So we ended last time on the verge of another moral panic, one of those great social events of English history – the Gin craze. Because in England the ‘strong water’ tipple of choice spiritually speaking, was Mother’s Ruin; we are going to have to talk about the Gin craze. Gin was a present to the English from the Dutch, apparently Gloriously brought over with William III in 1688; the name comes from the French for juniper, which works into jenever in Dutch, of which Gin is a shortening. Gin became toweringly popular in the early 18th century, until legislation brought it under some sort of control by 1760; but it stayed around and had another resurgence in the mid 19th century; and it seems to have revived in a reasonably controlled sort of way recently, with loads of local types and flavourings. But in the early 18th century it put England, particularly London in a right old panic, and there are horrendous records of death and mayhem as the lethal alcoholic content caused chaos among a population used to beer. For example, there’s a record of an agricultural labourer arriving in London and falling in with a bunch of locals; London at this time was quite extraordinarily different from the rest of Britain – 600,000 people crammed into a range of housing from decent to slums and shanty towns, when the next biggest town was 20,000 strong. So you get the scene – rural bumpkin used to drinking nothing stronger than ale arriving in the big smoke for the fun and sport of the city slickers.
In the resulting court case, the city slickers were recorded as challenging the country lad:
In a frollick, as they call’d it to drink 3 or 4 pints of gin, giving him a shilling for each, which he had no sooner done but he fell down, and died immediately
Which you would I guess, 3 or 4 pints of Gin would do me for sure; and if this sounds excessive, which it is of course, at some point, in London the adult per capita consumption was estimated to be 2.7 pints of gin a week. Even worse, the Gin was stronger than it currently is; the way it went was that you bought your spirit from a malt Distiller; and then you re distilled it, producing a liquid even stronger than gin today; you added flavour using a variety of spices, notably and traditionally juniper, but also other substances with a kick – such as sulphuric acid which does, you know, kick. At the start Gin was completely unlicensed and so it was dirt cheap, and as you can see, easy to make; so you set up a Gin shop, and away you went. Gin shops, and dram shops as they might be called, were basic places, often with no furniture at all, so they sprang up everywhere. In St Giles in the early 18th century, an area of London just south of the British Museum, 20% of the rooms were estimated to be Gin shops. Gin was served in quarts, quarter of a pint that is, called a quartern. Now I have always believed that in here is the origin of the phase for being drunk, one over the eighth; this is because when I was a lad I set up a youth club, and we had a bloke telling us stuff one evening about Victoriana; he told us you could also buy Gin in an 8th of a pint – so if you had too many, you’d have had one over the eighth. QED, However, the interweb doesn’t agree with him. Whatevs, sounds convincing enough to me. The following week by the way we saw someone from the Green Party who told us the world was going to an end, with which the interweb does now agree.
Generally speaking, the early 18th century was a period of rising prosperity, but you wouldn’t know that if you lived in a shanty; Gin took the edge off plus some, and was dirt cheap, so as the expression went ‘drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence’ which is you know, a classy advertising jungle which might get you in trouble these days with the Advertising standards agency.
The Gin Craze worried social elites, and to illustrate the extent let me turn to two very famous paintings, by a chap called William Hogarth, a Londoner who was born in 1697 and died in 1764, neatly bookending the Gin Craze. Hogarth is one of the most popular and well known of English painters, and at least in part because his series of paintings like A Harlot’s Progress and A Rake’s Progress are such immediate, universal themes, so vivid and intricate, yielding endless little details. They are rich with social commentary, bawdy, caricature, satirical; with a heavy moral message. Gin Lane and Beer Street are part of a pair, holding a rather straightforward message – really you don’t need to be a genius to get the point. They are both on the website by the way.
Gin Lane is a chaos of depravity, poverty, despair, avarice, moral degradation and exploitation. In the foreground is the most shocking image of all that draws the eye and makes the point; a harlot, with syphilitic sores on her legs, is too far gone to notice the baby slipping from her grasp as she cares for nothing but a pinch of snuff. And the image has some horrid truth to back it up from court cases, of abandoned babies and infanticide by desperate mothers. A skeletal pamphlet seller sits by her too drunk to sell his pamphlets, which are ironically all about the evils of drink. In the background a pawn broker robs a housewife of her vital kitchen utensils for a few pence to feed her habit, while the only other successful businesses are said Pawnbroker and the Distiller, aptly named Mr Kilman.
Contrast that with Beer Street – full of healthy, hardworking individuals, and with workers enjoying a thoroughly well deserved beer after solid day’s labour – honest trades, Blacksmith, Butcher, Drayman; the only business suffering is the pawnbroker, who looks poor and downtrodden in the face of honest beer. There’s a strongly nationalistic tone too, for Hogarth was not shy of a spot of patriotism – there’s a union flag, it’s George II’s birthday and the worthies are drinking his health. One sub text here is that Beer Street is the home team, good English stuff, not like these vicious foreign imports. A scrawny Frenchman is being ejected from a house, and a ballad being sung. The patriotic verses at the foot of the print would generate these days a strongly worded contemptuous and disparaging article in the Guardian or New Statesman if given an airing:
Beer, happy Produce of our Isle
Can sinewy Strength impart,
And wearied with Fatigue and Toil
Can cheer each manly Heart.
Labour and Art upheld by Thee
We quaff Thy balmy Juice with Glee
And Water leave to France.
Genius of Health, thy grateful Taste
Rivals the Cup of Jove,
And warms each English generous Breast
With Liberty and Love!
There you go, fine verses full of literary merit.
Hogarth himself commented these paintings that he meant to
‘reform some reigning vices peculiar to the lower class of people, in hopes to render them of more extensive use
It is interesting to remember that the standing attitude at the time was that addiction to drink was a moral failing, not a disease as we see it now, something that happens to someone; in Hogarth’s day and for some time beyond it, addiction was something one did to oneself. The Gin Craze also feared because it was not governed by any of the normal gender rules that applied to drinking elsewhere – it was completely unisex, hence the very female orientation of the victims in Gin Lane.
So legislation began to follow. It started from 1729 and progressively tried to control or ban the sale of Gin. But Sellers found ingenious ways to get round prohibitions, which have echoes of the 20th century prohibition in the US. So one was the puss and mew approach, where the seller put a tube under the sign of a Cat on the side of a building on the street. The customer sidled up and spoke into the speech tube under the cat and asked for their share, as the Gin seller relates, he hears the words from the street below:
‘puss, give me two pennyworth of gin. I instantly put my mouth to the tube and bid them receive it from the pipe under the paw, and then measured and poured it into the funnel, from whence they soon received it’
By the 1760s, though, the craze was largely legislated out of existence, and as you can hear there’s a distinct class angle to it. The ruling classes were terrified with the disorder they saw, and the vice they associated with it.
Legislation then reduced excessive use of gin, so that it became much more a part of the general choice; and the 18th century of course was when people started having much more choice; one of those was for West Indian Rum which became madly popular as Gin fell away, rising from 3% to 21% of sales by 1770. Alongside rum then developed that most famous tipple of the Jolly Jack Tar, Grog – which was essentially watered down rum, and given out in rations and as rewards to said JTTs. I have a couple of fab facts about Rum, both I think potentially dodgy but hear me out. Legend has it that grog was invented by one Admiral Vernon in 1740; this is the story quoted in the OED, and the word Grog was selected because the admiral wore a grogram coat. A what I hear you ask? Apparently it’s a kind of fabric where the weft is heavier than the warp. Fancy. Grog was useful, because on long voyages water became slimy and algae infested – so Grog made it palatable.
Second fab fact about Rum. You may or may not know that there is a Scottish island called Rhum, which when I was a lad was spelled Rhum rather than Rum. Well, before that, and again now I think, it was always spelled Rum – no h. The h was added by the outrageously Victorian George Bullough, who inherited the estate in 1891. George didn’t like being laird of an alcoholic beverage. So he changed the spelling. Good lord.
At the same time the demand for punch also fell away; I was interested to discover that punch was really popular in the later 17th century, probably brought by sailors and employees of the East India company. The word punch is a Hindi loanword for five, because punch had a 5 ingredients – alcohol, often rum as it happens, sugar, juice from either a lime or a lemon, water, and spices; so popular was it that there were even places specialising in its sale, Punchhouses. Punch in my experience formed a useful indicator of when to leave a party which usually coincided with the point where someone was drunk enough to add beer to the punch, which is just not a great idea.
And there was a greater range of non alcoholic drinks as well – Coffee had appeared in 1650, Chocolate in 1657 and tea in 1660 which contributed to a gently growing sobriety, which largely continues to this day – despite the qualities of cheap larger my daughter’s friends got through at a party a few years back.
Gin stayed around of course, but for most of the time it was sold alongside other drinks, along with the emergence of the public house.
Beer though remained the main drink of the mass of the population, though consumption gradually and consistently fell; by the mid 19th century consumption was probably down from the 1700 figure of 15 pints a week on average, to a much more reasonable 5 pints a week; and although it’s not obvious so far from what I have said, the trend for drinking alcohol is a general and steady reduction over the centuries, of which more later. What caused then this fall in beer consumption over the 18th century? Well private brewing declined significantly – not everywhere at the same rate but in general it did. But meanwhile the buying power of the working classes did not increase in the later 18th and early 19th century, while the price of malt was high, and employment difficult, especially after the end of the Napoleonic wars; until the creation of cheap Beerhouses after the 1830 beer act, consumption gently fell.
Ok let’s pause there for a moment and talk again about where people drunk and the emergence of that institution which has been described as distinctively English – the public house, or Pub. Is it distinctively English I might ask? Distinctively British maybe I’d argue; my experience of Scottish pubs, I have to say was that they were rather scuzzy more like a bar than a pub, without wanting to be rude, but I should note also that the last time I was in Scottish pubs consistently was in the 80’s and a lot of things including English pubs and you know, music, were scuzzy back then. Just joking about the music. But your Scottish pub looked, sometimes felt and smelled like a bonefide spit ad sawdust pub. I’d say more so in in Wales, and I have to say the most traditionally English pub I have been in over the last 10 years was in the west of Ireland. That is a culturally very complicated statement, don’t shout at me for it. So let’s compromise and say distinctively British shall we, though comments welcome and really that should be distinctively archipelagic rather than British.
These days, we rather panic about the general decline in the number of pubs; so many have closed, and those that remain have to focus on stuff like food to make ends meet; the spit and sawdust pub is something of a rarity now, and Daff’s culinary skills with a crusty roll and a slice of cheese no longer cut it. I might quote Brakespeare, my traditionally local brewer, who now outsource the production of their excellent beer, an focus on screwing their tenant landlords to floor, and if oh, they fail to thrive, then sell the property for development at vast cost. And yet every year the Henley Standard I am told, celebrates their profit margins. At the cost of everything that really matters of course. I may be libelled.
There are other reasons of course, around cost and competition from other venues and from home drinking; none the less it is not new, numbers were falling in the early 19th century. But then along came a new act, the Beer Act in 1830 which lowered excise duty and made licencing much easier for very simple places that just sold beer and nowt else. The desperate attempt by Wellington to gain popularity for the Tory party of the day was part of a big increase in the number of on-licence premises and took us to the highest number in England and Wales – 118,000, of which 50,000 were simple beer houses, and about 70,000 fully licenced public houses; about one place for every 192 people. To give you a point of comparison by 1970 there were 61,000 pubs, and beer houses had disappeared; there are now a bit below 40,000 according to Auntie, and it might be that a corner has been turned in the decline; as they say in Carry on Movies we might have reached the bottom.
Public House is a name we can start to use from later in the 19th century; it’s probably a contraction of Public Alehouse. That is an alehouse any member of the public can go in to; and pub a contraction of that. The pub changed dramatically through the 19th century to become the place we know now, driven by many reasons national and local, but here are a few of them. One is that the distinction between Inn, Alehouse and Tavern disappeared; Inns were eaten by hotels or become pubs; Taverns lost their trade as wine became available elsewhere, and public houses emerged as publicans increased the attractiveness of their hostelries by selling a wide range of drinks. You can even get a cup of tea in a pub these days, even if it is like drinking wee. Investment also increased in public houses through the Tied house system – where the brewers went for vertical integration and bought up pubs who could only sell their beer – though of course free to sell whatever other drinks they liked, but where the publican was basically a tenant. As in my Brakespere’s mini rant. That is the source of the term Freehouse, which sometimes confuses visitors into thinking they are in for a load of free beer; Freehouses are not tied, and so can offer what they want.
So with the investment by brewers in the late 19th century, you get an evolution in the design of pubs; at the start and during the beer house stage, the only difference between a house and a pub was the sign outside; you’d then go into a small house with a tap room and a parlour, like the alehouses of old.
The early Victorian fully licensed public house was more complicated; it might have some accommodation for travellers, so it’d have a traveller’s room; it might serve food so there’d be a kitchen; then you’d have the tap room and parlour for those who wanted to sit. There might also be a bar; but that’s not originally a shiny thing with beer and little cloth mats all over it, but the office where the publican did his sums. As the business of selling drink became more sophisticated, pubs grew, or were even custom built. You’d have the public bar or tap room, and a lounge bar; this would be often a gender neutral space which appealed to couples and women; it was sometimes called a smoke room – now those were the days. Pint, bag of crisps and a fag, happy days. There’d maybe also be a music room or games room. You might have also a snug, formally a quiet room where you could enjoy a pint in peace, or carry out some business; but it might also serve for more nefarious purposes where members of the oldest profession came to pick up clients.
In the 20th century the sophistication and often size continued, and the bar became something different; the idea of the barman bringing out your creamy pint to your table was dead, and the customer was required to go to the taps themselves at what was now called the bar, and wait for their turn. This gave the opportunity for the highest form of expression of the both English national sports, I talk of course of queuing and of social awkwardness all into one place, as you shuffle and tut and eye roll your way into the Barmaid’s attention. I’m normally a fan of English social mores, but I can’t help thinking we got this one wrong; although if you’d ever seen me try to get a waiters attention in a French bar, you might not agree; I’ve always thought that if you are desperate not to be seen by anyone, a French cafe is the place for you – I certainly immediately become invisible. Anyway, if OI refer to Kate Fox one more time, the remarkable thing about the crowded English bar, is that magically despite the vast numbers a stench of beer. Absolutely everyone knows exactly who is next. Next to Douglas Adams’ interstellar drive powered by Bistronomics – based on the principle that a bar bill is never what you expect it to be – it seems to me that this English talent for knowing who is next in line ought to be something that could power the world and escape climate change. Incidentally, to stop mindlessly digressing, if you would like to see some sample layouts, hi thee to the history of England website.
The revival of enthusiasm for Gin also gave rise to another phenomenon of the highly decorated and elaborate pub, with tiles, lights, brass fixtures, large mirrors, frosted and inscribed glass; places of real architectural glory and glamour. Elizabeth Gaskell describes one in her novel Mary Barton
The light which streamed in from its enlarged front windows, made clear the interior of the splendidly fitted up room, with its painted walls, its pillored recesses, it’s gilded and gorgeous fitting up
Gaskell described the building as a Gin Palace and the phrase stuck – you can see such pubs around very often, certainly in London. They catered for and were much favoured by women, and although the pub was generally still a very male environment women made up maybe a third of the clientele. Meanwhile the pub became more and more the preserve of the working class, despite competition from working mens’ clubs; as a parliamentary enquiry of 1852 put it
No person above the rank of a labouring man or artisan would venture into a public house
One of the reason why working mens’ clubs were popular was that they were more orderly – no passing trade as it were, everyone knew each other. None the less, am increasing value placed on orderliness within Victorian society affected the Pub too, as the search by all social levels including the working class for that complicated concept called ‘respectability’ grew. Early in the Victorian period pubs were often associated with crime, prostitutes and blood sports – cock fighting, dog fighting and the like; unregulated beer houses were the worst offenders, but a police report had 350 pubs in London logged as centres of crime. As the orderliness of pubs increased, their use after the 1st world war by women increased too. Improved standards of living and brewers’ pub improvement programmes led to increasingly well appointed facilities including would you believe, nice toilets. Now there’s a thing. Did I tell you that I went back to a pub on holiday I had not visited since I was 12 or something, called the Hero, and the first thing that hit me was that despite the dramatic change in décor, the outside loos smelt exactly the same as when we’d hung around outside hoping someone’s dad would send us out a bag of crisps.
Obviously not a top anecdote, but basically sensible publicans noticed that the quality of the bog is important. The war years saw the pub finally as being a respectable place of leisure rather than a centre of crime; as such the use of the word the ‘local’ become popular; a sign once more that after all the drunkenness and gin crazes and blood sports and prostitution and all that, the pub was once more simply a centre of the community.
Despite the decline in the number of pubs there is plenty of room for optimism. Sure there’s much greater competition now from other venues and activities, and the deadly drinking from home and the appalling cheapness of crappy larger and bloody awful fizzy joke beers, the ones you have to keep as cold as the artic circle, otherwise you might, oops, realise they don’t taste of anything, and you’d probably do better by weeing in your soda stream and putting it in the fridge for a while. Am I overdoing the rant? Anyway yes, optimism. Pubs are now much more open to everyone; younger people for example became largely absent during the Victorian era and as you can hear from the billiard room the blighters are back; mostly pubs are gender neutral these days. In the 1990s the pub remained the most common free time activity outside the home, and of course microbreweries are making the beer available much more exciting, but we’ll come to that. Also in a major new initiative I can announce that once lockdown and medical problems are over, I will be making sure I visit the Crown for a pie and a pint at least once a week. So, the public house industry in South Oxfordshire is saved.
So I have been wandering around the beer question for a while and I did not want to make this a history of beer, but I cannot resist a few key things to mention. In no particular order, the first thing, just very broadly indeed, is something about the about the consolidation and globalisation of brewing. Brewing production, although increasingly commercialised had remained very local and regional for a long time – so the stout Newkie Brown for example, big winners in the North East. Also the ubiquitous name for an English pint, Bitter came from the regional source, coming from the gypsum soaked waters of Burton on Trent, whose beers were first called bitters – much lighter in appearance and texture than the old Porters, and with a stronger hoppy flavour, hence the title bitter. At a similar time arrived a more hoppy beer, produced by many brewers such as one called George Hodgson, who did a roaring trade in particular with the East India company. The beer being so hoppy was better designed to cope with the long journey to India and cope with the hot weather when it was there. Thus was eventually born India Pale Ale, the phrase first used in 1829, which we now know as IPA. Craft beers have made a Goddess of the stuff.
On the subject of commercialisation, we have a Canadian called Eddie Taylor who changed the local nature of British brewing after the 2nd World war with a company called Carling, and may his name live in infamy and his soul burn in the 7th circle for eternity. Not rally, I’m sure he was a lovely chap, love animals and so on, it’s commercialisation I’m kicking against. Anyway Eddie went around buying up other companies and turned Carling into a behemoth. British brewers fought back, so you got the domination of the market by the big six, massive conglomerations of breweries with multiple breweries and thousands of tied pubs. I don’t want to go into this because it’s all too painful, but the quality of beer really suffered through this big brewery approach, or at least the variety; so one of the big 6 was Watneys’ who I believe had a pint called Red Barrel, and when I was at school there was a naughty joke about Red barrel and making love in a punt which modesty forbid me to repeat but which was not, repeat not, complimentary. After that come increasing globalisation; now I don’t want you to think of me as a little Englander, although like J B Priestley I would be perfectly happy with the label, because I don’t think globalisation is entirely bad; but I don’t like the fact that all the major British brewers are in foreign hands, and the market has been flooded by a waterfall of cheap crappy foreign beer. So, there’s me with my socks and open toed sandals proudly displayed.
On the other hand, the variety of great beer is way better now than it used to be when I was young. Now I have to admit to something here, that while when it comes to history I wok hard to be balanced, I have never been balanced about beer. From an early age I have considered English ale to be the only ale worth drinking, and everything else sucks. With age comes I am told a more closed mind and rigid opinions, and I have to say that in the beer area I may be going t other way. So for example I might not like Belgian beer very much, but I appreciate it has a craft and love in it; and I’ve been able to get some German beer which while a lighter, larger type beer is really tremendous, though it can be quite standard, but they seem to me, just my opinion, the way light beers ought to be, although I struggle with Weiss beer I must admit. And then American and Australian beer I am sorry to say I have always despised from the heart of my bottom, but look two things; firstly it’s been pointed out that the Australians, and indeed Danish, export all their crappy beers and keep the rest for themselves. And then I had a drinking session Brooklyn, and has a succession of superb and varied dark ales that had me in bed for a week. So, maybe I am becoming a little more prejudiced.
Which brings me to larger, since German beers are of course larger beer, and back to those Bavarian monks, in the 15th century this time. Fermentation had always happened at the top of the brewing vessel, producing a large creamy head you had to remove before storing the beer; the yeast, which was at the time I believe called Godisgoode, I suppose because it’s such an extraordinarily magical thing that it does, was creamed off one batch and used for the next so you got some consistency of taste. Here then is a fab fact for you; the frothy creamy head was called the barm. So if you wanted to insult someone by suggesting their head was full of nothing but froth – well you called them barmy. QED.
However, in warm weather in particular the yeast often went bad, and spoiled the beer; this could well have been that the barm at the top was particularly susceptible to horrid foreign agents and bugs. Well that’s not good, so the monks experimented brewing the beer at a lower temperature and found it worked; but that also the yeast sank to the bottom after a while – and it turned out that the combination of yeast falling to the bottom protected by the alcoholic beer and the lower temperatures reduced the spoiling of beer; and it produced a more consistent controlled beer, though took longer; and so was stored during the process – which was called largering in German. So, QED, larger. And as you’ll probably know larger swept the British market later in the 20th century, though strictly it should be known as Pilsner larger, since it tends to follow the process developed in Bohemia.
Anyway, so the world of beer was very different from the heavy Porter of the 18th century, and certainly from the porridge of the original ale. However, there is one more abomination visited upon us by the commercialisation of beer – keg bitter. So you may know the difference, but traditionally, British beers was served in your pub from the cask. While in the cask it was still active; you had to be careful about how you kept it so that the sludge at the bottom didn’t get mixed back up into the pint you were served, but it was tasty, varied beer with a life and individuality to it. But the big companies didn’t care about that, they were saving a few quid by both cutting the alcoholic content of beer, and also employing less skilled staff. To make that work they changed the process. The beer was pasturised, filtered and chilled; so it was inert. Then it’s popped in its container and carbon dioxide pumped in so that it’s a bit fizzy. It’s controlled, inert, stores longer and you don’t have to worry so much about your pipes, storage and maintenance skills. And it’s tasteless but who cares as long as you make a few quid and keep the shareholders happy. Sucks.
So that was the situation in the 70s, which co-incidentally was the time I was starting to drink beer; honestly I have never been much of a connoisseur. But over, say the last 10-15 years I have had a fantastic time when I can try some beer; because of the microbrewing revolution. Now wherever you go really look on the interweb or yellow pages and you will find reference to a local microbreweries, producing wonderful, local individual beer that usually tastes a million dollars. This is partly due to an organisation called CAMRA.
What happened was that in the 70’s four angry young men from Manchester set up a group called the Campaign for the revitalisation of Ale – CAMRA. They campaigned hard about the sucky beer that the corporations were giving us in the name of happy shareholders. CAMRA were very good at marketing, even better than the mega funded campaigns the corps gave us – many of them rather good I have to say; one of the things they invented was the name Real Ale, and changed their name to the much snappier Campaign for Real Ale. They got results; consumers knew they were being sold short, and the big six had to respond with better beer; the government took action to break up the tied pub system which they saw as monopolistic, so these days when I go into the Griffin, very rare because I don’t live there any more, I have a range of ales to choose from, not just Everard. But most of all, CAMRA gave back a sense of pride in their beer to the English. For many of course, beer is simply a better than water drink which gets you merry, and if you don’t mind drinking swill it’s as cheap as chips. But now if you savour your beer and want to enjoy something that is individual, in England and elsewhere I dare say, you now live in paradise; there are now more breweries there have ever been in modern times – 1900 of them in the UK, and it’s absolutely superb, and I will eat my liver with HP sauce before I put a can of Carling Black label, Heinekin, Molson, Castlemaine 4X or Budweiser to my lips. You heard it here first.
I accept that I am getting a little ranty – I formally apologise. There is one thing that confuses me though, which is the Craft Beer thing. Because while I am floating away on cloud nine with all the beers made with local pride and love, discord has crept into my life, and it’s called craft beer. I hop along to a microbrewery full of excitement to buy some lovingly produced local beer. Disconcertingly, there is not an open toed sandal in sight, and there’s a distressingly high proportion of carefully coifed beards and a smell of beard oil. Plus the beer, described in remarkably florid style and warbling endlessly about the hops, often appears to be served in the devil’s goblet of plague, otherwise known as a pressurised can. The beer almost always tastes far too bitter – presumably explained by the warbling about the hops en route, I suspect, to the various courses on the competitive advantage and market segmentation to which the beards have been. Or alternatively, its got chocolate in it or other substances that frankly, makes me yearn to have my old bog myrtle back. I could be wrong and am ranting again, but I learn that while Real Ale must be a cask beer, Craft beer can be produced any damn way you like as long as the brewery is small. So I am conflicted. On the one hand, I respect craft breweries for their love and no doubt great skill and inventiveness, and accept they are walking the path of righteousness. But it’s not for me I have to say, and for me it is Real Ale breweries that are walking the path that rocks.
I should finish this section then with a reference again to CAMRA and where they are. CAMRA have 170,000 members and are the largest single interest group in the UK, but of course 1972 is a while ago, and CAMRA is getting a little longer in the tooth; so as you may have guessed my image of your average CAMRA member is usually male, beyond middle age, an unkempt beard, and rocking an open toed sandals and socks combo. I could be entirely wrong. But I did see a cracking headline in the Times not long ago with a very snappy headline which suggested there are problems. It said
CAMRA suspends members and real ale rows get bitter
Now if you were a journalist you’d crack open a bottle of your finest if you’d thought of that pun on bitter wouldn’t you? Very good. Anyway, apparently younger members are saying they need to include lagers and craft beers to reach a younger audience, otherwise, say these young whipper snappers, CAMRA will end up being a pensioners drinking club. Now I’m not a member as it happens, but d’you know, young ‘uns, what’s this constant refrain of needing to attract young people? Go and form your own pressure group, a pensioner’s drinking club sounds just fine and dandy to me. I’m in, where do I sign.
OK, we’ve talked about the when the what and the where; let us then ask why. This sounds like a daft question to ask, but nonetheless I am going to ask it. Why drink? I imagine we will find that there are many reasons why the English have drunk drink through history which are exactly the same as in every nation, and in every time; but there are also I suspect some things which have changed. Much of the literature and earnest parliamentary reports and legislation is about the negative aspects of alcohol and drinking; and there can be little doubt that there were very negative effects on violence and crime. But it is worth noting that drinking has played a very positive and constructive role in peoples’ lives and their communities, in many ways, and it is that which I’d like to focus on in the last section rather than the anti drink campaigns and regulation and so on.
Top of the list, surely, has to be escape, escape from the worries and troubles of life, to find relief, to take the edge off; and as the desperation of the Gin craze surely demonstrated, those troubles could be severe in indeed. But more positively, this would appear to be a good place for a Samuel Johnson quote
As soon as I enter the door of a tavern, I experience an oblivion of care, and a freedom from solicitude; when I am seated, I find the master courteous and the servants obsequious to my call, anxious to know and ready to supply my wants; wine there exhilarates my spirits and prompts me to free conversation, and an interchange of discourse with those whom I must love. I dogmatise and am contradicted; and in this conflict of opinions and sentiments I find delight.
Or as he put it elsewhere, the tavern allowed him ‘to throw myself away, to get rid of myself’. A 17th century drinking song had it thus
Drink today and drowne all sorrow
You shall perhaps not doe it tomorrow
Best while you have it use your breath
There is no drinking after death
At this point I was going to blow you all away with a quote from old Khyyam, Omar of that ilk of 11th century, the one about Drink wine, Life is Eternal but I couldn’t find where it actually came from, so I chickened out and offer you this one instead from the Rubaiyat, which expresses the same sentiment of getting on with it
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and—sans End!
Rather more poetic than a 17th century English drinking song, but you know there is some poetry in the English soul too. Or so I’m told.
Less poetically maybe, is drinking to excess, to get drunk to escape; and a thesis of some very eminent historians has been that of getting drunk by the poor in particular to escape the horrors of life they were forced to lead; Keith Thomas for example wrote that in the 16th and 17th centuries
‘the poor took to drink to blot out some of the horror of their lives
Jessica Warner wrote of the 18th century Gin craze as
‘numbing countless thousands to the fatigue, hunger and cold that was the lot of the London poor’
This kind of sounds like an obvious answer to events like the Gin craze, but it does have a problem; many of those periods of exceptionally heavy drinking happened at times of relative prosperity for the labouring classes – exactly as the early 18th century was, as it happens during the Gin craze – the poor had never had it so good, or at least they had it relatively good – so why then, can’t necessarily have been about the misery. It seemed that an alternative interpretation was simply that in a culture where drinking played a central role, when times were good drinking to excess seemed like a good way to spend it before things went bad, just as old Khayyam suggested. In periods when times were hard for the poorest, such as the 1830s in Bolton, it was the better paid skilled workers that continued drinking, while the hardest hit, the Weavers, reduced their consumption. So the idea that the poor drunk to escape a life of misery is dramatic and embued with attractive the spirit of victimhood, which is always good, but probably tripe.
There is of course, another kind of escape that drunkenness helps with – an escape from the social norms. So in 1900 the local paper in Ilkley recorded that a waggonette full of women from Leeds hit town. The paper reported an ‘abundant use of disgusting language’, and stealing of toys and china from shop fronts; several women were ‘so drunk as to be unable to stand’ and a few instances were reported of, um, ‘sudden illness’ as the paper euphemistically described the action of chundering. This was behaviour sanctioned only by the special space of a holiday and drinking. While we are here, you may well recognise Ilkley from the famous song On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at, which I have heard described as the unofficial anthem of the independent kingdom of Yorkshire, and which I am ashamed to say I have often used as a drinking song, even though I can confidently report that most of the people singing it, myself included, knew none of the words except the chorus. I even suspect the words of some versions may have varied from the official ones, but once again if you asked me for more information I would find myself unavailable for comment.
While we are on drunkenness, it seems reasonably clear from the evidence available that getting hammered was common at all levels of society and remained so well into the 19th century. I could quote innumerable examples; the drunken vicar of Otley falling off his horse in the 17th century, the diarist John Evelyn noting the custom of the host providing for the intoxication of one’s servants; the ‘bevy of Welsh squires intoxicating themselves’ at the Three Cranes in Chepstow; Dostoevsky visiting London in 1862 remarked that everyone was ‘in a hurry to drink himself into insensibility’ and that’s coming from a Russian for crying out loud. Nor am I pretending that getting pie eyed has been banished in these fair isles; but apparently the nineteenth century saw the start of a long term decline in the level of drunkenness – who’d have thunk it?
The reasons were various; much of it was cultural such as the increasing search for respectability in the Victorian era; although Drunknness was first made a crime as long ago as 1606, policing was of course rather haphazard until the creation of a police force in the 19th century. Changes in legislation, regulation and improvements in policing also played their part; the world wars also had an effect – at one stage, for example, treating in a pub was banned.
Can you believe that? Treating is when you go into your local see a bunch of regulars and buy a round, you probably know the thing. It is, it must admit, a short road to perdition, because let’s be honest, more times than not you make the offer in the confident expectation that the favour will be returned. Jane and I had a lovely few years before children torched our social lives where we’d get home from work, pop a baked potato in the oven and nip across to the Cherry Tree for a swift one. Many hours later after a concentrated series of treating, and more than once after a bit of a lock in, we’d stagger back half cut to the cinder formerly known as a potato. Happy days.
Anyway, despite my happy anecdote, we have more data in modern time because of records of proceedings undertaken against drunken and disorderly behaviour. By the period just before WWI they had sunk to 54 indictments per 10,000 people in 1911; and to just 12 in 1932, and remained at these historically low figures after the second WW. In more recent times there have been occasions when issues have re-emerged – over the football hooliganism of the 1980s for example, but mainly youth binge drinking, with city centres filled with maybe 100,000 young and often drunk youngsters. Even there, a long view helps; as a couple of historians remarked in one study, we are talking a different scale now – ‘Early Victorian England differs from Modern England nowhere more markedly than in the scale of its public drunkenness and violence’.
Anyway, I got distracted; we were talking about the role that alcohol played in people’s lives, and had talked about the concept of escape, either from the world or from the normal social and cultural restrictions of daily life. But drink has also played a central part in ritual events, and always has it seems; the Greek God of Wine, Dionysius was also a god of fertility and friendship, wine was elevated in Christianity in the Communion. In the cider districts of England, there was a common ceremony where health was drunk to the Apple trees, and cider sprinkled over them – apparently a tradition that extended into the 20th century. Cider, by the way is in England always alcoholic there’s no hard or otherwise thing.
Now You might remember Waltheof? You did hear about Earl Waltheof on the History of England many moons again, one of the very few Anglo Saxon aristocracy that survived in a position of power for a while after the conquest; Waltheof was given away planning treason while at a Brides ale – a wedding reception essentially and in his cups possibly. You might think that the connection between rituals like marriage and drink were more about sociability than ritual; but in late medieval times for example, marriages might be contracted in an alehouse; theirs is the longstanding tradition of wetting the child’s head. Drinking accompanied funerals routinely, described by one chronicler as ‘hospitality given by the dead to the living’; wills sometimes gave bequests such as this early modern example ‘for my children and friends to drink after my burial’.
Special occasions, then, let’s call it that, traditionally involved alcohol; not just the bride ale but many others – church ales to raise money for charity; clerk ales to raise money for the parish clerk, lamb ales at the annual shearing. Celebrations like this rather conflicted after the Reformation with Sabbatarianism, the protestant drive to keep the lords day; but they lived on in many ways, particularly to celebrate holidays. Christmas was an obvious occasion for drinking even after it wasn’t cancelled by Oliver Cromwell because he didn’t cancel Christmas; just one quote for you from 1768 and Cook’s voyage of exploration that
All good Christians got abominably drunk so that at night there was scarce a sober man on the ship.
There have been plenty of special occasions in English history, then, which gave an excuse for drinking; royal birthdays, military and naval victories as mentioned. But some of the opportunities were rather more informal. So, I have a tradition to tell you about, something which I think could do with some revival. This was the tradition of Saint Monday.
To give you yet another anecdote as a bit of background, I once noticed that a colleague always suffered from a hangover on a Friday. I thought this was odd, since I assumed Friday night was the starting gun for hitting the pubs, so I asked him why, and with impressive, and slightly disdainful logic he explained his strategy always to have a hangover on company time, which I must say made me think. There’s something of the same attitude in Saint Monday, an extra day taken by workers to recover from or continue drinking, which was widely popular in early modern England, and persisted into the mid Nineteenth century. Or maybe that’s more in the spirit of POETS day.
The association of drink and work has been traditionally a very strong one, but one area that has very definitely changed a lot. There is the central point that ale used to be drunk at all times of day, and in every place including the workplace; it was a feature enforced by many factors; the closeness of work and home – the fields, or the village workshop, rather than formal workplace; the role of drink in quenching thirst and hunger, the ubiquity of drink among all sectors of society, including children. That has been one of the big changes – I suspect many employment contracts regulate drinking at work these days, and in most environments it’s just not done. But it never used to be the case.
Drinking at work included special events, like Fairs for example, an important event in the transaction of business; the exchange of drink between bargainers ‘symbolised good commercial intentions’. A French traveller at the end of the 17th century observed how
No kind of business is transacted in England without the intervention of pots of beer
Another fine tradition. Landlords were expected to treat tenants and workers, with drink provided on rent days, or at harvest time and so on. Everyone frankly made up as many excuses as they could to get some drinking done at work; harvest workers drank at the sharpening of sickle and scythe; shipwrights drank at the caulking of the keel, I could go on. Nowadays, it seems, we are simply not trying hard enough.
Drinking was also a way of expressing identity. We have already touched on the connection between British identity and Beer, and the same applies to pubs I think; in 1930 Thomas Burke wrote
To write of the English inn is almost to write of England itself…as familiar in the English consciousness as the oak and ash and the village green and the church spire
Drink might also express regional identities; Newcastle Brown I have mentioned but there are other example such as Timothy Taylor and his Keighley beers, ‘Originally brewed for Men of the North’. And it expressed class, status and political identities too. So for Pepys the quality of his wine cellar expressed his status and success; wine tended to be the tipple of the posh, and beer of the working class, though I think those distinctions have loosened a lot. I’m also rather interested by the association between drink and politics. I’m not sure how much it applies in England and the bar of the house of commons, but Tacitus remarked that the Germans used festivals, drinking and drunkenness as a route to political decision making, on the principle that people could get away with saying things when drunk they couldn’t when sober. So
They disclose their hidden thoughts in the freedom of the festivity. Then the sentiments of all having been discovered and laid bare, the discussion is renewed on the following day
I leave that on the table, or beer counter maybe, in the spirit of contributing towards a way to resolve the endless dithering about constitutional change in Scotland. But there has been a more direct association between drinking as a symbol and politics; the image of labour politicians offering union leaders beer and sandwiches in the 60’s and 70’s stuck in my mind despite the fact that I was of an age when whether Dennis Amiss had scored a tun or not was exponentially more important than politics. Interestingly, during the civil war beer was associated with the common people and the Roundheads; wine was associated with the Cavaliers; the royalists tried to blacken Cromwell’s name, as if such a thing were possible, by linking him to the brewing trade. Then when Charles I mislaid his head, the rumour went round he’d been a lover of claret; so after the Restoration, the Tories proudly drank claret, whereas in opposition the Whigs drank port. Another good reason to be a whig!
There were, however, much simpler reasons for drinking. As we’ve heard, one was that ale used to be an essential part of the medieval diet, and a most effective way of taking on calories, and quenching thirst. But then there was a very firm belief that drinking was good for the health – again, as we’ve heard James Woodforde firmly believed and administered to his niece. Here’s a lovely quote from a mother of four in a gentry family in 1768
As I am a nurse, I take great care of myself and drink porter like any fishwoman
I’m sure we’ve all got Grandmothers that drink Scotch for medicinal purposes…don’t we? And as late as the 1930s Martini were selling vermouth on its medicinal properties, and of course there’s the Guinness is Good for you from 1929 which has remained remarkably robust. In 1876, Disraeli was prescribed by the presumably the best qualified medical staff to drink port wine to help his bronchitis, asthma and gout. Dare I mention also that it was supposed to have aphrodisiac properties, and that drink and sex were linked. I want you to remember here that I am simply a teller of historical stories, so don’t shout at me or shoot the messenger, but let me simply lay in front of you the words of a Bolton pub goer
If tha come in ‘ere and pays for who tha fancies a couple o’ stouts tha’s no need to get wed
Citizens of Bolton might like to comment. But there was a belief that alcohol was cure for impotence, despite the famous line in Macbeth that
Whilst it provokes the desire it takes away the performance.
That’s quite enough of that, obviously. Returning to the idea of National identity, no sex please, we are British.
Clearly over all the great reasons for drinking, sociability has got to be the big one doesn’t it? A way of being together of sharing, social bonding good fellowship. Traditions helped to give form to this; one is treating, as described earlier, a great way of bringing people who know each other relatively vaguely together, though unquestionably bad news for baking potatoes. Another one is toasting, of people I mean – though not in the Bloody Mary sense obviously. Toasting has a long tradition – I should turn to lassical times and Attila this time, both to emphasise it’s antiquity, but also its tendency to add to a snowball effect on the amount consumed
When we were all sitting properly in order, a cupbearer came to offer Attila an ivy wood bowl of wine, which he took and drank a toast to the man first in order of precedence. The man thus honoured rose and it was not right for him to sit down again until Attila had drunk some or all of the wine…The guests…honoured him in the same way. One attendant went round to each man in strict order…when the second guest and then all the others in their turn had been honoured Attila greeted us in like fashion
You’d be hammered before you got to tuck into the prawn cocktail by the sounds of it. The situation was similar in blighty; so much so that again the authorities at times tried to ban toasting – Charles II for example tried to ban the practice, so you know, not so much of the merry monarch. In December 1816 in Manchester an anti radical meeting included no fewer than 38 loyal toasts. On the other side Henry Hunt’s first visit to the town opened with toasts to ‘the source of all power, the people’.
Anyway, where have we got to then? I think we might just be reaching the end of what I want to say, and I feel the need to sort of summarise and conclude the story in some way. I might start with the po-faced stuff, or serious stuff, a few general themes. The first of these is that however we might panic about waves of drinking or binge drinking, consumption of Alcohol has fallen steadily from Early Modern times to where we are now, so you know, breathe, chill and relax. Some of that is cultural, new definitions of respectability and acceptable behaviour, of medical awareness; a lot of it is down to the increased competition from the myriad of other activities and drinks available for our spare time.
But it’s also a result of another general theme – the separation of drinking from the workplace. Drinking alcohol is just so much more corralled into other parts of our lives than it used to be, it is much less ubiquitous; and a part of that is its universality, since everyone used to drink all the time, including children. As part of the process, drink has moved from being an essential part of diet to a being recreational activity. The place where that happens and what we drink has moved continually through time; so recently in particular so much more drinking is done at home rather than in pubs, bars, and so on, there is such a wider range of suppliers.
Despite all of that though, I suppose the final thing is to repeat that despite all the negative things about alcohol, or specifically excess alcohol, alcohol has played a remarkably positive role in English history and around the world I suspect, bringing people together but also playing a role in meaning and identity. I started this I must say, in something of a panic about the reducing number of pubs, but what’s become clear, unsurprisingly I suppose, is that drinking still plays a very central role in English life, and the pub remains strongly part of that too.