it’s not just a matter of your Dad’s revolting homebrew. It also meant that when beer was for sale, the producer and the seller were mainly the same; when you made some ale, you might make more than you need and sell the overs for a bit of extra income.

Brewing was usually the work of the women in the household, she was by and large the brewster, and in towns in particular she would be the one taking ale round to serve and sell to thirsty traders; she might try to do that without the necessity of buying a licence from the burgh in which case if caught she’d be moved on or put in jail. But maybe that’s why we have the word huckster, for someone selling small items door to door, from that ancient tradition of women selling beer on market day, sometimes without proper authority. And incidentally, the -ster suffix as in Brewster, is a gender identifier – a brewer is a bloke, a brewster female; same for spinner and spinster and so on. Quite what went on with the word gangster I do not know.

If you did have an excess of ale available for all,  and wanted to let everyone know, you were required by law to stick an ale stake horizontally above your door with a bit of bush at the end; there might also be an ale bench outside the door, and possibly games like bowls being played; the door also needed to be open at all times, so that passing magistrates could see if anyone inside was doing anything hooky, without actually going in. But basically you were buying your ale from someone’s household.



We have focussed very much on ale, which is of course absolutely fine, but there was some competition from other drinks; but by comparison with ale they were comparatively small beer, boom and indeed if you will, tish. In days medieval the competition was of course wine. Once upon a time there was wine produced in England, mainly on a line south of Ely lets say, but most was imported from Gascony; though there were other places, Italy, Greece, Spain, the Canary Islands. But really wine was the preserve of the posher. And if you wanted to go out to find yourself some wine in a public place you would not look for an ale stake, you would look for a tavern.

By the late middle ages and into the 16th century there were basically 3 types of public drinking establishments; the Inn, the Tavern and the Alehouse; initially at least they were clearly delineated, in law. The Inn was the largest; in 1577, when the first attempt at a survey was done, there were maybe 3,500 of them. The Inn had a legal obligation to receive travellers, and to provide refreshments and accommodation to travellers. Famously of course all of you who have been beaten into reading Chaucer will know of the Tabard in 14th century Southwark, and if you are looking for a history of the earliest names and signs, the Inn is where you should look – signs don’t really start coming to Alehouses until after about 1590. As the road network expanded, so did the network of Inns; by 1700 there might have been 7,000, and by the end of the 18th century, a period of great growth in transport, there were estimated to be 20,000. The owners of inns, unlike those of alehouses, were people of wealth and social status, and the establishments they owned were often big, impressive and at the centre of the town. As an example, I might introduce you to the George in the glorious town of Stamford, which is where Jane and I spent our wedding night, an inn which might trace its origins back as far as the 10th century. The heyday of the Inn, though, was between the reigns of Elizabeth I and Victoria, and you can see in the George a substantial part sponsored by Lord Burghley. The George grew because it was sited on the Great North Road, the modern A1 and so of course had a good supply of travellers; its size and importance is meant that its owners were major figures in England’s most perfect stone town; in the late 15th century John Dickens was three times Alderman or Chief Magistrate of Stamford.

Having said that, there were Inns of very different sizes; so the Spread Eagle at Midhurst in Sussex had just 9 rooms, and slept 25. Even then, they formed an economic and social centre; they were the points of departure and arrival of mail and stage coaches of which by the 1830s, there were 700 and 3,300 in operation respectively. Most of the people staying at Inns would arrive in some way by road; and in fact if you walked, the Inn might well be a bit snooty about it. Poor Samual Bamford, one of the radicals at Peterloo, stopped at the Bedford Arms in Woburn in 1820, and since he was on foot was adjudged NQOCD and refused drink and breakfast. Inns also formed part of the carriage trade – where goods could be dropped and picked up. They were surrounded by local traders that lived off them – blacksmiths, butchers, and a load of other trades, even ale houses serving the servants and staff of the posher travellers.

And then, Inns very often provided the largest and best appointed public rooms or halls in a town, and so were used for multiple purposes, including, I might have you know, for the operation of English justice. You might know that much of English justice was carried out not by important assize judges from Westminster, but at Petty sessions by JPs. You might imagine local justices in grand wooden docks and boxes but no – most petty sessions were delivered in the local boozer, or well, local inn. Timothy Nourse was very upset by this in 1700, and though it most inappropriate, remarking that the justices’ business was conducted

Amidst the smoking of pipes, the clattering of pots, and the noise and ordure of a narrow room infected with drinking and a throng[4]

He complained of the resulting image of a magistrate

Obliged (as may be seen sometimes) to hold a glass in one hand whilst he signs a warrant with the other

It’s a nice breath of reality to those of us who pontificate about the glories of English Common Law. And as well, an illustration of how vital a resource was the inn was to the local community. And as you will know from your Pride and Prejudice period dramas, they also provided venues for theatrical and musical performances, dances, celebration dinners for celebrating things like, oooh, Trafalgar for example; given they were used to celebrate naval victories, as you may guess in England they were always full! He he, just a little nationalistic and militaristic joke there. I could go on; the Inn was a hub for the community and country.

Plus of course people went there to drink, and given the wide range of activities, it was the space used by the widest cross section of society, though mainly from skilled artisans and tradesmen to the ‘middling sort’ and gentry. From the late 18th century though, that began to change, because the number of different spaces available began to expand – theatres, assembly rooms, auction houses, lawyers offices; from the 1830s the arrival of the railways began to see the end of the traditional coaching inn. The middling sort and gentry in particular started to stay away from Inns and go elsewhere. By the 19th century, inns were changing. In 1770, the first hotel opened in Exeter, recently burned down I am gutted to say though being rebuilt, and devoted themselves to accommodation and travellers, their numbers boosted by the railways. Inns through the 19th century if they didn’t close down became hotels or glorified pubs.




Taverns were a favourite destination for the middling sort where they existed; they were there essentially to sell wine, often with food, but their numbers were always much lower – in the hundreds rather than thousands. As you will know from your Shakespeare, and that hideously irritating character Falstaff, the wine sold was not a light, fruity number from the sunlit slopes of the cotes de nuit with a cheeky palate and a hint of blackberry, but instead something called Sack. Sack was pretty much what we call Sherry these days and was imported mainly from our oldest ally, Portugal. Pepys of course gets a look in here spending plenty of time in taverns; in 1668 for example he reported staying at the Bear Tavern, describing it as ‘an excellent ordinary after the French manner’ – which meant dinners courses were served separately. They were frequented by professional folk and politicians, and smart people – Pepys again remarked how ‘many ladies and persons of quality’ had come to the Triumph Tavern. But Taverns declined in distinctiveness over the 18th century; there was competition from coffee houses, and pubs and inns started serving wine, and wine consumption in general declined.

Now Samuel Johnson, a name without whom no podcast on social history is complete, wrote

‘There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good Tavern or inn’.[5]

So we know Dr Johnson was a posh sort of bloke, like Falstaff, but also that he did not drink in the most popular destination – the alehouse. Because the alehouse was by far the most popular type of drinking house until the 19th century, until we begin to see the emergence of that most English of institutions, the Pub. The thing about your early modern alehouse was that it looked just like some one’s house. This is a nice thing, I think, so maybe it would be a good idea to wonder up to some private house once you’ve finished this, and ask them if they’ve brewed any ale recently, and see what happens. The only distinction was the presence of the Ale stick, or from the death of the 16th century, the sign. But when you went inside, it was a house you went into; most drinking happened in the kitchen, with recognisable basic furniture. If you went to the bull and Butcher in Smithfield in 1767 then, you would find that when you went into the tap room to get your pint, you would find the landlady also used the room for the basic domestics, such as to hang up her washing to dry for example; ale houses combined private and public space.

Alehouses were where the majority of the population went to drink, the working classes in the main – though studies suggest that maybe a quarter were from the middling ranks of society. It must be said that the clergy and magistrates might be reasonably disapproving of alehouses, presumably on the ground that people were having way too much fun. Here’s a report on an alehouse in Layston, Hertfordshire

‘a house of great disorders as well in intertayninge of the worst sort of people as also by suffering swearing, gamynge, drunkenness, quarrelling and great suspicion of whoredom’

At the time of writing, after months of lockdown, that sounds just the place for me. Just to make sure you don’t mark this down to an English, censorious attitude towards fun, like you know, Cromwell cancelling Christmas which he didn’t, here’s an Italian visitor in 1669, describing a bigger example of the breed, where things don’t appear to have changed a lot

There are an infinite number of beer shops…these places are not very extravagant and they are almost always to be found full downstairs, crowded with the rabble, and upstairs with every condition of man from artisan to gentleman. They differ in this point from the taverns namely that in those they drink Spanish wine which they call sack, wines of the Canaries, Malaga and Bordeaux and other valuable foreign wines, whilst in the beer shops there is nothing but cock ale, butter ale, Lambeth ale and the like.[6]


Cock ale, incidentally really did include a flavouring of chicken and spices. Not to be recommended I suspect.

The alehouse was a male dominated environment, but again not exclusively so by any means; maybe a third of customers were women; maybe with their husband if married, or with a group of other single women, or as the historian Bernard Capp put it ‘with a respectable young man at a respectable time of day’. But whereas men used the alehouse as a place to escape the constraints of social and familial rules; women would have to obey the social rules.

The larger alehouse might provide basic food and lodging as well; Daphne at our local the Cherry Tree, for example, did indeed provide food in 3 exciting varieties; there was your basic essential, the ham roll, for the more international there was the cheese roll. And if you really wanted to push the boat out, the gold standard called in the form of the ham and cheese roll, so I see her as a proper heir of the early modern alehouse. Daphne was having nothing of the gastropub, like the Rising Sun up at Witheridge Hill which had an extensive menu, and anyway she claimed that was all boil in the bag.

But mainly people went to chew the cud and argue, or play games; this might be bowling, or the landlady would keep a football, or listen up, a set of cudgels. Do not adjust your set, you heard correctly, cudgels. The world was a strange place back then; the aim of cudgels was to ‘break your opponent’s head’, and I quote, mark you, which meant in practice to cut the skin on the head, face or neck so that blood was drawn. Sounds tremendous; ‘I’ll have a pint of ale, bag of crisps, and a cudgel please Daff. Ooh, and I’ll go large with a ham and cheese roll’. For the less violent, there might be backgammon, or shove ha’ppeny; or there might be music, harp or violin; Ballads were mighty popular from the late 16th century, with ballad sheets distributed, or singers coming in; Mary Saxby for example in the 18th century was making a living singing ballads at feasts and fairs ‘for a few pence and a little drink’. Drinking might happen anytime, and one of the biggest battles was about Sunday mornings, a shockingly popular time, but one most seriously frowned on by the church – this was God’s day, and the protestant clergy and the Godly made strenuous efforts to turf hoi polloi out of the local. Often they won, but on occasion they did not; in Staffordshire one day the angry vicar was ejected and chased by the mob

Flinging his hat into the sky, whooping and crying, begone vicar with thy knapsack

Now as Alehouses proliferated in the 17th century, England went through one of its periodic moral panics. The backdrop was the rising population of the 16th and early 17th century, and the growth of a poverty stricken labouring poor; the moral panic was accompanied by a neurotic fear among the middling and noble sort of the many headed hydra of the poor, a fear of social breakdown and rising crime. Together with the religious desire to create the model society, the Alehouse was subjected to a mounting fury of denunciation, matched by policing and regulations that betrayed profound antipathy to popular culture and to its expression in this alcoholic sociability. Alehouses had been subject to regulation by Magistrates from the middle ages as we have heard; but now, recreational drinking was considered illegitimate and fundamentally dangerous. In court records, we see local elites petitioning to limit the way the poor could use alehouses; they identified the time and money spent by the poor on recreational drinking as a destabilizing assault on the local community and economy.

They had a small point I suppose, in the sense that alehouses were indeed centres of popular culture. The atmosphere in an alehouse would be full of libels – scurrilous subversive poems against local dignitaries, newsheets being read out by the literate, and as we’ve heard ballads being sung of great and political events. For another example, a court record records how In June 1632 a number of men were drinking and making merry at a tavern in Rye, Sussex, and they hit upon a scurrilous “lybell in meeter or verses” against some of the godly inhabitants, or “purer sort”, of the town. None of them could write, but they found a fellow-drinker who could, and he agreed to set the verse down on paper. They then spilled out in to the town, and as the subsequent court case described proceeded to ‘maliciously scatter and publish the same verses, to the great scandall of the complainants and of religion”.

In his study Mark Hailwood [7]agrees that women often appeared in alehouses too, but that the culture was often overwhelmingly male, with men drinking a lot in a culture of drinking contests and drinking healths that apparently looked much more like German taverns than French ones.

The alehouse was in summary a very important part of early modern society, it’s significance stemmed from the need and tradition of good fellowship, which was just as important as membership in wider forms of community like the parish or village. Although it was very much a contested institution, by the end of the 17th century effectively the battle had been won against the moral panickers; the alehouse and its role was accepted as a legitimate part of daily life and culture.





By and through the 18th century though, came a lot of change in drinking habits and the choice of drink available. The first big one was the commercialisation of beer. As ale retreated and beer took over, the possibilities for producing and selling beer on a large scale increased. Beer lasted much longer and was more easily transported, and by the later 17th century had taken over almost completely from old ale; rather than importing beer the profile changes to importing hops, so production had gone local; in this we were helped as ever by immigrants – 16,000 Dutch were working in England in the mid 15th century. Consumption remained high, and remained integrated with work; so you took your beer to the fields, drank it in your place of work; it remained an important element in your diet. Servants in Warwickshire in the 1670’s drank 6 pints a day for example, and not only that, but the beer was stronger, though children continued to drink small beer.

The late 17th and early 18th centuries were periods of relative prosperity, and on the back of that and the ability to now commercialise and  systemetise production, a number of brewing centres grew up including Burton on Trent of course; the market became national, with beers in particular being shipped to London from all over the country. Other drinks also profited from this commercial growth – so cider and perry were exported from their heartlands in the West country; Lechlade on the upper Thames in Oxfordshire became an entrepot, as the start of the newly navigable section of the Thames. I don’t think you’d describe Lechlade as an entrepot not, I have to say, doesn’t much have the sense of a Cotswold Rotterdam any more. New variants of beer also appeared, the most significant being Porter. Porter, for those of you not aware, is a dark strong beer invented in London early in the 18th century; from it also comes the word stout, if that happens to be the word you favour, like Guinness Extra stout. It is in my humble opinion, a drink to be avoided at all costs, but the ubiquitous porters of London loved it and remarkably so did may others – Porter spread to Sweden, North America, Ireland and Russia by the end of the 18th century, an English cultural export only marginally less disastrous than Shakespeare. One of those impressed by Porter was of course was a man called Arthur Guinness, who took it Back to Dublin and started brewing. Despite my current view of stout, I have to tell you that on my first illegal underage visit to the Griffin Inn with my mate Simon, this is the first type of beer I drank. It was also the last time. At the time it touched my youthful lips though, it was not quite the same strong stuff it used to be when it had been in the 18th century, when it was maybe around 7% proof.

The increasing commericalisation also changed the social nature of brewing fundamentally; less and less was it the preserve of women to make a bit of extra cash, and it became more and more a full time job with significant capital investment; it became a trade dominated by men – we moved from brewster to brewer. The ale house still remained and the woman’s role there, but less and less was the beer offered brewed on the premises and more and more brought in from outside for resale.

While we are on greater variety, wine remained important in the 17th century, mainly from France and mainly in the form of Claret, a word which came to mean the wines of Bordeaux, and has been described as the wine of Restoration England. It was the preserve of the posh still – the quality of your cellar was an indication of your success in life. However as you might have heard, the 18th century wasn’t a great century in terms of relations between England and France and wine eventually got caught up in that and lost out. Generally of course the existence of a loser indicates a winner – though is that necessarily true? Never mind, in this case it was, and the winner was port. Now port – there’s a drink and a half, give me a port and lemon on a Saturday night. Well, hold on the lemon to be fair. Britain had a great love affair with Port and with Portugal as it happens; in the 18th century 70% of wine came from Portugal, gorgeous rich, dark, sweet stuff, 14-17% proof. In the 1780s there were 40 active British wine firms, and the very name, Port, probably comes from the Portuguese town of Porto. Yum and I say again yum, I would love to drink more port. Pitt the Younger was famously an inveterate guzzler of port. He was probably addicted to it, drinking tumbler fulls before going into the House for a session. The Playwright Sheridan was the same. But port was quite widely available, with about a third of publicans taking out a licence by 1800.

Finally in the wine area, Sherry or Sack stayed popular; it was a genteel sort of drink and outgrew Port’s popularity once more in the mid 19th century. I remember as a kid being regaled with a story about a poor as churchmice couple for whom the very last thing they would abandon was to offer their guests a glass of sherry, as a sign of their gentility. I don’t know how true it was, but the genteel quality of sherry was typified by Victoria and Albert – they are almost sherry made flesh.

The other most dramatic change of the 17th-19th centuries was the explosion of spirits – strong waters as they used to be called which is a nice way of putting it, though Brandy also used to be a generic term for spirits, since so much of the spirit drunk was Brandy imported from France. In 1700 the estimated share of the market for spirits was just 5% – by 1745 that had risen to 22%.  Whiskey sems to have first appeared as aqua Vita in the reign of James IV in Scotland and one hundred years later around 1600 there was one bar that served it in England that we know about; production and consumption grew in the 18th century in Scotland and after licencing laws changed in the 19th century sales grew strongly in England.

[1] Brown, Pete ‘Man Walks into a Pub’ p34

[2] Jennings, P The English and their Drinking p

[3] Forsyth, M ‘A Short history of Drunkeness’ p 40

[4] Sharpe, J Crime in Early Modern England p126

[5] Forsyth, M A short history of Drunkenness’ p134

[6] Brown, P Man walks into a Pub’, p79

[7] Hailwood, M Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England

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