Nostalgia: Proliferation of alehouses

Four hundred years ago, not all village and country life was hard labour: there were many opportunities and times for what William Shakespeare called 'cakes and ale'. (Twelfth Night)

Tuesday, 29th November 2016, 7:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 29th November 2016, 9:27 am
The Little Angel on Flowergate, Whitby, has a vaulted undercroft.

Every village community had at least one alehouse where beer was brewed as well as sold and perhaps also at least one tippling house which only sold and did not brew. Bilsdale, Cropton and Goathland had three alehouses each, larger townships many more. Pickering had 12, New Malton, nine, Helmsley, 20, Bridlington town, 24, and five tipplers, and the Quay, another 12. Numbers fluctuated from year to year, since brewsters and publicans had to secure licences and lost them if they failed to follow the rules of governing their premises.

Best ale was a penny a quart, small or weaker ale a halfpenny. Manor courts still appointed alefyners or ale tasters to inspect the quality and measures of local brews. Where there was more than one manor in the township, as at Hunmanby and Allerston, there would be the same number of alehouses. Publicans had to put down a recognizance of one pound and find two sureties for ten shillings each before local magistrates would licence them. A typical recognizance bound the keeper to brew good, wholesome drink and not to allow his premises to be used for playing cards, dice or tables, except at Christmas, or to entertain there any “wayfaring vagabond”. Repeated threats made by justices in the North and West Ridings to close down unlicensed houses suggest that such warnings were generally ignored.

After the Reformation had suppressed all monasteries, priories, hospitals and chantries, the traditional links between the church and the alehouse gradually disappeared. In 1571, archbishop Grindal issued an order forbidding churchyard ales in his York archdiocese; but there is plenty of evidence to indicate that the close association continued well into the next century. Vicars at Brompton, Kilham, and Burton Fleming all ran their own alehouses. The survival in Scarborough until the twentieth century of names such as Cross Keys (Queen Street and Batty Place) and the Lamb (Cross Street) suggest a surviving tenuous connection. Both the Cross Keys at Wheelgate, Malton, and the Little Angel at Flowergate, Whitby, have vaulted undercrofts.

The proliferation of alehouses during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I explains how socially vital they had become to both town and country. Cards, dice and all manner of board games were the most common indoor recreations in public houses. The church frowned on all of them presumably because they involved gambling and cheating and 
sometimes brawling. Playing such games during Sunday and holy day feasts was 
considered especially wicked. As for the clergy, they needed to be warned not to resort to the common alehouse, to play dice, cards or tables, or to frequent “common bowling allies or other lewd places”.

Bowling with a biased wood and jack or with skittles was also another indoor sport provided by alehouse keepers. Servants, apprentices and labourers were forbidden by law to take part, whereas landowners worth at least £100 a year were allowed to have their own private indoor alleys and outdoor greens. Lady Margaret Hoby had her private green at Hackness Hall.

Most alehouses also offered solid as well as liquid refreshment, even if it was no more than bread and cheese. Some bye-laws warned brewsters and keepers not to stay open after nine in the evening and threatened them with a fine of 3s 4d, but this was rare and even more rarely observed. The custom was to serve customers until their money or the beer ran out.

As today, brewers vied with each other to brew the strongest beers and gave them the strangest of names. In London, for instance, during Shakespeare’s time there, he could have drunk “mad dog”, “dragon’s milk” or “go by the wall”. Each locality prided itself on offering the “best”, a term still used in contemporary tippling houses.

There was a huge variety of measures and containers: pottells, quarts, pints, gills and thirds were drunk out of pitchers, jugs, mazers, noggins and piggins, made of pewter, wood or leather.

Every event in the farming and Christian calender had its association with drinking and eating in company. The most common social gathering was known as an “ale”, and though church ales were dying out there were still “lamb ales”, “harvest ales” and ales at Easter, Mayday, Whitsun, Mid-summer and Christmas. On the Continent, it was believed that the English drank to excess and our surviving evidence supports that opinion.

However, by the date of Shakespeare’s death in 1616, English consumption of ales and beers in enormous quantities was under attack from several quarters. The Puritans who objected strongly to idleness, avarice, gluttony and lust, had a special vendetta against drunkenness. Though King James himself was no Puritan and no stranger to alcohol, no fewer than four acts of parliament against public drunkenness were passed during his reign. The first in 1604 broke new ground, since it no longer held the alehouse keeper legally responsible for the behaviour of his clientele, but instead penalised the drunkard. Two years later, a second act imposed a fine of five shillings for inebriation or six hours in the stocks. Neither of these statutes had an appreciable effect, but a law passed later in 1627 permitted magistrates to order a public flogging of disorderly tipplers who did not pay their fines and stipulated that such fines could be used to supplement the poor rate.

What kill-joys who condemned ale-houses did not appreciate was that such places offered much more than strong drink and “lewd” company. Before the advent of coffee, chocolate and tea, there was very little else to drink safely. At least the houses were licensed, inspected and regulated by law. Secondly, the public house was the only meeting-place for free warmth, light and comfort and it was the only venue for news-gathering, indoor games and argument. Under the influence of alcohol, many a secret was disclosed and disseminated and many a conspiracy revealed. The ale-house was newspaper, radio, television and smart-phone of its time.