How they brought the good news from 1700 to today

Now I understand why those nice people at Brains Brewery wanted to invite me to be on their table at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ annual dinner and awards last night. They knew – which I, of course, didn’t – that I’d won the “Best Use of Online Media” award, perhaps better described as “beer blogger of the year”, which Brains sponsored.

Alas, the need to earn a living kept me 6,000 miles away from the dinner, so I never found out until checking Twitter this morning, to see what people were saying about the event, that I’d won the online category. Thank you, Zak Avery, for letting me know. And very well done to all the other victors, especially Marverine Cole and Des de Moor, both first-time category winners, and Ben McFarland, who picked up his third Beer Writer of the Year tankard, a feat which puts him on a par with Michael Jackson and Allan McLean as a three-times winner, and makes him easily the most successful writer in the awards in the past 10 years. Only Alistair Gilmour has won more golds overall, and his first one came in 1998.

I was actually hoping for a runners-up mug – seriously, I’ve never won one of those, and I genuinely didn’t fancy my chances in the online category over-much, so I’d ruled myself out as a category winner: there are currently a large number of VERY good beer blogs from UK operators, all much more accessible than my 2,000 to 4,000-word rants and essays, I thought. Evidently the judges this year disagreed. Yay!

That was the particularly good news of the week: but there was excellent news from earlier, too. I love the British Library: it keeps making my life as a beer historian easier and more rewarding. You may have seen the announcement that thousands of old newspapers from 1700 to 1949, from the holdings of the British Newspaper Library at Colindale (a subsidiary of the BL at St Pancras), have now been scanned and put on line. Suddenly, from my own computer, and while supping a Mackeson XXX (brewed in Trinidad – more on that another time) I can seek answers to all sorts of interesting questions.

Such as? Well, were they really drinking pale ale in London early in the reign of George I? Why yes: here’s a tragic story from the Ipswich Journal of 18 September 18, 1725:

Yesterday about 2 a clock in the morning a Fire broke out at Mr Bishop’s Pale-Ale House in Bell-Savage Yard, Ludgate-Hill; which consumed the said house and damaged some others adjoyning: It began in the Kitchen, but by what means is not yet known: Mr Prisley, an elderly Man, a Prisoner in the Fleet that lodg’d in the House, was burned to Death … The Mistress of the Bell-Savage Inn adjoining was brought to bed the day before; the Nurse upon the Alarm of Fire ran out with the Child, whereupon the poor Mother got out of Bed in a distracted Manner, and ran into the Yard crying Fire, Fire; and is so ill thereupon that her Life is in imminent Danger.

But was this imported pale ale, from Derby or Burton? Did they brew pale ale that early in London itself? Why yes – here’s an extract from the Newcastle Courant of 22 January 1726:

Bankrupts since our last list … James Reilly, of St James’s in Westminster, in the County of Middlesex, Pale-Ale-Brewer

Reilly’s bankruptcy did not mean business was necessarily bad for London’s early pale ale brewers, though it was evidently extremely dangerous: here’s an extract from the Derby Mercury from 13 July 1738:

On Monday a terrible Accident happen’d at a Pale-Ale Brewhouse in Barnaby-street, Southwark, through the Carelessness of a Stoker; who, not considering how high the Copper was charg’d, simply took down the Curb, when the boiling Liquor flush’d out of a sudden on him, an Exciseman, and a Gardener’s Servant who was filling his Master’s Cart with Grains. The latter was carry’d to Guy’s Hospital, but is scalded in so miserable a Manner, that his Life is not expected; and the other two, who are under private Surgeons Hands, are in such Misery that it’s though they can’t recover.

and from the Ipswich Journal of 26 November 1743:

On Wednesday last Mr Drace, a Brewer of Pale Ale at the Greyhound in Hoxton, had the Misfortune to fall into the Copper of boiling Liquor, and scalded himself in such a terrible Manner, that a great part of his Skin came off with his Cloaths; but yet there are Hopes that he will recover.

There’s a load of stuff to analyse there: for example, evidently London brewers sold their grains after mashing to gardeners, presumably (anybody have a better explanation?) for fertiliser. This is a tremendous new resource: it will, it is true, cost you £80 a year to access the British Newspaper Archive (cheaper deals are available for shorter periods), but that’s less than the cost of half a pint a week. And the scanning is a very long way still from perfect: search results can end up with garbage like this:

.KTb~ ~so long ce11~lebrted in RInd, hortuOwbecomeew anaat- 5,oroe mphi great 09011*onotiou litthis country, (where it is~almost in of ouperotdlgeteri’other aert of malt llquor,)ta fllltessre.

which suggests the OCR system being used needs considerable improvement yet.

All the same, the pages themselves are perfectly readable once brought up: and even an imperfect OCR system gives results unbelievably quicker and superior to ploughing through miles of microfilm in Colindale for the tiniest chance of finding something interesting.

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22 thoughts on “How they brought the good news from 1700 to today

  1. Congrats again – I can’t believe I was the only person who tweeted that! What a lazy, inconsiderate. drunk bunch my fellow guests at the dinner were.

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  2. Congratulations from one of your most recent [converts? fans? followers?] having at last found a beer writer who debunks the tedious myths about brewing and beer [the con of the ale conner particularly irritates!]. Also in the hope that you might be able to point me to a stockist of The Story of the Pint as Santa has so far been unable to lay his hands on one…

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    • Thanks, Thomas – although the pieces I entered were, apart from the one on the 1900 pub, not the monumental slabs of history I normally serve up, but “my five worst beers”, what beers you get in the Burj al Arab, white wine for men and the developing London bar scene.

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  3. Congratulations indeed, very well done.

    (Mack XXX from Trini out in Honkers? And you’ve got Guinness FES too, from Malaysia. I’d blend the two for a circa-6% abv Cooper. Prove old Rudy wrong re “East is East and West is West…) :)

    Gary

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  4. Yes, congrats. Obviously I don’t read your stuff, but I believe it’s very good. There was a little bit of pre-buzz chatter about you, so it wasn’t a complete surprise to some of us. Anyway, it wouldn’t have been a proper awards ceremony without the obligatory “Unfortunately, he can’t be with us tonight” momemt.

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  5. “evidently London brewers sold their grains after mashing to gardeners, presumably (anybody have a better explanation?) for fertiliser”

    After a brew at The Old Brewery on the Old Royal Naval College site at Greenwich, my spent grains go into green skips in the mews, together with the gardeners’ fallen leaves, grass cuttings etc, and are put on the compost heaps to provide compost for use in Greenwich Park. So, yes – and the tradition continues, even if the gardeners now get it for free.

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  6. Nice one Martyn – I’m sure it must have been because of the Australian Brews News podcast you featured in … right?

    And wonderful as it sounds that Colindale is now http://www.colindale I feel as if the painstaking microfiche-ing trips I did there for my MA thesis have been reduced to a url and a few lazy backslashes.

    PS – my grains go in the compost

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