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.)

Second thoughts on the mysterious origins of AK

There are times when the honest historian has to put his hand up and say: forgive me, for I was wrong. Prompted by a sharp dig from Ron Pattinson, I’ve finally withdrawn a piece I wrote six years ago about the origins of the beer designation AK, in part because research by Ron has made my stance untenable. I suggested that the K in AK came from koyt, the name of a hopped beer found in the Low Countries and Northern Germany in the 15th century and later, and the A was from ankel, the word in Old Flemish for “single”. “Single koyt” certainly existed, and was the name of a lower-strength beer, the stronger version being called “double koyt”. But there’s no actual evidence at all to link “single koyt” with AK, which was a very popular designation for a comparatively light-gravity, lightly hopped (or at least not heavily hopped) pale bitter beer in Victorian England, and which is still around as a (now rare) beer name today. Good historians don’t make evidence-free suggestions.

McMullen's AK posterThere is certainly evidence AK was once a popular name for a beer. In the very early 1970s, you would still have found several beers called AK. Fremlin’s of Faversham, then owned by Whitbread, made one. So did another Whitbread-owned former independent, Strong’s of Romsey, in Hampshire. In Hertfordshire two brewers, McMullen’s of Hertford and Rayment’s of Furneux Pelham, also made beers called AK. These, and the Fremlin’s and Strong’s AKs were sold as light milds. In the Courage empire, the ex-Hole’s brewery at Newark in Nottinghamshire brewed an AK bitter, while the group’s Bristol brewery sold an AK that was a primed version of its George’s bitter, made for customers of the former Phillips brewery in Newport, Monmouthshire, which had closed in 1968. Just before it closed in 1985, Simpkiss of Brierley Hill in the West Midlands started brewing an AK light bitter.

At least three brewers also sold beers called KK: Greene King, which brewed a light mild under that name at the former Wells and Winch brewery in Biggleswade; Ind Coope, which made KK light mild at its Romford brewery; and Hardys and Hansons of Kimberley, Nottinghamshire, which sold a keg beer called KK.

What all these beers had in common was that they were light, in both colour and gravity, and also lightly hopped. Today only McMullen’s AK survives, and though it has risen in gravity since the early 1970s, from 1033 to 1035, and is now described as a “bitter”, it is still comparatively light and lightly hopped (with WGV, Whitbread Goldings Variety).

However, if you look at Victorian brewers’ advertisements, it becomes clear that AK, was a very widespread name for a beer. More than a dozen other brewers in Hertfordshire besides McMullen’s and Rayment’s once made an AK. A single edition of the Richmond and Twickenham Times, dated July 8 1893, carries advertisements from five different brewers in south and west London, four of whom offered a beer called AK or KK.

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald 1897 – XXK and AK, bitter ales, not stock ales

The noticeable point about these advertisements is that they (almost) all give AK the same price, one shilling a gallon, implying a strength of around 1045-1055 OG. The descriptions of AK are pretty consistent as well: “light bitter ale”, “light sparkling ale”, “family bitter ale”, “light pale ale” and so on. One of the few brewers not to sell AK for one and a half pence wholesale was actually the earliest I’ve found, the Stafford Brewery, which was selling AK Ale, “a delicate bitter ale”, in 1855 at 14 pence a gallon. But, again, the beer was clearly not heavy, albeit bitter. The idea of AK as a low-strength pale ale is confirmed by the few written references to the beer. Professor Charles Graham in his talk to the Society of Chemical Industry in 1881 gave the original gravity of AK as 1045, with an alcohol-by-weight percentage of 4.3, very much as the bottom end of the Victorian beer strength league. The Burton brewer James Herbert said of AK ale in his book The Art of Brewing, published in 1871:

This class of ale has come very much into use, mostly for private families, it being a light tonic ale, and sent out by most brewers at one shilling per gallon. The gravity of this Ale is usually brewed at 20lbs [that is, 1056 OG]

Crowley’s brewery in Croydon High Street in 1900 described its AK in one of its advertisements as “a Bitter Ale of sound quality with a delicate Hop flavour”. The Victorian journalist Alfred Barnard in 1889 gave almost identical tasting notes to Crowley’s on the “AK shilling ale” brewed by WJ Rogers at the Jacob Street brewery in Bristol: “most pleasant to the palate … a bright sparkling beverage of a rich golden colour and possesses a nice delicate hop flavour.” (Rogers actually used the letters AK as its company trademark.) When he visited Thompson & Son’s brewery in Walmer, Kent, Barnard wrote: ” We were much pleased with the AK light bitter – a delicious drink, clean to the palate and well flavoured with the hop.” The brewing books of Garne & Sons of Burford, Oxfordshire in 1912 show AK being brewed at an OG of 1040 and with a colour of 14, a reddish-brown hue. ( PA for comparison, was brewed to an OG of 1056 and with a colour of 18, a darker medium brown.)

So where did the name AK come from? In the First World War, drinkers joked that AK stood for Asquith’s Knockout. Herbert Asquith was Prime Minister in 1914 when the tax on the standard barrel of beer took off like a Fokker eindekker, from seven shillings and ninepence to 23 shillings, in order to help pay for fighting the Kaiser. Weaker beers paid less tax, of course, and AK was always weaker than standard bitters, leaving it a more affordable “knockout” than regular beers. (“Squiffy” Asquith was also notorious for being fond of his drink.) Unfortunately, AK as a name for a type of beer is found at least as long ago as 1855, when Asquith was only three years old. Another suggestion is that AK was invented by a Victorian brewer called Arthur King, and took his initials, a tale found at both Hole’s of Newark and Courage in Bristol. The problem with this story is that no such brewer has ever been traced – Arthur King seems to be as mythical as King Arthur – and it fails to cover AK’s sister beer, KK. As Roger Protz once said, who invented that one – King Kong?

Rayment’s claimed AK meant Ale for Keeping. Certainly, Ron Pattinson’s research has pretty much proved that, as far as London brewers were concerned, a beer with “K” in its name, or at least multiple Ks, was a well-hopped keeping or stock beer. To quote from his blog:

In the middle of the 19th century, Barclay Perkins brewed two sets of Ales: X Ales that were sold mild and K Ales that were sold matured. X, XX, XXX and XXXX. Then KK, KKK, KKKK. The equivalent beers (XX and KK, XXX and KKK) were exactly the same gravity, but the K Ales had about 50% more hops.

A couple more examples: Mann, Crossman and Paulin in the East End of London brewed a KKKK ale, and Alfred Barnard drank some in 1888: “Two years old, of a rich brown colour and with a Madeira odour, a good generous drink for those who can stand a full-bodied beer.” Barnard also revealed that Mann’s brewed a London stock ale they called KKK. Taylor Walker of Limehouse, East London brewed “KKK Burton”, which again would have been a strong stock ale. Outside London, Adey and White of St Albans made KKK stock ale and the Tadcaster Tower Brewery in Yorkshire sold KKK “Old Tom”, both costing 15s a firkin, meaning they must have been around 1090 OG.

 

Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that's K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

Burge & Co Windsor KXXX stock ale from 1885 – that’s K for keeping all right, and M for mild on the MXX mild ale

However, the problem is that AK and KK, and the rather rarer K, are always described as light bitters, which would not, surely, have been keeping ales. Yes, Mann’s brewed KKKK and KKK stock ales, but a Mann’s advert from 1898 also shows KK medium bitter ale at 10s 6d a firkin, about 1055 OG, and K light bitter ale at 9s 6d a firkin, about 1045 OG, as well as AKK Family Pale Ale at 1s 2d a gallon, around 1055 OG again, and AK Dinner Ale at, yes, 1s a gallon.

So: the K in KKK, and KKKK, and XXXK, and the other strong beers with K in their name, stands for “keeping” – there can be little doubt about that. But the K in AK and KK? K-for-keeping doesn’t seem to apply here, because they weren’t keeping beers. And what about the K Mild, ten pence a gallon, sold by Lucas, Ledbetter and Bird of High Wycombe in 1894, and the K Mild Ale sold by the Heavitree Brewery of Exeter in 1895 for 1s 2d a gallon? Or the K Light Ale Collier Brothers of Walthamstow were selling for ten pence a gallon in 1890, and the K Tonic Ale A Gordon & Go of Caledonian Road, Islington sold for the same sum in 1889? Cleary K doesn’t stand for “keeping” here. Again in 1889, Lewis & Ridley of Leamington seemed to be using “K” as equal to half an X, with XXXK mild ale following XXXX strong ale, then XXX mild ale, XXK mild ale, XX mild and and X mild ale. Again, these were milds, not keeping beers. Henry Lovibond & Son of the Cannon brewery, Lillie Road, Fulham actually called its shilling-a-gallon AK “mild bitter” in 1885.

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

K as, apparently, half an X, from 1889

There is evidence that the K designation was more common in the south than elsewhere in England. Rose’s brewery of Malton, Yorkshire produced an AK, and the Tadcaster Tower brewery had a range that included four K beers. Robinson’s of Stockport sold AK Ale at the beginning of the 20th century. But few other brewers north of Newark, in the East Midlands, seem to have used Ks. In 1898 the Brewers’ Journal said the X mark was “almost universal in provincial towns, the alternative K being equally common in the London district”. But this does not help us much in finding out the origins of AK.

At least the process by which the K beers that survived to near the end of the 20th century became known as milds, when the style started out as a type of bitter ale, is easy to explain. Mild by the 1930s means to drinkers a low-gravity, low-hops, cheaper beer. In the Great Gravity Drop during and after the First World War, AKs fell to around 1030-1033 OG, and cost (in the 1930s) five (old) pence a pint, the same as best mild and less than “standard” bitter. Taylor Walker, the East London brewer, actually advertised its verson as “5d AK” probably because it sold cheaper than London dark mild, at six pence a pint. Being low-gravity, cheap and light on the hops, these AKs and KKs fell within the “modern” definition of milds.  Fordham’s of Ashwell, North Hertfordshire in 1934 sold XX mild and AX bitter at four pence a pint, XXX mild and AK bitter at five pence a pint, stout at six pence, PA bitter and XXXX at seven pence, IPA at eight pence and OO old ale at one shilling. The OG of Fordham’s AK was by now around 1030.

McMullen's AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

McMullen’s AK Mild Bitter pumpclip from the 1950s

All those other AKs eventually vanished with the brewerrs that made them, leaviong only McMullen’s. At one stage, McMullen was describing AK on pump clips as a “mild bitter”, though the beer was sold in polypins in the 1980s as “Trad bitter”. The company dropped the description “mild” for AK only in the early 1990s.

So, although we can still drink AK, since there is no evidence to support the koyt derivation, and little support for the idea that the K in low-gravity, lightly hopped AK could have meant “keeping” the way it does in KKKK and KKK, I’m afraid we still haeeve to solve the mystery of where the K – and indeed the A – in AK come from.

Update: Bailey of Boak and Bailey has been doing some excellent searching through old digitised newspapers and pushed back the earliest mention of AK to 1846, in an advertisement from the Chelmsford Chronicle of October 23 1846 that lists Ind Coope AK. A slightly later ad, from the Ipswich Journal of June 15 1850, lists under “Romford Ales” (Ind Coope again, almost certainly) “AK, a light bitter ale” at 19 shillings for 18 gallons, as well as XK bitter ale and XXK “Ale” at 24 shillings and 31 shillings a kilderkin respectively: only the XXK looks like a “proper” stock ale, at perhaps 1080 to 1090 OG. An even more interesting ad from the same paper three years later, June 18 1853, refers to “The Romford A.K. or Light Bitter Beer, so much in request for Summer beverage”, which can be supplied for one shilling a gallon.

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

The earliest known – so far – reference to AK, from 1846

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

How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep

I believe strongly in the old cliché about what to do if life hands you a ton of lemons: set to and make the very best lemonade you can. So when I wound up working in Hong Kong, I thought the worthiest use of my spare time was to write the first history of beer in Hong Kong. This turned out to be vastly easier than I had feared, because the Hong Kong library service had digitised every English language newspaper produced in the colony back to the 1850s, and while the OCR wasn’t perfect (it never is), it still threw up a mass of detail about Hong Kong’s brewing pioneers, much of it fascinating. And gave me a surprise on my doorstep.

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

Beer and Hong Kong were mixed up right from the moment the British seized the island in 1841 during our row with China over whether or not our traders should be allowed to sell the Chinese opium: for some reason the Emperor of China felt foreigners flogging his subject hard drugs and getting them addicted just to turn a profit wasn’t really on. Naturally, the British went to war on behalf of the drug pushers. Indeed, as I suggested in the article that eventually ended up in Brewery History magazine, it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been for alcohol, Britain would never have seized Hong Kong. Continue reading

More great lost Guinness art: new evidence for the genius of Gilroy

If we didn’t already know John Gilroy, creator of so much iconic beer advertising, was a genius, then the latest images to surface from the mysterious “lost” art archive of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson would surely convince us: marvellous pastiches of other iconic works of art, sadly unseen for the past 60 or so years.

I’ve already talked here about the mysterious stash of 800 or more pieces of Gilroy advertising artwork that disappeared, existence unknown to Guinness experts, on the sale of the former Guinness advertising agency SH Benson in 1971, and how items from the collection began to turn up for sale on the American market from 2008 onwards. These are oil paintings, done by Gilroy to be shown to Guinness for approval: if approved, a final painting would then be made which the printers would use to make the posters. Now they are being sold by a couple of art dealers in the United States on behalf of their anonymous possessor for tens of thousands of dollars each. It has been estimated that the 350 or so paintings sold so far have gone for a total of between $1 million and $2 million.

Van Gogh by John Gilrou

‘I’d give my right ear for a pint of stout’

Much of the stuff that has been turning up was never actually used in advertising campaigns, for various reasons. There was a series of posters featuring Nazi imagery, for example, commissioned from Gilroy because Guinness was thinking of exporting to Germany in 1936.

This week, David Hughes, who has written an excellent just-published book, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, about Gilroy that includes some 120 reproductions of artwork from the “lost” stash, gave a talk at the St Bride’s Institute in London on Gilroy and Guinness. During the talk he revealed that he had recently been shown something new from the Benson collection, too late to include in his book – a series of 21 takes by Gilroy on “Old Master” paintings, copies with a Guinness twist  of works by painters such as Picasso, Van Gogh, Vermeer and Michaelangelo, that had been commissioned in 1952 with the intention that they would hang in the Guinness brewery at Park Royal in London. They were never used, however, and instead ended up hidden in the SH Benson archive, vanished from (almost all) human ken.

Picasso by Gilroy

From Picasso’s ‘Brown (stout)’ period …

Now the paintings are on sale as part of the general disposal of the Benson Gilroy collection, they are being swiftly grabbed by eager collectors with thick wallets: the “Michaelangelo” went for $20,000. I would love to own the “Van Gogh” – somehow Gilroy has captured the essence of the mad Dutchman’s art even as he subverted it with a bottle of Guinness on the chest and a pint of stout on the chair – a humorous homage, done, I am sure, with love and affection. Note Gilroy’s signatures on that and the “Picasso” – cheeky takes on the originals.

A few others are in the “great but not fantastic” category, but the “Toulouse-Lautrec” really does look as if little Henri himself had been commissioned to design an ad for la fée noire. I haven’t seen any of the other 21 apart from those here, but they would have made a superb series of advertising posters, and would be as much loved now, I am sure, as Gilroy’s toucans, sea lions and men with girders. It’s a huge pity they never went into proper production. (Some of the reproductions on this page – the obviously rubbish ones – are from photos taken by me off the giant screen David Hughes was using at the talk, subsequently poorly “tweaked” in Photoshop – my apologies, but I thought you’d be more interested in at least seeing something now of these marvellous illustrations than waiting an unknown time until you could see them reproduced perfectly.)

In the audience for the talk was Edward Guinness, 90 this year, the last member of the family to hold an executive position on the Guinness board, and a man to whom brewery historians owe a huge debt: it was while Edward was chairman of the Brewers’ Society that the Society commissioned Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson to write their mammoth history of brewing in Britain from 1830 to 1980, a massive resource. He also helped ensure Guinness the company supplied the money to make John Gilroy’s last few months comfortable, after it emerged that the artist who had done so much to promote the Guinness brand was seriously ill and could not afford private health care. It appears that David Hughes is helping Edward Guinness write his reminiscences – bugger, that’s another Guinness book I’m going to have to buy.

Michaelangelo by Gilroy

The ceiling of the Sistine Saloon Bar – don’t you love the strategically placed shamrock?

Millais by Gilroy

Gilroy’s take on John Everett Millais’s Boyhood of Raleigh of 1871: “Sod the potato, bring the world stout!’

Mondrian by Gilroy

Piet Mondrian’s hugely influential ‘Composition in Black and White’, painted after his death in 1944

Vermeer by Gilroy

Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pint of Guinness”

Toulouse-Lautrec by Gilroy

Henri ‘Half-Pint’ Toulouse-Lautrec advertises Guinness in the Paris of the 1890s

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.

Was it ever Gruit Britain? The herb ale tradition

I dunno, you wait hundreds of years for a herb-flavoured beer, and then two come along at once. Just coincidence, I’m sure, but two new beers (ales, strictly), from the Pilot brewery in Leith, Scotland, and the Ilkley brewery in Yorkshire, have been announced this week that go back to the pre-hop tradition of flavouring your drink with whatever herbs and plants you could find in the local fields, hedgerows and woods, or up on the local moors. I’m delighted to see them, because I love herb-flavoured ales. I have just one worry, as a historian.

Faked-up heather foraging

Beer sommelier Jane Peyton supposedly gathering heather for her gruit ale for the Ilkley brewery – except that *ahem* the heather isn’t in bloom and so wouldn’t be that great for brewing with – and she’d need more than could be gathered with a pair of scissors.

Both the breweries producing these new herb ales call them “gruit beers”. As far as Britain is concerned, this is ahistoric: “gruit” is the Dutch word for the various herb/botanical mixtures used in flavouring pre-hop ales on the Continent, and it’s not a word ever used in the past in this country. There IS a similar word found in medieval English, “grout”, but the main meaning of “grout” in the context of brewing was either “ground malt or grain” or “the liquid run off from ground malt before boiling”. Does it matter if someone today refers to a herb beer as “gruit” without explaining that this isn’t actually an English word? Well, probably not, and it certainly makes for an easy label to market herb-flavoured ales under. But it would certainly be wrong to say, or imply, that “gruit” was the name applied to herb ales in Britain in the pre-hop period. So don’t, please

Indeed, the “gruit” tradition (Grute in German) on the Continent was very different from anything we had in Britain, in that it involved the sale of the herbal flavourings by the state or its representatives to the brewers, as a revenue-gathering exercise. In those areas where this happened, it seems to have been compulsory for brewers to use gruit.

In Britain, on the other hand, there is a great deal to suggest that much, if not most medieval ale (using the word in its original sense of “unhopped malt liquor”) was brewed without herbs, as well as without hops: to give just one piece of evidence, in 1483 (the year Richard III seized the throne), London’s ale brewers, who were trying to maintain the difference between (unhopped) ale and (hopped) beer, persuaded the authorities to state that for ale to be brewed in “the good and holesome manner of bruying of ale of old tyme used”, no one should “put in any ale or licour [water] whereof ale shal be made or in the wirkyng and bruying of any maner of ale any hoppes, herbes or other like thing but only licour, malt and yeste.” So: London ale in the Middle Ages – no hops, no herbs.

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