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.
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.
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…
In 1892, Eliza Orme undertook a painstaking investigation into the working lives of barmaids, producing a report which takes us back to the pubs of the past with incredible vividness.
Eliza Orme was an interesting woman. She was the first woman in England to get a degree in law, in 1888, as Dr Leslie Howsam, who has studied Orme’s life, explains here:
[She] was 39 years old and already unofficially ‘practicing’ law out of an office in London’s Chancery Lane where she and a colleague prepared the paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements, and mortgages. ‘I “devilled” for about a dozen conveyancing counsel who kept me busily employed on drafts they wanted done in a hurry, and for twenty-five years I found it both an interesting and profitable employment’, Orme recalled in a 1901 interview. This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society. It was only a small part, however, of Eliza Orme’s reputation as a public figure.
An early feminist, Miss Orme was a firm believer in allowing women to work in whichever industries they chose and was a member of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women.
Through this, she ended up as Senior Lady Assistant Commissioner to the Royal Commission on Labour, overseeing a small team of Lady Assistant Commissioners.
After the Commission decided at a meeting in March 1892 to undertake research into the working lives of women, Orme dispatched her team around the country, from Bristol to the Western Isles, to investigate various industries such as textile mills, chocolate factories and stocking making.
The 1858 book The Night Side of London by James Ewing Ritchie offers an overview of places of entertainment in the capital, from music halls to proto-nightclubs. Most were built around pubs and all seem to have been permanently soaked with booze.
Ostensibly, this is a moralising tract: alcohol ruins lives, Ritchie argues, and nobody out at night is on the path to righteousness.
At the same time, like Mondo Cane and other ‘documentary’ films of the 1960s, its disapproving tone is at odds with the titillating nature of the content. In fact, it almost amounts to a guidebook for visitors seeking London’s naughtiest neighbourhoods.
It’s probably also worth saying at this point that in places, it’s an uncomfortable read: Ritchie is blatantly anti-Semitic, blaming Jewish people for everything from running sweat-shops to pimping to clip-joints. And just in case there’s any doubt, he even throws in a few references to the innate superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’. This seems to be at the root of his objective to alcohol, in fact – that it is weakening the mighty master race, and so on and so forth. Anyway…
The single most interesting thread is its perfect capturing of the moment when pubs and music halls began to branch apart from their common roots.
It sat in a neighbourhood otherwise dominated by railway lines and “monster gin-palaces, with unlimited plate-glass and gas… full of ragged children, hideous old woman, and drunken men”. The Canterbury Music Hall, though still boozy, the author reluctantly admits, was relatively more sober than the alternatives:
A well-lighted entrance attached to a public-house indicates that we have reached our destination. We proceed up a few stairs, along a passage lined with handsome engravings, to a bar, where we pay sixpence if we take a seat in the body of the hall, and nine- pence if we do the lobby and ascend into the balcony.We make our way leisurely along the floor of the building, which is really a very handsome hall, well lighted, and capable of holding fifteen hundred persons; the balcony extends round the room in the form of a horse shoe. At the opposite end to which we enter is the platform, on which is placed a grand piano and a harmonium, on which the performers play in the intervals when the professional singers have left the stage… Let us look round us; evidently the majority present are respectable mechanics, or small tradesmen with their wives and daughters and sweethearts there. Now and then you see a midshipman, or a few fast clerks and warehousemen, who confidentially inform each other that there is “no end of talent here,” and that Miss “is a doosed fine gal;” and here, as elsewhere, we see a few of the class of unfortunates, whose staring eyes would fain extort an admiration which their persons do not justify. Every one is smoking, and every one has a glass before him; but the class that come here are economical, and chiefly confine themselves to pipes and porter. The presence of the ladies has also a beneficial effect…
The book concludes with a detailed portrait of The Eagle Tavern, famous for its pleasure gardens, and another nascent music hall, where people sat “eating questionable sausage rolls, and indulging in bottled beer”.
For more on the birth of the music hall, read Lee Jackson’s excellent book Palaces of Pleasure, published earlier this year.
The roughest pubs in London get looked at, too – those on Ratcliffe Highway, which ran out of London through the East End to Limehouse. We are told that this notoriously dangerous stretch of road smelled worse than Cologne, or even Bristol. (Cheeky bastard.) Here, sailors would go wild spending their earnings from the last voyage, lured into clip joints by prostitutes who would drink water while the sailors downed gin.
One victim, James Hall, spent a month staying at a pub on Clive Street run by a Mr Glover, where he burned through £30 by drinking:
20 pints of rum… 20 quarts of beer… 8 glasses of rum… 5 pints of rum, 5 gills of rum, and 15 quarts of ale… 2 glasses of gin, and 2 gills of brandy… 15 pints of rum, and 28 gills of rum… 4 quarts, half a gallon, and 22 gills of beer…
…and so on.
Another interesting observation, in a chapter on ‘Discussion clubs’, is that pubs in crowded markets have always resorted to novelty and spectacle to draw in custom:
It is the condition of a public-house that it must do a good business some way or other. Mr Hinton, who has just got his license for Highbury Barn, says the dining apartment fell off and he was obliged to institute Soirees Dansantes. Sometimes the publican gets a female dressed up in a Bloomer costume; sometimes he has for his barman a giant, or a dwarf, or an Albino, or a Kaffir chief — actually as an attraction to decent people to go and drink their pot of beer.
Discussion clubs were one such entertainment:
Now, in the same manner the publicans provide a weekly discussion meeting for that part of the public that loves to hear itself speak. There is one at the Belvidere, Pentonville ; another at the Horns, Kennington. Fleet-street is much favoured. There are the Temple Forum, the Cogers’ Hall, and another large room in Shoe Lane. These are [free but] you are expected to sit and drink all night. The most celebrated one is that which meets not far from the Temple, presided over by the editor of a Sunday paper, and assisted by several reporters connected with the daily journals.
It’s hard to imagine live debating being much of a draw these days but back then, before television panel shows and daily news programmes, it might have seemed fun.
Doctor Johnson’s Tavern, which we think is The Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, gets a pen portrait, too:
[There] are about fifty or sixty gentlemen, chiefly young ones, present… They are all very plain-looking people, from the neighbouring shops, or from the warehouses in Cheapside. Just by me are three pale heavy-looking young men, whose intellects seem to me dead, except so far as a low cunning indicates a sharpness where money is concerned. One of them is stupidly beery. Their great object is to get him to drink more, notwithstanding his repeated assurances, uttered, however, in a very husky tone, that he must go back to “Islin’ton” tonight. A lady at one end of the room, with a very handsome blue satin dress and a very powerful voice, is screaming out something about ‘Lovely Spring’ but this little party is evidently indifferent to the charms of the song. Just beyond me is a gent with a short pipe and a very stiff collar. I watch him for an hour, and whether he is enjoying himself intensely, or whether he is enduring an indescribable amount of inward agony, I cannot tell.
That last line is fairly typical of the author: even if a bloke looks to be having fun, he must be inwardly tortured.
As well as music halls, clubs and pubs, there were also boxing pubs…
We enter, we will say, Bang Up’s hostelry, about ten on a Thursday evening ; there is Bang Up at the bar, with his ton of flesh and broken nose. Many people think it worthwhile to go and spend one or two shillings at Bang Up’s bar, merely that they may have the pleasure of seeing him, and consider him cheap at the money… [We] find ourselves in a very ordinary room, with very extraordinary people in it. First, there are the portraits — imprimis Bang Up, looking grosser and more animal than ever. Secondly, Mrs Bang Up, the exact counterpart of her bosom’s lord; then a tribe of Bang Ups junior, of all sizes and sexes, attract our astonished eyes. Then — for the room is a complete Walhalla — we have portraits of sporting heroes innumerable, with villainous foreheads, all “vacant of our glorious gains,” heavy eyes, thick bull necks…
…and 600 or so pubs with billiards rooms attached to pubs, as well as standalone billiard rooms with their own bars.
The most interesting bit of the whole book, given our recent pondering on gentrification and the research we did into the rise of the ‘improved public house’ for 20th Century Pub, is a chapter on the ‘Respectable public house’, which is…
…situated in one of the leading thoroughfares, and is decorated in an exceedingly handsome manner. The furniture is all new and beautifully polished, the seats are generally exquisitely soft and covered with crimson velvet, the walls are ornamented with pictures and pier- glasses, and the ceiling is adorned in a manner costly and rare… Time was when men were partial to the sanded floor, the plain furniture, the homely style of such places as Dolly’s, the London Coffee-house, or the Cock, to which Tennyson has lent the glory of his name. Now the love of show is cultivated to an alarming extent. “Let us be genteel or die,” said Mrs Nickleby, and her spirit surrounds us everywhere. Hence the splendour of the drinking-rooms of the metropolis, and the studied deportment of the waiters, and the subdued awe with which Young Norvals fresh from the Grampian Hills and their fathers’ flocks tread the costly carpets or sprawl their long legs beneath glittering mahogany.
This, from the 1850s, could almost be a description of a genteel London pub of today – one of those posh Fuller’s joints, maybe. The clientele according to Ritchie’s account was bank directors, railway officials and City boys. This type of pub, he says, was their equivalent of the working class beerhouse or gin shop and, of course, is sure to spell doom for them and their impressive careers in the long run.
The single most effective portrait of an individual pub is of one frequented by costermongers, “in a very low neighbourhood, not far from a gigantic brewery, where you could not walk a yard scarcely without coming to a public house”. Costermongers were street traders who wandered around selling cheap food and were famous for their ‘backslang’, such as ‘top of reeb’ for ‘pot of beer’. Here’s the scene:
Just look at the people in this public-house. A more drunken, dissipated, wretched lot you never saw. There are one or two little tables in front of the bar and benches, and on these benches are the most wretched men and women possible to imagine. They are drinking gin and smoking, and all have the appearance of confirmed sots. They are shoemakers in the neighbourhood, and these women with them are their wives… The landlord is in the chair, and a professional man presides at the piano. As to the songs, they are partly professional and partly by volunteers. I cannot say much for their character… [As] the pots of heavy and the quarterns of juniper are freely quaffed, and the world and its cares are forgotten… the company becomes hourly more noisy and hilarious…
Our edits above remove a lot of judgemental asides. Let’s be clear – the author does not approve of this kind of thing at all. It’s just the truth can’t help shining through: these people had hard lives and found happiness and companionship in the pub.
There are also a few stray beer-related nuggets and facts scattered throughout the text:
London consumed 43,200,000 gallons of porter and ale each year.
In London, “according to Sir R. Mayne”, there were 3,613 beer shops, 5,279 public houses, 13 wine rooms.
People were accompanying oysters with pale ale – not stout.
And, finally, there’s this piece of temperance-flavoured philosophy:
The truth is, men have often reserved the outpourings of their mind for the social glass, and have fallen into the natural mistake of believing that it was the glass, and not the opportunity and the action of mind upon mind, that elicited a certain amount of joyous fun.
In other words, it’s the socialising that makes you merry, not the booze. And, temperance propaganda aside, there might be something in that.
You can find the full text of The Night Side of Londonvia the Hathi Trust and no doubt elsewhere, too.
In 1836, somebody calling themselves ‘Observer’ put out a treatise in six parts comparing gin shops, or gin palaces, with pubs.
We’d never come across it until it popped up in a search for something else via the Hathi Trust website. What particularly caught our attention were the illustrations, reproduced below.
The introductory paragraph to the first issue suggests to us that it might have been a propaganda tool of brewers keen to bolster the image of beer as a healthy, moderate alternative to spirits:
A Succinct Historical Narrative of the Gin-shop; its Commencement, rapid Increase, its Collapse and System, with the inherent Evils, special Influences, deceptive Allurements, and demoralizing Nature of its Workings, carefully dissected, analyzed, and Comparisons drawn, proving the System to be worse than an intolerable Nuisance; while the Public-house System is shown to be both highly Useful and Necessary.
In fact, later on, the author grumbles that the Morning Advertiser (which, don’t forget, is an ancient institution) refused to run an advert for his series of pamphlets because it was so strident in defence of publicans and might offend gin-palace operators.
American brewery Goose Island has collaborated with beer historian Ron Pattinson, veteran London brewer Derek Prentice and the Wimbledon Brewery to produce what it reckons is the most accurate recreation of a 19th century London porter yet.
We’ve known this beer was in the pipeline for a while, not least because Goose Island’s Mike Siegel emailed us back in February asking for help finding an illustration of porter vats to be used in the promo video.
A quick note: Goose Island is owned by AB-InBev; so is Beer Hawk. That, along with the price, might give some principled beer geeks reason to hold off. And, further disclosure: we’ve corresponded with Mike Siegel on and off for years, we know Ron Pattinson fairly well, and someone from Beer Hawk subscribes to our Patreon.
For our part, we don’t draw a hard line re: AB and would point to this as an example of where the resources big beer is able to bring to the table pays off for curious consumers. That’s a thought echoed by Ron Pattinson in an email responding to a question from us – why work with Goose Island?
A totally honest assessment is: because they pay me cash money and pay for a load of travel. Financially, it’s one of the few collaborations that make any sense for me. It’s also a case of them being able to afford what are very expensive projects with little chance of making much of a profit on the beer. I’m pretty sure they lost money on Brewery Yard. We’ve been collaborating for about five years and have only managed two beers so far. Most small breweries couldn’t justify the effort and time for pretty much no financial return… In many ways it’s a breath of fresh air working with a large brewery. They expect to have to pay for my services. Something smaller brewers often neglect… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had very good experiences with some very small breweries. Pretty Things and Zebulon, for example. Others really take the piss.
In this case, those resources paid for authentic brown malt kilned over hornbeam wood by Valley Malt of Massachusetts, and the wherewithal to age for a year one of the two beers blended to create the final product.
After all that effort, it only seemed fair to drink it from the oldest beer glass in the cupboard, c.1930s, and to give it our full attention.
It had fairly high carbonation but certainly not any ‘fizz’ and gave off a musty, leathery stink immediately on opening. It was deep red rather than black.
First gulps, dominated by the funky aroma of Brettanomyces, revealed a lighter body than many modern porters, despite the 6.3% alcohol by volume, and a distinct dryness.
First reactions: Ray liked it, Jess didn’t.
“Tastes like Bretted water,” was her gut response.
Ray found more to enjoy, picking up on a sort of nutmeg spiciness and more tobacco and leather.
The key takeaway, if we accept the authenticity of this recreation, is that 19th century porter wasn’t as madly challenging as we might sometimes imagine. It was an everyday drink, not an ‘extreme beer’.
As long as you’re somewhat used to Brettanomyces, it’s a refreshing, lively, fairly easy-drinking beer – not sour, heavy or sickly.
If you’re interested in historic beer, you will want to try it if you can. Having said that, we reckon you could get about 90% of the way there by blending your favourite strong porter with Orval.
What we’d really like is for other brewers to taste this and think, oh, easy – I can do that. We’d be delighted to come across more dark beers with Brettanomyces, historically accurate or not, especially if they were presented without hoo-ha, by the pint, in normal pubs.
When I’m not obsessing over beer I sometimes obsess over architecture which is why I’ve been reading Walter Ison’s The Buildings of Georgian Bristol.
It was first published in 1952 and revised for a second edition in 1978. It mostly comprises fairly dry research into buildings and street layouts – who designed or built what with reference to original contracts, whether the pediment is segmental or not, and so on – but you won’t be surprised to learn that there are a couple mentions of brewing that leapt out.
The first is with reference to Queen Square, which you can see from Small Bar on King Street, to give a beer geek friendly reference point. Originally marshland, it was divided up into plots from 1699 and built up between 1700 and 1718. It had a dual carriageway running through the middle for most of the 20th century but is these days once again a peaceful public space.
Ison quotes from the city records for 1699 which include the terms of what we would now call planning permission for the first house on Queen Square:
[No] Tenement [is] to be lett out to any sort of Tenants particularly no Smiths Shopp Brewhouse nor to any Tallow-Chandler or to any other Tradesmen who by noyse danger of ffire or ill smells shall disturbe or annoy any of the Inhabitants who shall build neer it…
This was a classy development for well-to-do folk and it wouldn’t do for it to pong or otherwise exhibit evidence of people working. These days in Bristol, breweries tend to be on industrial estates – the logical conclusion of this kind of zoning regulation.
The second reference comes in a description of the development of Portland Square from 1788. Here, Ison quotes for a sale notice for the middle house on the south side of the square from 1812:
[The house contains] three arched under-ground cellars, a servants’ hall, housekeeper’s room, back-kitchen, larder, brew-house, and other offices…
A brewhouse is an interesting addition to a large, fashionable house as late as the early 19th century. Other houses nearby seem to have had wine cellars rather the brewing facilities, at least according to Ison’s notes, so the owner of this one was clearly one of us.
But who did the brewing? What did they brew? Where would we even start looking to find out?
A couple of months ago someone tagged us into a Twitter query: what is the origin of the name of a pub called The Man Within Compass? After weeks of digging around, we think we’ve sussed it.
The Man Within Compass is a famous real ale pub in Whitwick, near Coalville, in Leicestershire, and has been in numerous editions of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide over the years.
Its name is apparently unique and certainly mysterious – none of the standard references seem to even offer a suggestion. There’s no joy to be had from local history websites, either.
So, we went through our usual research routines:
1. Search the exact phrase using quotes (“man within compass”) to see if it appears in old books, newspapers or the Bible. All the references we found were to the pub itself, or seemed unlikely to be connected, e.g. John Locke uses those words in that order but there’s no obvious link.
2. Search variations on the phrase: “manwithin compass” and “man withen compass” (between unorthodox spelling and dodgy OCR, this can sometimes turn up results); “manwidden compass” (pub names are often mangled versions of place or personal names); and “men within compass”.
3. Look for partial matches: “man within”, “within compass”, “man * compass”, and so on.
It was “within compass” that unlocked it, specifically leading us to the following mass-produced print from c.1820 at the British Museum website.
We spotted the above post one one of our favourite Instagram accounts the other day and thought it ought to be a doddle to track down the history of the Rock House Tavern. Well, it wasn’t, but we think we’ve got there, and the solution offers an intriguing glimpse into the past.
First, yes, Liz is right– there is no useful information online, or in our copy of the 1975 pub guide, or in newspapers archives. Searching for mention of pubs around that location in more general terms, though, did point us to a 1986 book called City Pit: Memoirs of a Speedwell Miner by Fred Moss. It might surprise some people to discover that Bristol had coal mines but it did. Fred Moss was born in 1906 and started work as a miner in 1921. Here’s what he has to say about drinking, on p.37:
[Let] me tell you about “The Long Bar”. This consisted of a lane running from Deep Pit Road to Holly Lodge Road. There were just a few houses in Holly Lodge, only a couple of miners lived there. Now about half way up this lane there was a pond called the “Lilly Pond”. It was a pool consisting of water pumped from the nearby pit. In this lane there was also a single railway track, which was used to carry trucks of coal from Speedwell Pit to the main Great Western Railway line and of course the Midland Railway line. The track was also used to take trucks of small coal to the coke ovens and washing plant.
Now, near this lane there was an off-licence beer house. The afternoon shift miners would buy beer at this off-licence and on a nice sunny day would to to this lane and have a chat and a drink before descending the pit…. There would be twenty or thirty men either sitting on a grass bank of leaning against a wooden fence drinking and chatting before working and when the morning shift came up from work, some of them would buy a drink and stand or sit in the lane before going home. Yes! I would say that was the longest bar in the world.
We find this fascinating — another reminder that people enjoyed beer in all kinds of ways in the past, not only in what we would now recognise as pubs, and following all kinds of patterns dictated by their work.
Fred’s memoir gives us some hard information to work with and we are blessed in 2018 with easy access to historic maps, satellite imagery and Google Street View which means it’s quite easy to pin all this down.
Here’s the lane we think Fred is describing as pictured in an OS map from the immediate post-WWII period, via Know Your Place:
The Rock House is at the very bottom left corner, marked “BH” for beerhouse; the lane is Brook Road which runs off immediately opposite passing a reservoir (the pond Fred mentions?) and crossing a small railway line on the way to Holly Lodge Road, which also fits with Fred’s description. One small wrinkle: there is another beerhouse marked on the map, also near the point where the lane spits out, so maybe he didn’t have The Rock House in mind. But we still reckon all this, especially the BH designation on the map, explains why The Rock House is so obscure: though it may have started as a proper drink-in beerhouse c.1830, it probably became a purely take-out premises in the wake of the 1869 Licensing Act.
But that’s just somewhat informed guesswork. If you know otherwise, drop us a line or comment below. We’ll keep an eye out in books and archives as we go and, as Google Maps satellite imagery suggests the lane is still there and now a public footpath, we’ll also go exploring and see what we can see.
Main image, top: Bristol miners c.1906 via City Pit.
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.