Beer In England

Beer is good for you or not as the case maybe. The Times tells us something about its historical position. A canting rogue called Donaldson is being a pain regarding booze. He got away with it in re tobacco. The Wiki does a good backgrounder on Hogarth's prints at Beer Street and Gin Lane

From Alcohol - Always Works With The Grain of History

Alcohol: always works with the grain of history

Where we drink may prove to be as important as what we drink. The pub should return to the centre of public life

Another day, another bid to roll back binge-drink Britain. This time the campaign is led by the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, with plans for a new minimum price on alcohol. With the big supermarkets in his sights (where water is more expensive than beer), Donaldson wants a ban on drinks being sold for less than 50p per alcoholic unit. But how much we drink is not nearly so important a question now as where we drink.

Of course, the CMO is not the first to notice our alcoholic ardour. As early as the 8th century, the missionary St Boniface was writing to Cuthbert, Archbishop of Canterbury, to report how “in your dioceses the vice of drunkenness is too frequent. This is an evil peculiar to pagans and to our race. Neither the Franks nor the Gauls nor the Lombards nor the Romans nor the Greeks commit it.”

In centuries to come, the figure of John Bull, complete with roast beef and a flagon of ale became a national caricature, just as G.K. Chesterton wrote lovingly of “the rolling English drunkard [who] made the rolling English road”. And at every turn, government has attempted to clamp down on such exuberance. The years preceding the English Civil War marked the ale-house at the centre of a cultural struggle between Cavaliers and Roundheads.

Puritans hoping for a “reformation of manners” sought again and again to outlaw excess drinking - not to promote “healthy living”, but to save the drunken soul and neuter the pub's capacity for sowing disorder.


“What I pray you, do you make it so great a matter if a man be a little overtaken with drink now and then?' an hospitable Essex parishioner pleaded with the godly Arthur Dent. “There is no man but he hath his faults: and the best of us may be amended.” None of which cut much ice with the busybody Saints of the English Commonwealth.

But they didn't have to contend with “Mother's Ruin”. In 1742 a population barely one tenth our size consumed about 19 million gallons of gin - ten times as much as is drunk today and far more lethal than any alcopop. The Government intervened early with the Gin Act, hoping to ban the hooch, but it did no good. Fifteen years later, William Hogarth's Gin Lane was depicting the spirit's lethal consequences - passed into the milk of babies through their drunken nurses - with its allegorical litany of debauchery, criminality and progressive immiseration.

Gin Lane was located in the heart of London, and the dangers of heavy drinking have long been linked with the stresses of urban culture. The Industrial Revolution of the early 1800s endowed not only a new generation of cities, but also a new culture of drinking, in which the surest route out of the poverty and monotony of factory life was through the bottle. Easily recognisable as the forerunners of today's super-pubs, the gas-lit and gilt-mirrored world of the 1820s “gin palace” resembled alcoholic assembly lines with no furniture and no food, just a long bar surrounded by gin barrels spurring a quick necking of the neat stuff.

Rather than prohibition, the Government's response this time was to champion the virtue of beer as a more honest and patriotic refreshment (the healthy effects of which Hogarth celebrated in Beer Street). The 1830 Beer Act opened up beer drinking to the masses by allowing any householder with a cheap licence to sell ale and porter. In 1840s Manchester, Friedrich Engels estimated there were “more than a thousand public-houses” and in Glasgow one house in every ten was a public house.

“The public house is for the operative, what the public square was for the ancients,” reported the French journalist Leon Faucher. With far more space than in their tiny lodging rooms, the public sphere of the ale- house offered the labouring classes a forum for sociability, civic interaction, employment, even politics. By the mid-1870s alcohol consumption reached its peak, with an average of 344 gallons of beer consumed per individual per year.

And again the State sought to clamp down. The Temperance Movement won a series of legislative successes limiting Sunday drinking, closing down music halls and forcing councils to restrict licences. Lloyd George only accelerated the trend by curtailing opening hours during the First World War after announcing that: “Drink is doing us more damage than all the German submarines put together.” By the 1930s an almost preindustrial cycle of urban drinking had resurfaced with heavy consumption generally limited to festivals and holidays.

Today such restraint is a fond memory. Under 24-hour drinking laws and endless “2 for 1”offers, provincial town-centres have become vomitous no-go areas, while the NHS processes about 400,000 people each year with drink-related problems. But the worst of it is the cynical subsidising of liver cirrhosis by the supermarkets using their phenomenal buying power to undercut the pubs and clubs.

For some 500 years now, alehouses have played a pivotal role within British public life. But now pubs are closing at the rate of 40 a week and we are haplessly bearing witness to an extraordinary process of cultural self-immolation. Around the corner from me, in Hornsey, North London, the Earl of Shaftesbury has recently shut its doors and, with it, not just a community drinking-hole but a deeper civic connection to a sense of place and past. Sir Liam Donaldson is not a little to blame for this: his ban on smoking in public places has driven drinking back into the home, where social safeguards are absent.

So what we really want from the Chief Medical Officer is not a one-size-fits-all tax on alcohol (which the Government is already suggesting it will not support) but specific policies to encourage more people to drink more beer in more pubs. That is called working with the grain, or yeast, of history.

Tristram Hunt is a historian. His biography of Friedrich Engels is published on May 1


Beer Street & Gin Lane



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Updated on 19/11/2016 19:22