We’ve recently joined the Morrab Library in Penzance where we’re discovering all kinds of interesting nuggets about beer and pubs.
For example, Old St Ives: the reminiscences of William Paynter, published in 1928, contains a short chapter about inns and ‘beer shops’ in Cornwall in the mid-nineteenth century. Here are some highlights:
In the early years of the last century the drinking of a certain amount of alcohol was looked upon as a necessary precaution against illness, and in consequence everyone used to drink, women as well as men. To meet the demand for liquor there were about twenty public-houses in St Ives, small as it was then as compared with to-day. In St Andrew Street alone there were three inns — the Blue Bell, the Star, and the Red Lion. Fore Street and the Wharf could boast of nine — the Castle Inn, the Union Inn, the Britannia, the Victory, the Dolphin, the Globe, the Sloop, the White Hart, and the Ship Aground. Round the market-place were the King’s Arms, the George and Dragon and the Golden Lion, while further afield were the Queen’s, the Western and the Sheaf of Wheat.
In those days, when there were no means of entertainment and amusement in the evenings, the public-houses served as clubs, like the coffee-houses of the eighteenth century. People used to meet in them to talk over the events of the day. A favourite diversion was the making up of rhymes on current events… It was customary for a few people to join together to buy a newspapers, and to meet in an inn to read it aloud and discuss it.
In addition to the social attractions offered by the inns, there were found very useful for business purposes. Wages were paid there on Saturday nights, a circumstances often detrimental to the amount handed by husbands to their wives on their return home.
A great many smuggling plots were hatched in the inns, for in spite of customs officers smuggling did not come to an end in St Ives till the eighteen seventies… One old woman, after drawing a pint of beer for a customer, always asked him if he wanted ‘something to take the chill off.’ The answer was usually a significant wink, and Martha ‘Chill-off’, as she was called, flourished, like many others, on the illicit transaction.
- The book was written by S. Winifred Paynter, based on stories she heard from her father. She may have misheard, mis-remembered, censored or embroidered, so it can’t be considered completely reliable as a source.
- There are still pubs called the Golden Lion, the Sloop, the Queen’s, the Sheaf of Wheat in St Ives.
- ‘Chill-off’ is a badass nickname.
- Next time you’re in the pub with mates and conversation starts to flag, why not compose a rhyme about current affairs?