Gamini Salgado’s The Elizabethan Underworld is a fairly obvious attempt to follow the success of Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld, which itself was an update of Henry Mayhew. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating read, especially for those interested in London’s pubs.
The first thing to note is that, according to Salgado’s sources (all fully referenced and quoted at length), Elizabethan pubs were full of con-artists, thieves, pimps and whores. A ‘cony’ was anyone new in town, usually an innocent looking bloke from the countryside, who could be preyed upon by these criminals, therefore known collectively as ‘cony-catchers’.
In short, the Elizabethan pub was a kind of trap for bumpkins.
There were different grades of ordinary and tavern into which the cony was lured by the cony-catchers, ranging from the fashionably expensive to the squalid.
- twelvepenny ordinaries — posh pubs for fashionable chaps to play dice or cards
- citizens ordinaries — where skint professional types hung out, from bedsit dwelling bachelors to stingy lawyers, ‘the price threepence’
- low ordinaries — ‘where eating and drinking was largely incidental to more dubious occupations’
- alehouses — ‘often… the back kitchen of a mean dwelling, standing on some obscure back street, and… frequently unlicensed’.
The latter sounds interesting, with more beer being consumed than wine, unlike the other types of establishment. According to Salgado, alehouses proliferated in the 16th century because people got fussy about their beer and were no longer keen to drink nasty homebrewed ale. Bigger brewers would sell commercial beer to amateur back-room landlords on credit, who would then only need to find a few tables a and chairs to make a bit of cash on the side.
Sadly, no mention is made of Pimlico Ale, which continues to intrigue us.
This is another in our series of pub guides for time travellers. See this post for info on London in the 1960s.