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Beer history

A century before Summer Lightning, Golden Sunlight

Alright, fine, we give in: perhaps Summer Lightning wasn’t the original golden ale.

One of the topics we spent months researching when we wrote Brew Britannia between 2012 and 2014 was the origins of a style that had come to take a substantial chunk of the ale market.

In the end, we broadly agreed with the narrative set out by Martyn Cornell in his excellent 2011 book Amber, Gold & Black: Exmoor Gold may have come first, in 1986, but it was Hop Back Summer Lightning, first sold in 1989, that really kicked off the craze.

It won awards and prompted imitators throughout the 1990s and, eventually, laid to supermarket bestsellers like Thwaites Wainwright, and less popular cash-ins such as John Smith’s Gold.

But we’ve known all along that there were even earlier beers that could be argued to count as golden ales – not least because, again, Cornell acknowledges them in his brief history of the style.

Some are contenders because they were, well, golden.

Others because they were advertised with the phrase ‘golden ale’, or similar.

But most felt like footnotes, failing to tick enough boxes:

  • Very pale in colour.
  • Described as gold or golden.
  • Sold under a brand name referencing sun or summer.
  • Popular and/or influential.

Then, the other day, we came across an 1888 advertisement for one of the early beers Cornell mentions in Amber, Gold & Black and thought, oh, this really does sound like Watkins of Hereford invented golden ale before or around 1887.

"Golden Sunlight" Ale, A light pale golden ale of wonderful value.

SOURCE: Public Record Office/British Library, via Time Gentlemen, Please! by Michael Jones, 1997.

It’s clear from this that Golden Sunlight is definitely a brand name, if not a trademark – and, in fact, the brewery itself eventually came to be known as the Sunlight Brewery to cash-in on the popularity of this particular product.

The beer was, indeed, “light pale”.

And there it is, in black and white: “golden ale”.

Just to cap it off, it was also promoted as being similar to German-style lager, just as Hop Back Summer Lightning would be a century later.

A quick note on dates: we’re a bit suspicious of what is supposed to be an 1851 advertisement for ‘Golden Sunlight Pale Ale’ on the Brewery History Society website. That’s 30-odd years earlier than any other reference to this product in print and, frankly, it looks as if someone drew that ad with a felt-tip pen sometime in the past 40 years. But it’s possible, we suppose, that this ur-golden-ale was first brewed 170 years ago.

It’s probably too much to hope for brewing log to turn up so we can find out more about the colour and likely taste of the beer but we do know from a note in The Brewers’ Guardian for September 1892 that Watkins & Sons was buying up ‘Early Goldings’ hops.

The same article describes the beer as “renowned” and elsewhere in the local press it was referred to as “famous”. (Western Mail, 03/11/1898.)

All of which makes us wonder why golden ale didn’t take off and become a breakaway style in the early 20th century.

Did its similarity to lager do for it in the patriotic fervour of World War I?

Or was it only ever a novelty in a sea of mild, bitter and stout?

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Beer history

From barley broth to Wompo: a dictionary of beer and pub slang

We’ve been collecting these bits of beer and pub slang for a while and thought they deserved a more permanent home than the occasional Tweet.

act of parliament. c.1785. Military. Small beer, from the legal obligation of landlords to provide five pints of weak beer to each soldier free of charge. (FG85)

admiral of the narrow seas. c.1750. Drunkenly vomiting into the lap of another person. (EP)

Alderman Lushington is concerned. c.1823. Said of someone who is drunk. (FG23)

ale draper. c.1823. Alehouse keeper. (FG23)

barley broth. c.1785. Strong beer. (FG85)

beggar maker. c.1785. Publican. A pub is ‘the beggar maker’s’. (FG85)

belch. c.1823. Beer. (FG23)

belly vengeance. c.1864. Small beer likely to upset your stomach. (H64)

bene bowse. c.1785. Good, strong beer. Thieves cant. (FG85)

blind excuse. c.1823. An obscure pub. (FG23)

bowsing ken. c.1823. An alehouse or gin-shop. (FG23)

bub. c.1823. Strong beer. (FG23)

bubber. c.1823. Drinking bowl. (FG23)

buy the sack. c.1823. To get drunk. (FG23)

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Beer history breweries featuredposts

Usher’s of Trowbridge: disappearing one brick at a time

Two questions: first, what the hell happened to Usher’s of Trowbridge? And secondly, how much research can you do into this question without visiting Trowbridge or, indeed, leaving your house at all?

Usher’s is a brewery and brand that had all but disappeared from the market by the time we started paying serious attention to beer. It’s not one you hear people swooning over, either, unlike, say, Boddington’s or Brakspear.

What caught our eye was the lingering signs – literally speaking – of its once vast West Country empire. Wherever we went, from Salisbury to Newlyn, we’d spot the distinctive shield on the exterior of pubs, or see the name on faded signs.

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featuredposts pubs

Gin palaces in Manchester: blessed gaudiness

As you might expect, when it comes to writing about gin palaces, London seems to hog the limelight, but they popped up all across England in the early 19th century, including Manchester.

Without Dickens to write about them or Cruikshank to draw them, the records are more sparse, but they do exist. And, once again, we owe disapproving temperance types a debt of gratitude for their information gathering, biased as it might be.

For example, here’s a summary of the situation from Manchester in 1844: Its Present Condition and Future Prospects by the French economist Léon Faucher who visited England on a study tour in the mid-1840s, with paragraph breaks added for easier online reading:

Only twenty years ago, drunkenness was considered a degrading indulgence; the dramshops were in retired places, and their customers entered secretly by private doors; and a candle placed behind the window was the dubious sign to arrest the attention of the passer-by.

But now, drunkenness has infused itself into the bosom of society. Habit has conquered shame, and that which formerly drew a blush from the men is now regarded as a daily habit by women and children.

By degrees, the dim lights have been replaced by the dazzling gas; the doors have been enlarged; the pot-house has become a gin-shop; and the gin-shop a species of palace.

The games hitherto carried on in these places not being sufficient, the proprietors have added music, dancing, and exhibitions, as additional attractions to a dissolute people. Formerly, concerts were held in these places only in the winter, but now they extend throughout the year; and, as in Liverpool, so here, the swelling of the organ, and the sounds of the violin and the piano, resound in their large saloons.

One of these houses, situated not far from the Exchange, and at the entrance to Victoria Bridge, collects in this manner, one thousand persons, every evening, until eleven PM. On Sundays, to diminish the scandal, religious hymns and sacred music are performed upon the organ and piano.

We can’t work out exactly which establishment is being described here but a quick look at this much later map, from 1888, suggests plenty of candidates – P.H. here, P.H. there, P.H.s everywhere. Whatever was previously on the site of The Grosvenor seems most likely.

Map of Manchester with many public houses.

In 1845, an American observer using the pseudonym ‘Looker On’ set out just how common gin palaces were in Manchester at that time:

To form any just idea of the magnitude of Manchester, and of the character of its population, it should be entered towards evening.

Then every mill is illuminated, and as their countless windows blaze forth, they present a brilliant spectacle. The black walls are no longer seen, and the canopy of smoke which overhangs all is no longer distinguishable by the eye.

At the corners of nearly all the principal streets are gaudy buildings, with enormous lamps, and into these Gin Palaces, as they are called, a continual stream of living beings enter.

And oh! what a wretched procession! Old men and little children, drabbish women and young girls; youths of besotted appearance, and men in the very flower of life, bowed down to the dust, energies quenched, strength prostrated, minds half destroyed.

Benjamin Love’s 1842 book The Handbook of Manchester gives us another couple of interesting nuggets, wrapped up in a lot of temperance hyperbole:

From an observation made on [Sunday] the 13th March, 1842, by the writer’s direction, there were found to enter one dram-shop only, in this town, the astonishing number of 484 persons in one hour! The greater part were women! Some decently dressed, apparently the wives of mechanics; others almost naked, carrying in their arms a squalid infant. When wives frequent gin-palaces, no wonder their husbands, on leaving work, proceed straight to the beer house.

Assuming we credit Mr Love’s figure, that means these places were undeniably busy. It also suggests a clear gender divide between types of establishment. Beerhouses were the antithesis of the gin palace – generally small and plain.

Here’s a bit more from ‘Looker On’ describing the scene inside a Manchester gin palace:

Behind a bar, decorated richly with carvings and brass work, multiplied by numerous mirrors, in costly frames, with three or four showy-looking, and flashily attired females, occupied incessantly in drawing from enormous casks, gaudily painted in green and gold, and bearing seducing names, glasses of spirits, which are eagerly clutched by the trembling fingers of those who crowd round the counter, gasping as if for breath, for the stimulus of drink. Look at their red, half-raw lips; their glaring lack-lustre eyes…

Right, well, that’s enough of that, but the description of the fixtures and fittings seems accurate.

Glitter and grandeur aside, they were by no means genteel places, as this note of a criminal case from 1847 makes clear:

Yesterday, at the Borough Court, before Mr. Maude, a fellow employed… about the Bowdun and Altrincham coach office named John Hampson, was charged with robbing a gentleman from Preston, of his purse and eighteen sovereigns.

It appeared that on Monday evening, the prosecutor who had come here on business, got ‘a little over the line,’ and being determined, as it seemed to have jolly good spree, and see life in Manchester, he bent his steps towards gin palace in Deansgate.

There, on the strength of his well-filled purse he was received by the company present as ‘a real good fellow,’ and very speedily his excessive liberality became apparent, as he insisted on standing treat for everybody.

When the hour for closing the vaults arrived, he was just in the height of his glory, and nowise inclined to go to bed, when the prisoner and some of his friends kindly offered to find him with quarters, provided he would pay for a supply of liquor.

Accordingly, he accompanied the parties to a house in Back Queen-street, where gallons of ale, quarts of rum, &c. &c. were sent for pretty freely, until overpowered with strong drink the Preston gentleman fell asleep, and on awaking found that he was minus his purse and eighteen sovereigns.

An 1857 guidebook to Manchester and Salford singles out the gin palaces of Ancoats for particular attention:

The oldest and the worst working district of Manchester, is the region known as Ancoats. Here, however, you will find the truest specimens of the indigenous Lancashire population, and hear the truest version of the old Anglo-Saxon pronunciation… Ancoats, in fact, is Manchester pur sang – Manchester ere sanitary improvement and popular education had raised and purified its general social condition.

Many of its streets, particularly the great thoroughfare called the Oldham Road, are magnificent in their vast proportions; but the thousands of by-lanes and squalid courts, the stacked-up piles of undrained and unventilated dwellings, swarm with the coarsest and most dangerous portions of the population. Here the old and inferior mills abound; here the gin-palaces are the most magnificent, and the pawn-shops the most flourishing; here, too, the curse of Lancashire-the ‘low Irish ’ – congregate by thousands; and here, principally, abound the cellar dwellings,and the pestilential lodging-houses, where thieves and vagrant; of all kinds find shares of beds in underground recesses for a penny and twopence a night.

Another source, also from 1855, paints a vivid picture of the contrast between the Ancoats gin palaces and their surroundings:

Returning from the Christmas treat of the St. John’s Industrial Ragged School, in company with the energetic and intelligent master of the New Ragged School in Angel Meadow, Ancoats, I met numbers of poor wretched looking children, in groups, round the corners of low streets and public-house doors, where the numerous gas lamps inside threw a gleam of light across the road, and the opening and shutting of the door of the magnificent gin palace gave a cheerfulness and bustle to a very dull and dirty street.

On the step of one public-house, a little girl, herself o about six years old, was nursing a pale and delicate infant not six months old, or rather just letting it lie over her knees. The mother was, in all probability, inside, spending her last copper; the rain was pouring, and it was past nine o’clock.

Finally, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel Mary Barton: a tale of Manchester Life mentions gin palaces and pubs in passing in a couple of places, including confirmation of the obvious appeal of places ”where all is clean and bright, and where th’ fire blazes cheerily, and gives a man a welcome as it were”.

What we can’t work out – not easily, anyway – is if there are any surviving early 19th century gin palaces in Manchester today. There are plenty of wonderful historic pubs but most, such as The Marble Arch and Crown & Kettle, are late 19th century or early 20th century buildings.

On that, local intelligence would be welcome.

Categories
Beer history pubs

A Frenchman visits a gin palace, 1873

In early 1873, English newspapermen were amused to discover that the French critic and novelist Alphonse Karr had been writing about London gin palaces for Le Figaro.

Karr is these days best known for epigrams such as “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’ll confess we’d never heard of him at all until we came across a mention of him in an article in the British Newspaper Archive.

Fortunately, thanks to the magic of online digital archives, it’s fairly easy to read a version of Karr’s original text as collected in an 1876 anthology of his writing.

Here’s our attempt at tidying up Google’s automatic translation:

Let’s talk about cabarets and cafes.

This must be dealt with from three points of view, one of which is completely modern and contemporary.

The first point is drunkenness, its hideousness, its dangers; the second, the thefts, the tricks and the poisonings practiced by certain merchants; the third, the application of cabaret and coffee to street politics – or rather to agitation, to the spread of false or exaggerated ideas, to the poisoning of minds.

It seems that to see drunkenness in all its horrible stupidity, in England you have to visit the shops, the palaces, dedicated to it – gin shops, or gin palaces.

A flood of ragged beings move incessantly towards the temple, on the door of which shine, on large copper plates, the words gin, beer, spirits – that is to say, forgetfulness, absence stupor.

A room a hundred feet long, all furnished on one side with huge barrels painted in various colors, with portraits of the queen in between.

In front of the barrels, a long counter or bar and many waiters constantly busy pouring. In the crowd, there are as many women as men and women are often, in fact, in the majority.

We approach the bar, money in hand with a sort of dumb reverence, as if we were going to receive communion; in a low voice, gin or spirits are asked for; the glass, not filled until the waiter has received the money, is accepted in silence and with an icy seriousness; then we will sit on a long bench leaning against the wall in front of the barrels; here we remain motionless, silent, in a sort of ecstasy and contemplation of the barrels; a little later we rummage in our pockets and count our money; we return to the bar, we drink and we return to the bench, from where we return to the bar; and always thus as long as there is money.

Everyone knows how rigorously the sabbath is observed in England – any distraction is strictly prohibited; the only exception is the gin shop. It is enough that they should look closed, but you only have to push the door to enter. The State and Church seem to believe that there would be danger in leaving one day per week free of that awful misery – one day when people don’t forget and fall asleep like brutes.

The British take on his story was perhaps understandably arch: this daft foreigner didn’t understand how pubs worked and, worse, was some sort of temperance advocate. Here’s how it was reported in a syndicated story that appeared in numerous newspapers on and around 9 January 1873:

Not a word for the neat-handed Phyllises behind the counter. This is hardly courteous on the part French litterateurs, who are fond of ogling them when they do come here… M. Alphonse Karr a very remarkable man; one time, it we remember right, he even aspired to the dignity of citoyen, but has ever been animated with a strong dislike of perfidious islanders. It is very clear that he has never heard the Licensing Act.

Those barmaids again!

We wonder if any more confident French speakers than us might be able to dig out more accounts of English pubs and drinking culture. For example, this advice looks intriguing:

L’intérieur de ces établissements si nombreux présente quelque intérêt en ce qu’il explique la société anglaise. Il y a d’abord la salle du comptoir (bar-room), sorte de terrain neutre sur lequel des hommes et des femmes debout se rencontrent pour étancher leur soif aux flots d’ambre liquide…