The woman who served George Orwell pints of mild

Irene Stacey and the George Orwell beer mug

Sometimes you find stuff on the internet that is just so fabulously fantastic: this is Irene Stacey, who used to serve George Orwell pints of mild in that very jug, peeps, when she was landlady of the Plough in Wallington, North Hertfordshire and he was living next door with his first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, in a tiny, narrow cottage.

That jug is a classic example of English mocha ware – there’s a good account of how the tree-like decorations on mocha ware were made here – and I possess an almost identical proper pint mocha ware beer mug of the sort that must have been common in country pubs and beerhouses right up to the Second World War. I wonder if the Plough also had the salmon-pink china beer mugs Orwell praised in his classic essay from 1946 on the “ideal” English pub, The Moon Under Water? Certainly he wrote in that essay that in his opinion, “beer tastes better out of china”.

The beer Orwell would have carried home in that jug was Simpson’s dark mild from the little market town of Baldock, a few miles from Wallington. The Plough had been owned by the brewery from at least 1799, when the brewery itself was owned by the Pryor family, relatives of the Simpsons – one branch of the Pryors owned Harwood’s old brewery in Shoreditch, and later became partners in the big London porter brewery Truman Hanbury & Buxton in Brick Lane. Simpson’s lovely old Georgian-fronted brewery was acquired by Greene King in 1954, and closed in 1965 (and demolished soon after, a crime against fine architecture).

I knew the Plough – itself closed now, woe – from when I was chairman of North Herts Camra all of 30 years ago (and Colin Valentine was probably still drinking Irn Bru). It was one of dozens of little pubs that served the quiet, isolated villages of North Herts, a part of England that is astonishingly rural, despite being only 30 miles from central London, and you could still get dark mild there, albeit from Greene King’s Biggleswade brewery.

I knew, too, that Orwell had lived in Wallington, renting a cottage there for 11 years, from 1936 to 1947: the village is a brisk walk over fields to Baldock, from where you can be in London by train in an hour. Wallington is echoed in the name of the town in Orwell’s Animal Farm, Willingdon, and Wallington had a Manor Farm, the original name of Animal Farm in Orwell’s allegorical fiction before the pig-led “revolution”.

I had, however, only guessed that Orwell must have drunk in the Plough: but last Saturday Mrs Stacey (94, and looking good, Irene, if I might say so) revealed to her local newspaper, the North Herts Comet (on which I worked as a reporter from 1974 to 1978, my first job in journalism) that Orwell regularly called in for a take-away jug of mild. Mrs Stacey also revealed that she used to put some of Orwell’s friends up at the Plough when they came to visit, where they paid the classic bed-and-breakfast charge of half-a-crown, two shillings and sixpence a night (If you’ve ever wondered why some darts players, when a rival scores a 20, a 5 and a 1 – very easy to do, they’re the three numbers at the top of the board – shout: “Bed and breakfast, two and six!”, that’s the answer.)

I was astonished to see Mrs Stacey claim that one of Orwell’s visitors was Quentin Crisp. I had been thinking about Noel Coward and Benny Hill, who both, at different times, lived in my current home town, Teddington, and trying to imagine another pair of people who were each quintessentially English and yet utterly unlike one another. Quentin Crisp and George Orwell are that pair. However, apparently Orwell and Crisp both used to hang out in Fitzrovia (as did Dylan Thomas, another member of my small but growing selection of Celebrity Mild Drinkers, alongside Orwell and Lemmy “Motörhead” Kilmister), so presumably knew each other from the pubs and cafes around Charlotte Street. I wonder if Quentin Crisp drank Simpson’s dark mild too when he visited Wallington …

Mild, incidentally, is the drink the old man orders in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four when Winston Smith quizzes him in the pub about the past:

“You must have seen great changes since you were a young man,” said Winston tentatively. The old man’s pale blue eyes moved from the darts board to the bar, and from the bar to the door of the Gents … “The beer was better,” he said finally. “And cheaper! When I was a young man, mild beer – wallop we used to call it – was fourpence a pint. That was before the war, of course.”

Why mild was called “wallop”, when a wallop was what it certainly did not have, not in the 1930s, anyway, being less than four per cent abv, I have no idea – just as a WAG it might be rhyming slang, “wallop the child”, but I wouldn’t take that suggestion seriously.

You can read much more about Orwell’s time in Wallington at this excellent site, where there’s a picture of his cottage – amusingly (it amuses me, anyway) in Orwell’s time it had a corrugated iron roof, but is now thatched. This Google Street View scene takes you to outside the old Plough: turn 90 degrees to the west, go forward past the ex-pub, and Orwell’s old cottage is the first building on your right: you can see the brown English Heritage-style plaque on the wall.

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15 thoughts on “The woman who served George Orwell pints of mild

  1. If the alternative to china mugs is pewter tankards, then I’m with Orwell all the way. A glass also serves the purpose though :)

  2. The whole story seems to be, for lack a better term, un-Orwellian. Perhaps, those little bits of humdrum, like take out jugs of mild, was what Orwell hoped we would never lose to dystopia. Maybe, to a much lesser extent, he was right.

  3. My late father, who was a teenager in the late 1930s, often called beer ‘wallop’ which I took as being a generic term for cheap beer – cooking bitter and the like.

    • Certainly the perception in the 1930s, Simon, is that the term “wallop” seems to be reserved for mild, never bitter – which was, in any case, a more expensive and upmarket drink – what you had in the saloon bar, rather than in the public bar.

  4. When Whitbread (that’s how long ago we’re talking about here) opened the Dog & Parrot brewpub in Newcastle they used to have a concoction called Wallop, presumably named by some marketing creature who’d found the name in an old book or something. It was like a dark mild, but, as with all their malt extract & hop oil home brewed beers, disgusting!

    • Davy’s Wine Bars in London sell a draught beer they call Old Wallop, which used to be rebadged Courage Directors and is now, I believe, rebadged Shepherd Neame Spitfire.

  5. I’ve looked into wallop’s etymology. It is related to the word wobble, and meant originally, motion or agitation as in that of boiling of water. Although the connection seems not evident, the opinion has been offered that the motion of hitting something or someone derives from this meaning.

    Mild ale was strong beer in the 1800′s, and I think the most logical inference is that it would hit you good after a pot or two and therefore was a wallop.

    The Cockney rhyming slang theory you referred to, Martyn, is certainly possible although I think less likely. Another possibility is that since all beer is boiled, the distinctive roil of boiling wort was viewed as a walloping and this became applied to the finished product.

    Incidentally (lots of incidentals in this type of business), the term gallop is related to wallop, it appears.

    I loved Davy’s Old Wallop when it was – as I later learned from Zythophile – Director’s Bitter, I like Sheps but would be distraught to learn this has changed even if Director’s ain’t brewed in Bristol no more.

    Gary

  6. The link to the “excellent site” mentioned in the sentence (first sentence last paragraph): “You can read much more about Orwell’s time in Wallington at this excellent site” is not working. Quite interested in checking it out. Thanks.

  7. Proof, if it were needed, that the supposedly American concept of “growlers”, or take home beer, is not entirely new.

  8. Notwithstanding Orwell’s links with Hertfordshire, he actually wrote Animal Farm in Willingdon, which is an actual village near Eastbourne (where he went to school). He was staying at a farm called Chalk Farm, not far from a pub called The Red Lion. Lots of sheep around those parts but not many pigs.

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