Remembering the victims of the Great London Beer Flood, 200 years ago today

Wherever you are at 5.30pm this evening, please stop a moment and raise a thought – a glass, too, if you have one, preferably of porter – to Hannah Banfield, aged four years and four months; Eleanor Cooper, 14, a pub servant; Elizabeth Smith, 27, the wife of a bricklayer; Mary Mulvey, 30, and her son by a previous marriage, Thomas Murry (sic), aged three; Sarah Bates, aged three years and five months; Ann Saville, 60; and Catharine Butler, a widow aged 65. All eight died 200 years ago today, victims of the Great London Beer Flood, when a huge vat filled with maturing porter fell apart at Henry Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, and more than 570 tons of beer crashed through the brewery’s back wall and out into the slums behind in a vast wave at least 15 feet high, flooding streets and cellars and smashing into buildings, in at least one case knocking people from a first-floor room. It could have been worse: the vat that broke was actually one of the smallest of 70 or so at the brewery, and contained just under 3,600 barrels of beer, while the largest vat at the brewery held 18,000 barrels. In addition, if the vat had burst an hour or so later, the men of the district would have been home from work, and the buildings behind the brewery, all in multiple occupancy, with one family to a room, would have been much fuller when the tsunami of porter hit them.

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

From a Dr Who cartoon novel in 2012: was the Great Beer Flood caused by time-travellers? (No, obviously not …)

Here’s about the only eye witness report of what it’s like to be hit in the back by a giant wave of beer, written by an anonymous American who had been unlucky in taking a short-cut down New Street, behind the brewery, when the vat burst:

All at once, I found myself borne onward with great velocity by a torrent which burst upon me so suddenly as almost to deprive me of breath. A roar as of falling buildings at a distance, and suffocating fumes, were in my ears and nostrils. I was rescued with great difficulty by the people who immediately collected around me, and from whom I learned the nature of the disaster which had befallen me. An immense vat belonging to a brew house situated in Banbury street [sic – now Bainbridge Street], Saint Giles, and containing four or five thousand barrels of strong beer, had suddenly burst and swept every thing before it. Whole dwellings were literally riddled by the flood; numbers were killed; and from among the crowds which filled the narrow passages in every direction came the groans of sufferers.

Accounts today of the Meux brewery beer flood are full of claims of “besotted mobs flinging themselves into gutters full of beer, hampering rescue efforts” and claims that “many were suffocated in the crush of hundreds trying to get a free beer” and “the death toll eventually reached 20, including some deaths from alcohol coma”. None of this is borne out by any newspaper reports at the time, and nor are the stories about riots at the Middlesex Hospital when victims were taken there stinking of beer, because other patients smelt the porter and thought free drink was being given away, or the floor at the pub where several of the victims’ bodies were laid out collapsing under the weight of sightseers and more people being killed. All those stories appear to be completely made up. It would be an interesting exercise to track these myths back and see when and where they first arose.

Here’s an account of the accident from a contemporary journal:

DOMESTIC INTELLIGENCE

DREADFUL ACCIDENT

Monday night, the 17th October, one of those accidents which fortunately for the inhabitants of the metropolis is of rare occurence threw the neighhourhood of St Giles’s into the utmost consternation. About six o clock one of the vats in the extensive premises of Messrs Henry Meux and Co in Banbury street St Giles’s burst apart; in a moment New street George street and several others in the vicinity were deluged with the contents of 3,555 barrels of strong beer. The fluid in its course swept every thing before it. Two houses in New street adjoining the brew house were totally demolished. The inhabitants, who were of the poorer class, were all at home. In the first floor of one of them a mother and daughter were at tea; the mother was washed out of the window and the daughter was swept away by the current through a partition and dashed to pieces. The back parts of the houses of Mr Goodwin, poulterer, of Mr Hawse, Tavistock Arms, and Nos 24 and 25 in Great Russel street were nearly destroyed. The female servant of the Tavistock Arms was suffocated. Three of Mr Meux’s men employed in the brewery were rescued with great difficulty. The site of the place is low and flat, and there being no declivity to carry off the fluid in its fall, it spread and sunk into the neighbouring cellars, all of which were inhabited. Even the cellars in Russel street were inundated and breaches made through the houses. The inhabitants, to save themselves from drowning, had to mount their highest pieces of furniture. The bursting of the brew house walls and the fall of heavy timber materially contributed to aggravate the mischief by forcing the roofs and walls of the adjoining houses. It was feared at first that the lives lost exceeded 20, but we are happy to find the account reduced to eight, whose bodies have been all recovered.

And here’s a report of the coroner’s inquest:

On Thursday a Coroner’s Inquest was held on the dead bodies at St Giles’s workhouse. George Crick deposed that he was store house clerk to Messrs H Meux and Co of the Horse Shoe Brew house in St Giles’s, with whom he had lived 17 years. Monday afternoon one of the large iron hoops of the vat which burst fell off. He was not alarmed, as it happened frequently and was not attended by any serious consequence. He wrote to inform a partner, Mr Young, also a vat builder, of the accident, he had the letter in his hand to send to Mr Young, about half past five, half an hour after the accident, and was standing on a platform within three yards of the vat when he heard it burst. He ran to the store house where the vat, was and was shocked to see that one side of the brew house, upwards of 25 feet in height and two bricks and a half thick, with a considerable part of the roof, lay in ruins. The next object that took his attention was his brother, J Crick, who was a superintendent under him, lying senseless, he being pulled from under one of the butts. He and the labourer were now in the Middlesex Hospital. An hour after, witness found the body of Ann Saville floating among the butts, and also part of a private still, both of which floated from neighbouring houses. The cellar and two deep wells in it were full of beer, which witness and those about him endeavoured to save, so that they could not go to see the accident, which happened outwardly. The height of the vat that burst was 22 feet; it was filled within 4 inches of the top and then contained 3555 barrels of entire, being beer that was ten months brewed; the four inches would hold between 30 and 40 barrels more; the hoop which burst was 700 cwt, which was the least weight of any of 22 hoops on the vat. There were seven large hoops, each of which weighed near a ton. When the vat burst the force and pressure was so great that it stove several hogsheads of porter and also knocked the cock out of a vat nearly as large that was in the cellar or regions below; this vat contained 2100 barrels all of which except 800 barrel also ran; about they lost in all between 8 and 9000 barrels of beer; the vat from whence the cock was knocked out ran about a barrel a minute; the vat that burst had been built between eight and nine years and was kept always nearly full. It had an opening on the top about a yard square; it was about eight inches from the wall; witness supposes it was the rivets of the hoops that slipped, none of the hoops being broke and the foundation where the vat stood not giving way. The beer was old, so that the accident could not have been occasioned by the fermentation, that natural process being past; besides, the action would then have been upwards and thrown off the flap made moveable for that purpose.

Richard Hawes deposed that he lived at No 22 Great Russel strcet Bloomsbury, the Tavistock Arms Public house; about half past five o’ clock on Monday evening witness was in his tap room when he heard the crash; the back part of his house was beaten in and every thing in his cellar destroyed; the cellar and tap room filled with beer so that it was pouring across the street into the areas on the opposite side; the deceased, Eleanor Cooper, his servant, was in the yard washing pots at the time the accident happened; she was buried under the ruins, from whence she was dug out about 10 minutes past eight o’ clock; she was found standing by the water butt, quite dead.

John Cummins deposed that he was a bricklayer and lived in Pratt’s place, Camden Town, being the owner of some houses in New street where the principal part of the persons who were lost, resided; he attended on the spot all day on Tuesday to render assistance to the sufferers. Elizabeth Smith, a bricklayer’s wife, was the first body they found, about twelve o’clock in the ruins of a first floor. Sarah Bates, a child, was discovered in about an hour afterward in the ruins of No 3 New street. Catharine Butler, a widow, Mary Mulvey and her son Thomas Murry, a boy three years of age, were found about four o clock, on Tuesday afternoon. Hannah Banfield, a girl about four years and a half old, with her mother and another child, were at tea on the first floor; the two former were washed by the flood into the ruins; the dead body of Hannah Banfield was found in the ruins about half past six; the mother was carried to the Middlesex Hospital, and the last mentioned child was found nearly suffocated in a bed in the room.

The Jury without hesitation, returned a Verdict of Died by Casualty Accidentally and by Misfortune.

Why did they store such huge quantities of porter at the brewery in such enormous vessels? Because experience had shown that porter stored for months in vats acquired a particularly sought-after set of flavours, and storing it in really big vessels reduced the risk of oxidisation (since the surface area merely squared as the volume cubed). This “stale” (meaning “stood for some time”, rather than “off”), flat and probably quite sour aged porter was then send out in casks when ready, and mixed at the time of service in the pub with porter from a cask that was “mild”, that is, fresh and still lively, and probably a little sweet. Customers would specify the degree of mildness or staleness they would like their porter drawn, having it mixed to their own preference. Tastes changed over the 19th century, “stale” porter fell out of favour, and by the 1890s the big vats were being dismantled, the oak they were made from recycled into pub bar-tops. Quite possibly there are pubs in London now whose bars are made out of old porter vats.

The Meux (pronounced “mewks”) brewery stood at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street until the early 1920s, but production was shifted in 1921 to Nine Elms (itself now demolished and the site of New Covent Garden flower and vegetable market) and the Horse Shoe brewery was replaced by the Dominion Theatre. The Horseshoe Inn next door remained open until the 1990s or so, but eventually closed itself: you can still get a drink on the site, as a branch of Cafe Rouge now occupies the ground floor, but you can’t, alas, get a pint of porter.

At the Brewery History Society we have been trying to get a plaque put up to commemorate the event, and honour the victims, but with no success: I believe the American company that owns the Dominion Theatre failed even to reply, while the Camden Historical Society, inside whose borough the site now falls, took the strange view that “not enough people died” to make it worthwhile having a permanent memorial. How many dead women and children is enough, Camden?

The Meux brewery at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street exactly 100 years ago, in 1914

The Meux brewery at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street exactly 100 years ago, in 1914

(There’s a rather fuller account of the flood, and the history of the Horse Shoe brewery by me here.)

You won’t believe this one weird trick they used to fly beer to the D-Day troops in Normandy

Normandy, 70 years ago, and one of the biggest concerns of the British troops who have made it over the channel, survived the landings and pushed out into the bocage against bitter German resistance is not the V1 flying bomb blitz threatening their families back home, nor the continued failure to capture the port of Cherbourg – but the lack of beer in the bridgehead. On 20 June 1944, two weeks after D-Day, Reuter’s special correspondent with the Allied Forces in France wrote to newspapers in the UK that all that was available in the newly liberated estaminets a few miles inland from the beaches was cider, “and it is pretty watery stuff. I saw a British private wistfully order a pint of mild and bitter: but the glass he sat down with contained the eternal cider.”

Spitfire droptank fuelling

Tangmere, Sussex, July 1944: in front of a Spitfire IX of 332 (Norwegian) Squadron, a standard 45-gallon Typhoon/Hurricane ‘Torpedo’ jettison tank modified for use on the Spitfire (because of an expected shortage of 45-gallon shaped or slipper tanks) is filled with PA ale for flying over to Normandy while an RAF ‘erk’ writes a cheery message on the tank. The pilot sitting on the wing in this clearly posed government publicity picture is wearing a Norwegian Air Force cap-badge – something no one who has reprinted this picture seems ever to have pointed out. Is the man filling the tank a brewery worker? Surely. Is the beer from Henty and Constable’s brewery in nearby Chichester? It seems very likely …

It would not be until July 12 when “real British beer” finally officially reached the battling troops in Normandy, and even then the quantity was enough only for one pint per man. But long before then, enterprising pilots in the RAF – and the USAAF – had been engaged in shipping beer into Northern France privately, using what the troops called “flying pubs”. Continue reading

Was water really regarded as dangerous to drink in the Middle Ages?

It’s a story I’ve been guilty of treating a little too uncritically myself: “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe.” But is that correct? No, not at all, according to the American food history blogger Jim Chevallier, who calls it The Great Medieval Water Myth

Chevallier declares (and a big hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for pointing me in his direction):

“Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”

He quotes the book Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” And he concludes:

“There is no specific reason then to believe that people of the time drank proportionately less water than we do today; rather, since water was not typically sold, transported, taxed, etc., there simply would have been no reason to record its use. Did people in the time prefer alcoholic drinks? Probably, and for the same reason most people today drink liquids other than water: variety and flavor. A young man in a tenth century Saxon colloquy is asked what he drinks and answers: “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer.” This is a clear expression of both being comfortable with water and preferring beer.

It is certainly true that water-drinking was considerably more widespread than many modern commentators would seem to believe, particularly by the less-well-off. In 13th century London, as the population grew, and the many wells and watercourses that had previously supplied Londoners, such as the Walbrook, the Oldbourn (or Holborn) and the Langbourn (which arose in the fen or bog that Fenchurch was erected near), were built around, covered over, filled in and otherwise made undrinkable, to quote John Stowe’s Survey of London of 1603,

“they were forced to seek sweet Waters abroad; whereof some, at the Request of King Henry the Third, in the 21st Year of his Reign [1237], were (for the Profit of the City… to wit, for the Poor to Drink [my emphasis], and the Rich to dress their Meat) granted to the Citizens, and their Successors … with Liberty to convey Water from the Town of Tyburn, by Pipes of Lead into the City.”

The “town of Tyburn” was the small settlement near what is now Marble Arch, about two and a half miles from St Paul’s cathedral, which took its name from the Tyburn River, the middle of three rivers that flowed down from the heights of Hampstead to the Thames (the others being the Westbourne and the Fleet). The water that was taken by pipe to the City came, depending on which source – pun – you believe in, either from the Tyburn river, or six wells at Tyburn village. The “Pipes of lead” eventually became the Great Conduit.

St Hildegard of Bingen

St Hildegard of Bingen

But is it true that “Doctors … certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it”? There were, in fact, influential voices who were not 100 per cent in favour of promoting water over ale. St Hildegard of Bingen, writing in the middle of the 12th century in her book Cause et Cure (“Causes and Cures”), said: “Whether one is healthy or infirm, if one is thirsty after sleeping one should drink wine or beer but not water. For water might damage rather than help one’s blood and humours …beer fattens the flesh and … lends a beautiful colour to the face. Water, however, weakens a person.”

Hildegard’s Physica Sacra of circa 1150 also has a fair bit to say about water and health, and while she says (in the section on salt) “It is more healthful and sane for a thirsty person to drink water, rather than wine, to quench his thirst”, she certainly seemed to have had some qualms about water. For example, talking about pearls, she said: “Pearls are born in certain salty river waters … Take these pearls and place them in water. All the slime in the water will gather around the pearls and the top of the water will be purified and cleansed. A person who has fever should frequently drink the top of this water and he will be better.” That would seem to suggest that she did not think water-drinking was automatically good for sick people without the water being purified.

She also wrote: “One whose lungs ail in any way … should not drink water, since it produces mucus around the lungs … Beer does not harm him much, because it has been boiled,” and someone who has taken a purgative “may drink wine in moderation but should avoid water.”

In addition, in the specific section in the Physica Sacra on water, Hildegard commented on the waters of various German rivers, saying of the Saar: “Its water is healthful neither for drinking fresh nor for being taken cooked in food.” On the Rhine, she wrote: “Its water, taken uncooked, aggravates a healthy person … if the same water is consumed in foods or drinks, or if it is poured over a person’s flesh in a bath or in face-washing, it puffs up the flesh, making it swollen, making it dark-looking.” The Main was all right: “Its water, consumed in food or drink … makes the skin and flesh clean and smooth. It does not change a person or make him sick.” However, the Danube was not recommended: “Its water is not healthy for food or drink since its harshness injures a person’s internal organs.”

Hildegard, therefore, did not universally condemn water, and indeed praised it as a thirst-quencher, but she certainly felt people had to be careful of water, on occasions, when drinking it.

Four centuries after Hildegard, another doctor, Andrew Boorde, was even less enthusiastic about water. In his Dyetary of Helth, first published in 1542, Boorde wrote that

“water is not holsome, sole by it selfe, for an Englysshe man … water is colde, slowe, and slacke of dygestyon. The best water is rayne-water, so that it be clene and purely taken. Next to it is ronnyng water, the whiche doth swyftly ronne from the Eest in to the west upon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed, is ryver or broke [brook] water, the which is clere, ronnyng on pibles and gravayl. Standynge waters, the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng, is commendable; but standyng waters, and well-waters to the whiche the sonne hath no reflyxyon, althoughe they be lyghter than other ronnyng waters be, yet they be not so commendable. And let every man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be putryfyed with froth, duckemet, and mudde; for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingender many infyrmytes.”

The well on Ockley Green, DorkingSo: water – your doctor doesn’t necessarily recommend it at all times and in all places. But it certainly wasn’t condemned outright, and there is no doubt water was drunk, by the poor, and probably by others as well. The records of St Paul’s Cathedral in the 13th century show that tenants of the manors owned by the cathedral who performed work for their landlord, known as a precaria, were supplied with food and drink on the day, but sometimes it was a precaria ad cerevisiam, “with beer”, and sometimes a precaria ad aquam, “with water”. So the bald statement “In the Middle Ages people drank beer rather than water because the water wasn’t safe” is indeed, as Jim Chevallier says, plain wrong.

On the other hand, they drank a lot of ale (and, once hops arrived, beer as well). Those same accounts of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, in the late 13th century indicate an allowance of one “bolla” or gallon of ale per person a day. Still, while monks, canons, workers in religious institutions and the like might have been that lucky, I doubt strongly that every peasant drank that much, all the time. Indeed, there is a very good argument that the country simply could not have grown enough grain to give everyone a gallon of beer a day, every day, while also providing enough grain to meet the demand for bread as well.

The high allowance for beer in monasteries certainly suggests there was little water-drinking going on behind monastery walls: but out in the wider world, where brewing in the early Middle Ages, outside big institutions, cities or large towns, probably generally relied upon householders with the occasional capital surplus to buy some malted grain, knock up a batch of ale and stick the traditional bush up outside the front door to let their neighbours know to pop round for a pint, it seems likely alcohol was rather more of a treat than a regular daily occurrence. Since there was no tea, no coffee or fruit juices, and milk would not have lasted long, that left only one other drink for the thirsty peasant – water.

Worthington ‘E’ is NOT a Burton Ale

This week’s letter comes from a Mr R Protz of St Albans, who writes:

Martyn,
I took a snap of the clip for ‘E’ in the National Brewery Centre Bar y’day. I’ve included it in 300 More Beers … in the Best Bitter section but I notice it’s now labelled Burton Ale. What are your thoughts? Thanks,
Roger

Ale fail: ‘E’ is NOT a Burton Ale.

The answer, of course, is that Roger is completely correct, Worthington ‘E’ is a pale ale or bitter with a strength that puts it in the “Best Bitter” category, and NOT a Burton Ale, which is a different style of beer altogether– darker and sweeter. (Nasty clash of 1920s and 1970s typefaces on that pumpclip there, too, but let’s move on …)

Indeed, back in the 19th century, Worthington ‘E’ was described as an India Pale Ale, as these two ads below from the early 1890s show. Apparently to distinguish themselves from all other brewers, Worthington labelled their brews with a strange and not particularly logical naming system. Their Burton Ales, strong, bitter-sweet and rather darker than an IPA/best bitter, were called G (the strongest, equivalent to Bass No 1), F (the second-strongest) and D (the third-strongest, in the 20th century sold as a mild) – they’re the ones called “strong ales” in the ads. It looks as if the beers, mostly, go up in strength from A mild through B and C and up to G – but what about M light dinner ale, and S and SS, which to most brewers would mean “stout” and “single stout”, but to Worthington mean their cheapest mild and their cheapest light dinner ale, respectively. And XE IPA looks to be weaker than the E … Continue reading

More IPA myths that must die on #IPADay

It’s #IPADAY again, and time for some more IPA mythbusting. Despite the best efforts of many, an amazing amount of inaccurate, made-up rubbish continues to be perpetuated about the history and origins of IPA, or India Pale Ale. All the myths below are genuine statements culled in the past few weeks from websites that claim to be experts on beer.

Myth 1 “The original IPAs had strengths close to 8 to 9 per cent alcohol by volume”.

Rubbish: records show early IPAs rarely went much above 6 or 6.5 per cent abv.

Myth 2 “Historians believe that IPA was then watered down for the troops, while officers and the elite would savour the beer at full strength.”

Complete cobblers’ awls. No historian has ever believed that. There is NO evidence IPA was ever watered down, and the troops drank porter anyway.

Myth 3 “Porters and stouts were not suitable for the torrid Indian climate.”

More unresearched rubbish. Considerable amounts of porter – far more porter than IPA, probably – were exported to India, from at least the second half of the 18th century right through to the end of the 19th century. The East India Company actually used to ask brewers to tender for suppliers of porter to India.

Myth 4 “North American craft brewers more closely adhere to early IPA specifications than do British brewers who, as a group, do not.”

Not true. North American IPAs – excellent though many of them are – use hop types completely unknown to 18th and 19th century British brewers, and major on floral, citrussy flavours and aromas in their IPAs, which are designed to be drunk comparatively young. Early British IPAs were designed to be drunk aged anything up to nine months or more, and while they were certainly bitter, they would have lost most of any hop aroma that they originally had. In addition it is becoming increasingly clear that early British IPAs would have showed at least some Brettanomyces character, from their long ageing in cask. Apart from both containing lots of hops, and being similar colours (except for the black ones) modern North American IPAs and early British IPAs could not be much more different.

Myth 5 “‘East India Pale Ale’ was first brewed in England last century for the colonies East of India such as New Zealand and Australia.”

If you’re reading this, DB Breweries of New Zealand, perpetrators of this dreadful piece of marketing fackwittery in connection with Tui East India Pale Ale, “the East Indies” was the term for the Indian sub-continent and South-East Asia, including the archipelagos of maritime South-East Asia, a name used to contrast the region with the West Indies. Trading companies that did business in this part of the world included the East India Company of London, and the Dutch Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or United East India Company. East India Pale Ale is simply a synonym for India Pale Ale, pale ale brewed for India/the East Indies. It has nothing to do with “East of India”, or Australasia. However, since a year or so back Tui East India Pale Ale won the Brewers Guild of New Zealand award for best New Zealand Draught, an amber lager style, it appears the beer is as accurate in style as the history is as accurate in its facts.

(Addendum: I’ve only just noticed, after several readings of the original quote, that it also says “‘East India Pale Ale’ was first brewed in England last century …”. “Last century” was, of course, the 20th century. They presumably meant the 19th century. Which is wrong anyway, as highly hopped pale ales for India were first sent out from England to India in the 18th century …)

You can read last year’s #IPADAY mythbusting from the Zythophile blog here. Have a good one.

Guinness myths and scandals

Guinness on toast - nom

‘Guinness Marmite’ from the 1930s

Is there a brewery business with more books written about it – is there any business with more books written about it – than Guinness? Effectively a one-product operation, Guinness has inspired tens of millions of words. Without trying hard, I’ve managed to acquire 18 different books about Guinness, the brewery, the people, the product and/or the advertising (four of them written by people called Guinness), and that’s not counting the five editions I have of the lovely little handbook that Guinness used to give to visitors to the brewery at St James’s Gate, dated from 1928 to 1955. There are plenty more books on Guinness I don’t have.

Despite all those volumes of Guinnessiana, however, you can still find a remarkable quantity of Guinness inaccuracy and mythology, constantly added to and recycled, particularly about the brewery’s earliest days. The myths and errors range from Arthur Guinness’s date of birth (the claim that he was born on September 24, 1725 is demonstrably wrong) to the alleged uniqueness of Guinness’s yeast: the idea that the brewery’s success was down to the yeast Arthur Guinness brought with him to Dublin is strangely persistent, though the brewery’s own records show that as early as 1810-12 (and almost certainly earlier) St James’s Gate was borrowing yeast from seven different breweries.

Most accounts of the history of Guinness also miss out on some cracking stories too little known: the homosexual affair that almost brought the end of the brewery partnership in the late 1830s, for example; the still-unexplained attack of insanity that saw Guinness’s managing director, great-great nephew of Arthur Guinness I, carried out of the brewery in a straitjacket in 1895; and the link between the writings of Arthur Guinness I’s grandson Henry Grattan Guinness and the foundation of the state of Israel (which takes in the assassination of Arthur Guinness I’s great-great grandson in Egypt). Continue reading

Caught on the horns of a yard of ale

You’ve read the stories, I’m sure: you’ve probably got, as I have, a mental picture. The mailcoach rattles through the arch into the straw-strewn innyard, chickens flying out of the way, the outside passengers ducking to avoid losing their hats – or heads. The ostler and stable-boys, alerted by the sound of the guard’s horn as the coach came down the High Street, rush to unhitch the old, tired, sweat-spattered team of horses and lead them away, at the same time bringing out a fresh team. The red-faced landlord, in tan breeches, black waistcoat, white shirt and white apron, his hair tied back in a short ponytail by a black bow, hands up a yard-long glass brimful of ale to the overcoat-laden mailcoach driver, who has no time in his schedule even to get down from his box. In a swing perfected by daily practice, the driver drains the long glass without a spill, hands it back down to the cheery publican and, refreshed, whips up his new horses, who gallop off back out onto the highway, the passenger-laden coach bouncing behind them and 10 more miles of muddy, rutted road ahead before they can all rest at the next stop. If there’s not a painting of that scene on the oak-panelled walls of some pub dining room with 18th century pretentions somewhere in England, I’ll swallow the nearest tricorn hat.

It’s a great tale, repeated often, and I never dissected it until I read it again in the Oxford Companion to Beer, where it appears in the entry for “drinking customs”:

“The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel has more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate steps the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach.”

Perhaps because this occurs just four paragraphs after a claim that King Edgar, a pre-Conquest king of England, tried to limit villages to only one alehouse each in an attempt to cut drunkenness, which is definitely a pile of Anglo-Saxon pants (the permanently established alehouse as a village institution was probably at least three centuries away when Edgar was on the throne, and there wasn’t the infrastructure in his time to enforce such a law anyway – and nor is there a single parchment scrap of evidence for such a decree), myths were at the front of my brain, which is why this time when I read about coach drivers and yards of ale I finally went: “?”

Continue reading