A Scrapbook of Inns by Rowland Watson, published in 1949, is a cut above the usual ‘quaint old inns’ hack job, its snippets of old books and articles acting as an effective index to beer and pub writing from public domain sources.
It’s not rare. We picked our copy up for £3.99 in a charity shop, still in its dust jacket, and with a dedication to ‘Sydney, with best wishes from Rhode & all at Bedford, Christmas 1954’. There are plenty of copies for sale online at around the same price and we’ve seen multiple copies in secondhand bookshops in the past year.
We think — assume — the author is the same Rowland Watson best known as a literary editor, born in 1890, and who died in 1968. He doesn’t have much to say about himself in the foreword, using those two brief paragraphs to hammer an important point: this anthology is not a collection of the usual quotations from Pepys, Dr Johnson and Dickens, but rather of obscurities bookmarked during decades of reading, mostly from the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Now, of course, most of this stuff is quite easy to find in full, with searchable text, via online libraries (Google Books, Hathi Trust, Gutenberg, Archive.org) and newspaper archives. Even so, this book has directed us to lots of things we would never otherwise have thought to explore, such as George Borrow’s 1862 book Wild Wales which betrays the author’s proto beer geekery with tasting notes on Llangolen ale (great) and Chester ale (so disgusting he spat it out of a window). There’s arguably now so much digitised material online that finding the good stuff can be a challenge, and this collection works as a kind of sift, pointing straight to the gold.
It is organised in two large sections covering (a) London and (b) the country, with extracts grouped at the next level down as tales of publicans, food and drink, curiosities, ‘high jinks’ and so on.
There are also lots of illustrations, all except one in black and white, ranging from quarter- to full-page. The paper is nice, too, and we bet more than few copies have been cannibalised to provide framed pictures for pub walls.
By way of a taster of the contents, if we were still writing our Devon Life column we’d definitely take a look into ‘Ashburton Pop’, for which the small town was “as famous…. as London is for porter” according to a quotation from the 1838 Table Book of William Hone:
I recollect its sharp feeding good taste, far richer than the best small beer, more of the champagne taste, and…. when you untied and hand-drew the cork, it gave a report louder than a pop gun, to which I attribute its name…
And the horrific account of the preparation of turtles for eating at The Bush, Bristol, c.1796, equalled only grimness by the tale of the Boscastle inn which served roasted baby seal with potatoes, suggests an interesting line of research into grotesque pub foods of the past. (Farthing pies at The Green Man, AKA The Farthing Pie House, on Euston Road in London sound much more like it.)
In short, if you come across a copy of this for the price of a pin, grab it. Casual dippers will find plenty to enjoy, while scholarly types will almost certainly find a source or two new to them, or the seed of a story waiting to be told.