Greenwich: Drunk for one penny, dead drunk for two
No one is really sure when or how our love affair with alcohol began but it has certainly been a tempestuous affair! We have been famed for making beer and gin for a number of centuries as well as the occasional go at wine production just to annoy our neighbours the French. In fact you would be forgiven if you thought that binge drinking was a modern day phenomena. Our problematic relationship with alcohol stretches back through the mist of times to the Anglo Saxons and Viking. Both sets of invaders drank beer with the intention of becoming drunk. Roman Centurions were well versed in their drinking habits and used it to their own advantage; they even called them “beer swillers” which was considered a grave insult at the time! The Roman senator Tacitus was believed to have said that the best way to conquer the Germanic people was to get them drunk first!
Beer and gin are not the only national drinks, tastes like fashion are constantly changing and of course the English love their stimulants! Coffee arrived on these shores first, to be followed by the most quintessential of English drinks, tea! Although the custom of drinking tea dates back thousands of years in China, it was not until the mid 17th century that the beverage first appeared on these shores!
Although alcohol was home produced both tea and coffee was imported; ships carrying tea from the Far East to Britain could take over a year to bring home their precious cargo. So new ships known as “Clippers” were designed, these were streamlined, tall-masted vessels that were capable of reaching up to 18 knots. The captains of these ships were under great pressure to reach these shores before any of their competitors and it wasn’t long before an annual competition was established; a race from the Canton River to the London Docks. The Cutty Sark although it only made the tea run to China eight times is the most famous ship of its kind and quite rightly deserves pride of place in Greenwich.
Whilst the original drink of choice was Adam’s ale better known as water most cultures have at one time or another used alcohol as a relaxant, for celebrations, as an anaesthetic or medicine, as part of religious ceremonies or simply to seduce lovers. In this country ale brewed without hops was drunk by everyone during the Middle Ages purely because the drinking water was so polluted. The average man consumed around a gallon a day and on top of this was the amount required for the rest of the household, so it formed an expensive outlay for the housewives of the time. Vast amounts of ale came from local breweries but soon enterprising housewives started making their own and selling any excess.
Unfortunately as with cooking standards varied considerably, with some ales being thick enough to plaster with and others as clear as dish water! With this in mind Henry III decided to impose a law to protect the public from unscrupulous vendors. Ale wives were required by law to place a large pole with a bush attached outside their homes to signify that there was ale to be tested. An official taster or “Conner” as they were known would then visit the premises and test the ale. It was up to the “Connor” to decide if it was fit for consumption. As this work required some responsibility the “Connors” were appointed by the government and worked under oath. Both men and women had equal chance of becoming one as there was a fair amount of equality amongst the sexes at the time!
Our soldiers had a habit of bringing all sorts of things back to “Old Blighty” from trinkets and various diseases to gin! They first encountered “Genever” as gin was originally known whilst fighting in Holland, it is said that the expression “Dutch courage” comes from the troops having it as a morale booster before going into battle! When the English Parliament offered the throne to William of Orange and his wife Mary in 1689 genever became a fashionable drink in this country. 18th century gin bore little resemblance to the spirit that we know, it was the cocaine of its day and many became addicted. The majority of the population had never tried spirits they had only a choice of cider or beer. Like lambs to the slaughter, for just a penny a dram they could forget about anything. As a famous sign once stated "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, straw for nothing", the straw provided a soft landing!
It was said that during the 19th century London was the brewing capital of the world and from the sixties onwards the brewing industry went into decline because foreign lagers had become fashionable. In reality the decline began with the outbreak of WW1 and continued because of the enormous loss of life during the ensuing years. During the mid 1920’s the breweries mounted a marketing campaign to entice the expanding middle classes into the public houses of the day.
With the departure of the large breweries, small scale brewers have now taken their place providing a number of bespoke beers which these day’s appeal to men and women alike; the real ale of yesteryear once the preserve of the bearded establishment has reached a new younger audience!
It seems fitting that the architectural centre piece of maritime Greenwich, the Old Naval College is once again the home of a brewery that is famed for its bespoke beers from London Porter to chocolate beer. The micro brewery is part of the Meantime Brewing Company and visitors are once again sampling home produced beer and partaking in a supper of whitebait, another delicacy for which Greenwich was famed even in Dickensian times! Whilst I’m sure that residents of the Naval College would have drunk beer, it was the inhabitants of the hospital; the injured seamen for whom the place was originally built would be delighted at its return. They were allowed the daily ration of three pints of beer purely for restorative purposes. At one time the beer was supplied by local brewers but because of the problems involved with the quality of supply a brewery was built on the premises to supply the hospital.
Over the centuries there have been many attempts to reform the nations drinking habits; the majority of which have been unsuccessful. In earlier times it was deemed that “brew witches” were the cause of drunken behaviour and not the inebriated so a number of poor housewives were burnt; the last one died at the stake in 1591. If history is anything to go by it looks as though binge drinkers can blame their ancestry!
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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