Streets were awash with ale

A pair of drunks in the stocks
A pair of drunks in the stocks

Nowadays much is said, written and broadcast about excessive consumption of alcohol, of “binge-drinking” and public drunkenness. Deaths from cirrhosis of the liver increase and governments seek to curb the social and medical costs of high alcoholic intake by price rises and licence restriction.

Yet 400 years ago, in the absence of tea, coffee and many other beverages we now take for granted, like other communities, Scarborough floated on alcohol. Hopped beer and unhopped ale were sold and drunk everywhere at all times. Alehouses never closed. There were church-ales to raise revenue for the parish; weddings, funerals and christenings were occasions for drinking orgies; labourers were often paid in drink; children drank small, diluted beer; and bargains and contracts were sealed in ale. Prices were fixed locally by law. It was forbidden to sell beer at more than a penny a quart or halfpenny a pint. To make sure that beer sold in the borough was of sufficient quality and strength and in exact measure, the town employed two alefyners to make frequent inspections. Ever since 1266, when the Assize of Bread and Ale was introduced, the price of ale had been regulated nationally according to the cost of local barley.

James I had signed no fewer than four Acts in 1604, 1606, 1609 and 1625 against “the loathsome and odious sin of drunkenness” and alehouse keepers who served “lewd and idle people” with drink. The Act of 1606 imposed a penalty of up to five shillings or six hours in the stocks for public drunkenness. Nevertheless, there is no evidence that the harsh prohibitions had much impact in Scarborough where there was no social stigma attached to drunkenness itself. The court of King James was notorious for its drunken debaucheries.

Given the common frequency of public intoxication, it seems that Scarborough’s magistrates were inclined to punish only extraordinary and blatant cases. William Pearson had been in trouble many times already for violent behaviour when he was presented for drunkenness in 1624 and twice again for the same offence the following year. His transgression was not so much inebriation but drawing someone’s blood when he had had far too much.

Some men were rarely sober. After many previous appearances before the court, Francis Rodgers was banned from the town’s “aile houses”. Thomas Fell had been incapable on many past occasions, but his offence was to be found drinking when he should have been attending Sunday church service.

Scarborians drank their own home brews. In 1604 the Common Hall ruled that any “London bere [or] Sandwith bere or any other bere comyne to the towne by sea” should be taxed at the rate of two shillings and sixpence for every firkin (eight or nine gallons). As a result, the borough had up to 60 licensed brewers and any number of unlicensed “brewsters” who tried to evade the sharp eyes of the alefyners and magistrates. Brewing beer must then have been one of Scarborough’s main industries.

Brewing and/or selling ale or beer without a licence “contrary to the statute” was one of the most common offences brought before Scarborough’s courts. In January 1623, nine unlicensed beer sellers were caught out; in October 1642, seven were named for wrongful brewing and selling; and the following April, as the civil war closed in on the town, a record number of 14 “brewsters” were presented before the sheriff’s tourn.

Though Puritans detested laziness, gluttony and avarice, drunkenness, in private as well as public, was also one of their special targets. However, fortunately for Scarborough’s heavy drinkers, there was only one year, 1651-2, when Luke Robinson was senior bailiff, that a puritanical campaign against them was conducted.

Days after his election, at the first sessions in October 1651, Robinson issued warrants to St Mary’s churchwardens and the overseers of the poor house to fine anyone in the town offending against the laws on drinking. The proceeds were to go to the parish paupers. In the first instance, of the 18 men presented “for tipling in ale houses”, three of them were of the status to be called “mister”, were members of the Common Hall and had been bailiffs previously. Each was fined three shillings and fourpence.

Ten “alehouse keepers” were each fined a swingeing 10 shillings. They included two widows, the keeper of the town gaol, a sub-bailiff, a former churchwarden and a former Royalist soldier. The poor box could rarely have been so full.

But the purge was short-lived: Scarborough’s enforced temperance was temporary. After his year in office, Luke Robinson went back to Westminster. His successors granted a record number of brewster licences in 1652. One of them was bailiff Mr Matthew Fowler, the tippler who had been fined 3s 4d a year earlier. Only the new resident vicar at St Mary’s, Mr Edward Carleton, seems to have shared Robinson’s active prejudice against brewers, publicans and alehouse addicts. In October 1658, he informed against his own parish clerk, John Tailer, after he saw “him stagger in the streets”. Following the Restoration in 1660, Scarborough’s old Royalist vicar, William Simpson, resumed his place at St Mary’s and kept the local vintners happy with his thirst for canary wine and claret.

Of course there were still the special cases of habitual intemperance. A labourer who did not have the means to pay his indemnity for being drunk was committed in September 1659 to the town’s stocks for three hours. Thomas Hogg, a fisherman when he was sober, was then Scarborough’s most infamous aggressive drunkard. Eventually, in January 1660, he had caused so much violent disorder that the alefyners were ordered to visit every town publican to instruct them never to serve him “any wine, strong beare nor ale nor any other strong liquor”. It was a lifetime ban.