And, with the food, arrives the drink. The inhabitants of the London region, some four thousand years ago, imbibed a variety of beer or mead. Londoners have been drinking it ever since. Close to the Old Kent Road a Roman brooch of jasper was recently uncovered. Engraved upon it was the head of Silenus, the drunken satyr who was tutor to Bacchus; no better divinity of London could have been discovered. Thomas Brown noted of London, in 1730, that “to see the Number of Taverns, Alehouses etc. he would imagine Bacchus the only God that is worshipp’d there.”
In the thirteenth century London was already notorious for “the immoderate drinking of the foolish.” The wines of the Rhineland and of Gascony, of Burgundy and Maderia, the white wine of Spain and the red wine of Portugal, flooded in, but the less affluent drank ale and beer; the hop seems to have been cultivated by the beginning of the fourteenth century, but most ale was spiced with pepper and known as “stingo.” This again suggests the partiality of Londoners for highly flavoured comestibles, perhaps as a fitting adjunct to their energetic and competitive lives in the city. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c. 1387–1400) the Cook is well aware of the requirements for what the poet elsewhere calls “a draught of moist and corny ale,” while his Miller, an ale-drinker, “far-dronken was all pale.” In the same period Glutton, in William Langland’s Piers the Plowman (c. 1362), “yglubbed a galon and a gille” of ale. Certainly there were many establishments for that purpose. By the early fourteenth century there were in London “354 taverns and 1,334 breweries,” more familiarly known later as boozing kens or tippling offices. Early in the fifteenth century it was recorded that there were some 269 brewers and in 1427 the London Company of Brewers was incorporated with its own coat of arms. Already it had composed rules for its members, such as that in 1423 which ordered that “retailers of ale should sell the same in their houses, in pots of peutre, sealed; and that whoever carried ale to the buyer should hold the pot in one hand and a cup in another, and that all who had pots unsealed should be fined.” A similar respect for quality was imposed upon the vintners who by city statute in the early fifteenth century were forbidden to “colaire ne medle” with their wine. One William Harold was, in 1419, sentenced to the pillory for an hour on the charge of “contrefetyng of old and feble spaynissh wyn for good & trewe Romeney, in the parisshe of seynt Martyns in the vyntry.”
By the sixteenth century, according to John Stow, the problems of drunkenness had become so acute that two hundred London alehouses were suppressed in 1574. There were some twenty-six brewers in London by that time, and their produce was variously known as Huffe Cup, Mad Dog, Angels’ Food, Lift Leg and Stride Wide. The ingredients seem to have varied, with constituents including broom, bay-berries and ivy-berries, together with malt and oats, although only the concoction brewed from hops was given the name of true beer. The Elizabethan chronicler William Harrison noted the drunkards in the streets and remarked that “our malt bugs lie in a row lugging at their dames teats, till they lie still againe, and not be able to wag.” Certain alehouses of the period were so identified with London itself, both in ballad and in drama, that they became representative of the city. The Boar’s Head in Eastcheap was the vivid setting of Falstaff and Pistol, Doll Tearsheet and Mistress Quickly, and so impressed itself upon the folk memory of Londoners that it was generally agreed that Shakespeare himself must have drunk on the premises. In the eighteenth century members of a literary club assembled there in order to assume Shakespearean roles, and such was the power of its associations that it attracted pilgrims to its site long after its destruction in 1831. There is, however, one specific remembrance. Robert Preston “late Drawer at the Boar’s head Tavern” departed this life at the age of twenty-seven on 16 March 1730; he “drew good Wine, took care to fill his Pots” and his headstone lay against the wall of St. Magnus the Martyr.
“The Myter in Cheape,” the Mitre of Cheapside, was a haunt of locals where according to Ben Jonson if “any stranger comes in amongst ‘em, they all stand up and stare at him, as he were some unknown beast brought out of Africk.” The drawer here, George, attained immortality when named in 1599 by Jonson in Every Man Out of His Humour—“Where’s George? call me George hither quickly”—and in 1607 by Dekker and Webster in Westward Ho!—“O, you are George the drawer at the Mitre.” It is evidence of the way in which a particular Londoner can become fixed as a type or character in the eyes of his contemporaries. The peculiar and persistent connection of alehouses with drama was also maintained by the memory of the Mermaid.
What things have we seen
Done at the Mermaid; heard words that have been
So nimble and so full of subtle flame
wrote Beaumont to Jonson. Keats, echoing the sentiment two hundred years later, knew no
Happy field or mossy cavern
Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern
The poet, himself a Londoner who as a child lived on the premises of the Swan and Hoop in Moorgate, had migrated in imagination to the junction of Friday Street and Bread Street where the Mitre was consumed in the Great Fire.
A tavern “is the onlely Rende-vous of boone company,” according to the Guls Horne-Booke of 1609 where it is important to know the bar staff or drawers and “to learn their names such as Jack, and Will, and Tom” to procure prompt service as well as credit. Then you may say to the waiter, “Boy, fetch me money from the barre.” The bill was known as “the reckoning” or “the shot.” Games of dice were played and travelling fiddlers went from establishment to establishment. We are allowed to peer closely into the rooms of an early seventeenth-century tavern, by using an inventory from the aptly named Mouthe in Bishopsgate Street. Here are listed the boarded partitions separating one room from another in that tavern, each chamber bearing a different name: the Percullis, the Pomgrannatt, the Three Tuns, the Vyne, and the King’s Head. So we have five different “barres” on the same premises, furnished with tables, benches and stools. In the Percullis, there was “one longe table of waynscote, with a fforme” as well as “one oyster table,” “one olde wyne-stoole” and “a payre of playinge tables”; in the King’s Head there was also an oyster table, as well as “a child’s stoole.” In one of the guests’ chambers, on the floor above, were listed down pillows, flaxen sheets and a tapestried coverlet as well as chests and cupboards.
A poem of 1606 mentions “the Bores head, hard by London stone … the swan at Dowgat … The Myter in Cheape … the Castel in Fishstreet” and others “to make Noses red,” but it was not only drink and lodging which seventeenth-century tavern-keepers supplied. An advertisement from a landlord, moving from the Swan at Holborn Bridge to the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, mentioned that “He hath also a hearse, and all things convenient to carry a Corps to any part of England.” “There are endless inns,” Thomas Platter wrote in the early 1600s, “beer and wine shops for every imaginable growth, alicant, canary, muscatels, clarets, Spanish, Rhenish.” Endless, also, are the verses written upon the topic of London alehouses. Ned Ward’s Vade Mecum for Malt Worms and John Taylor’s Pilgrimage are only two examples of poems that list public houses and their locations as a kind of topography of the city, in which the nature and shape of London are known only in terms of intoxicated reverie:
Hence to Cloak-lane, near Dowgate hill we steer
And at Three Tuns cast Anchor for good Beer …
Thereafter haste made waste, and sun was set
Ere to the Shoreditch Flagon I could get.
At ten I took my leave, and by the moon
Reached the Bell Inn, and fell into a swoon.
The words of the two poets are conflated here, in order to suggest the precision of their references to the city as a place where one must get drunk in order to survive.
The excise tax imposed upon beer in 1643 testifies to the increasing popularity of that drink. Pepys noticed during the Great Fire that the women “would scold for drink and be drunk as devels”; there may of course have been some excuse for their behaviour during that inferno but a calm observer, Henry Peacham, writing The Art of Living in London in 1642, commands “above all things beware of beastly drunkenness … some are found sometimes so drunk, who, being fallen upon the ground or, which is worse, in the kennel, are not able to stir or move again. Drinking begets challenges and quarrels, and occasioneth the death of many, as is known by almost daily experience … Drunken men are apt to lose their hats, cloaks, or rapiers, nor to know what they have spent.” Pepys also recorded a lady, dining at the house of a mutual friend, who in one draught knocked back a pint and a half of white wine.
Yet if the seventeenth century might rival any of its predecessors for the amount of alcohol flowing through the veins of London, it was overshadowed by the eighteenth century when drinking reached massive, even crisis, proportions. This was the period when Samuel Johnson, that great London luminary, declared that “a man is never happy in the present unless he is drunk.” A vast number of his fellow-citizens seemed to agree.
There was a fashion for “brown ale,” a sweet beer, but a further duty upon malt made it important for breweries to introduce more hops into their drink. This became “bitter beer”—“so bitter that I could not drink it,” according to Casanova—which, when mixed with regular ale, became known as “half and half.” In the same period “pale ale” was produced, and became so popular that pale ale houses were established in the city. In the early 1720s a mellow beer, brewed for four or five months, was introduced; the “labouring people, porters etc found its utility” for drinking at breakfast or at dinner, and thus it became known as “porter.” It was a beer brewed only in the city, and led directly to that class of beers known as “stout”: brown stout, double stouts, Irish, entire, or heavy wet, or London particular.
It was particular to London, also, that alehouses were directly connected with commerce. For many trades the only employment agency was a specific public house or “house of call.” Bakers and tailors, plumbers and bookbinders, congregated in one place where masters arrived “to enquire when they want hands.” The landlord himself was often of the same trade, giving credit to those out of employ, chiefly in the medium of drink. The tradesmen paid their employees at pay tables in the same public houses, with obvious and predictable results, compounded by the fact that money was not exchanged until the hours of midnight and one on a Sunday morning.
There were other working practices which demanded the consumption of liquor. “Entry money” for a new apprentice or journeyman was spent in the alehouse, and various fines for late or incomplete work were also paid in the same manner. According to one great historian, M. Dorothy George in London Life in the Eighteenth Century, “the consumption of strong drink was connected with every phase of life from apprenticeship”; we may also infer that the spirit of trade, so central to the life of London, thereby remained bright and fiery. Drink and fire go together, and distillers were accused of negligence whereby their stills “gave rise to frequent and terrible fires.”
There are some singular vignettes of drunkenness in the city—Oliver Goldsmith putting on his wig back to front to amuse friends in his Temple Lodgings, Charles Lamb staggering home beside the New River where he had once bathed as a schoolboy, Joe Grimaldi being carried home every night on the back of the landlord of the Marquis of Cornwallis. There were, however, less happy episodes. The Restoration dramatist Nathaniel Lee drank himself into Bedlam where he declared: “They said I was mad: and I said they were mad: damn them, they outvoted me.” He was eventually released, but on the day of his death “he drank so hard, that he dropped down in the street, and was run over by a coach. His body was laid in a bulk at Trunkits, the perfumer’s at Temple Bar, till it was owned.” William Hickey, the early nineteenth-century memoirist, was found in a gutter along Parliament Street, “utterly incapable of giving any account of myself, or of even articulating … having no more recollection of a single circumstance that had occurred for the preceding twelve hours, than if I had been dead.” He awoke the following day “unable to move hand or foot, being most miserably bruised, cut and maimed in every part of my body.” Another London particular in the eighteenth century was Richard Porson, the first librarian of the London Institution, who was often seen in the morning staggering “from his old haunt, the Cider Cellars; in Maiden Lane.” The editor of Euripides, he was a renowned scholar who “could hiccup Greek like a Helot,” but preferred to boast that he could repeat from memory the whole of Smollett’s Roderick Random (1748). “It was said of Porson,” according to Walford’s Old and New London, “that he drank everything he could lay his hands upon, even to embrocation and spirits of wine intended for the lamp. Samuel Rogers described him returning to the dining room after the people had gone, and drinking all that was left in their glasses.” His usual and familiar exclamation, when surprised or perplexed, was “Whooe!” and, on the day of his death, he was heard quoting from the Greek Anthologia. A friend noticed that on this last occasion “he gave the Greek rapidly, but the English with painful slowness, as if the Greek came more naturally.” Revived by wine and jelly dissolved in brandy and water, he was taken to a tavern in St. Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, but later died in the London Institution on the stroke of midnight.
· · ·
When the phrase “spirituous liquor” is applied to the city’s drinking habits, however, the spirit is generally that of gin. It was denounced by the magistrate Sir John Fielding as “this liquid fire by which men drink their hell beforehand.” The demon of London for half a century, it was held responsible for the deaths of many thousands of men, women and children. Whatever the truth of mortality rates, and they are open to question, there is no doubting the popularity of gin (concocted from grain, sloe or juniper). It has been estimated that in the 1740s and 1750s there were 17,000 “gin-houses.” The slogan, copied by Hogarth for his portrayal of Gin Lane, ran “Drunk for 1d, dead drunk for 2d, clean straw for nothing.” These “geneva shops” were located in cellars or in converted ground-floor workshops; they multiplied in poorer quarters, making the more familiar and traditional alehouses of the city seem respectable in contrast. Hogarth himself said of his portrait that “In gin lane every circumstance of its horrid effects are brought to view, in terorem, nothing but Poverty misery and ruin are to be seen Distress even to madnes and death, and not a house in tolerable condition but Pawnbrokers and the Gin shop.” In that famous study, an infant is seen falling to its certain death from the emaciated arms of its drunken mother; she is sitting upon wooden stairs, with ulcerated legs, her countenance expressive only of oblivion beyond despair. It may seem melodramatic, but it is a pictorial variant upon a salient truth. One Judith Defour took her two-year-old daughter from a workhouse, for example, and then strangled her in order to strip her of the new clothes with which she had been dressed. She sold the baby’s clothes and spent the money, 1s 4d, on gin.
“A new kind of drunkenness,” Henry Fielding wrote in 1751, “unknown to our ancestors, is lately sprung up amongst us, and which if not put a stop to, will infallibly destroy a great part of the inferior people. The drunkenness I here intend is … by this Poison called Gin … the principal sustenance (if it may be so called) of more than a hundred thousand People in this Metropolis.” There had been attempts to put a “stop” to this trade, most notably by the Gin Act of 1736 which was greeted only by “the execrations of the mob.” The Act was ridiculed and evaded, with gin being sold as medicinal draughts or under assumed names such as Sangree, Tow Row, the Makeshift, or King Theodore of Corsica. The gin-shops were still filled with men and women “and even sometimes of children” who drank so much that “they find it difficult to walk on going away.” The corn distillers of London claimed that they produced “upward of eleven twelfths of the whole distillery of England” and a contemporary, Lord Lansdowne, recognised in 1743 that “the excessive use of gin hath hitherto been pretty much confined to the Cities of London and Westminster.” It offered the comfort of forgetfulness to prisoners and vagrants; it provided oblivion to the poor of St. Giles, where one house in four was a gin-shop.
Distilling was highly profitable. The trade was “thrown open” and protected from excessive excise; so the great destroyer of the poor and disadvantaged was actually created by those who wished to make a quick and easy profit. Only belatedly did the authorities respond to crimes of violence against property, fuelled by the demand for gin, and to the number of “weak and sickly” children who were proving a burden upon the parish authorities. Some gin-shops were suppressed in 1751. This measure seemed to work. Improvements in the distilleries, closer inspection of gin-shops and increase in taxes eventually resulted in the observation of 1757 that “We do not see the hundredth part of poor wretches drunk in the street since the said qualifications.” The fever passed. The rage for gin subsided as quickly as it had arisen, leading to the surmise that it was some climacteric of the city’s history as if London itself had been seized by sudden frenzy and burning thirst.
Yet gin and ale were not considered to be the only addictive and dangerous liquids. There was also tea.
The grocer Daniel Rowlinson was the first man to sell a pound of tea, in the 1650s; fifty years later Congreve described the “auxiliaries to the tea-table” as “orange brandy, aniseed, cinnamon, citron, and Barbadoes water.” J. Ilive, author of A New and Compleat Survey of London in 1762, also blamed the “excessive drinking of Tea” for enervating “the Stomachs of the Populace, as to render them incapable of performing the offices of Digestion; whereby the Appetite is so much deprav’d.” A pamphleteer in 1758 declared tea-drinking to be “very hurtful to those who work hard and live low” and condemned it as “one of the worst of habits, rendering you lost to yourselves, and unfit for the comforts you were first designed for.” William Hazlitt was popularly supposed to have died in Frith Street, Soho, in 1830 from the excessive drinking of that plant infusion. The emphasis once again is on the tendency of Londoners—even imported citizens such as Hazlitt—to obsession and excess, so that an apparently harmless cordial can become dangerous. That is also why London tea gardens soon acquired a dubious reputation. Suburban retreats with agreeable names such as White Conduite House, Shepherd and Shepherdess, Cuper’s Gardens, Montpelier and Bagnigge Wells, devoted to the drinking of tea and other pleasant pastimes, became associated “with loose women and with boys whose morals are depraved, and their constitutions ruined” and were well known “for the encouragement of luxury, extravagance, idleness and other wicked illegal purposes.” It is as if the opportunity for pleasure, or leisure, in London was immediately transformed into excess, viciousness and immorality; the city can never be at peace.
Tea and gin are still with us, but one eighteenth-century drink has utterly disappeared. Saloop was a hot, sweet beverage made from a decoction of sassafras wood, milk and sugar, and sold for three halfpence a bowl; the name is supposed to have been derived from the slopping sound of those drinking it in the street. Coffee and tea were expensive, so stalls selling saloop were found in the poorer areas of London. In summer saloop was sold from an open table on wheels; in winter from a kind of tent made from a screen and an old umbrella. It was considered to be the best possible cure for a hangover, and Charles Lamb recalled the artisan and the chimney-sweep mingling with “the rake” at dawn around the saloopian stalls; “being penniless,” the young sweeps “will yet hang their black heads over the ascending steams, to gratify one sense if possible.” The spectacle prompted Lamb to reflection upon a city where “extremes meet.”
In the same period as Lamb wrote his reflections, designed for the London Magazine, the young Charles Dickens entered a public house in Parliament Street and ordered “your very best—the VERY best—ale.” It was called the Genuine Stunning and the twelve-year-old boy said, “Just draw me a glass of that, if you please, with a good head to it.” The spectacle of children drinking in the streets and alehouses was familiar, if not common, in the early years of the nineteenth century. “The girls, I am told,” wrote Henry Mayhew as late as the 1850s, “are generally fonder of gin than the boys.” They took it “to keep the cold out.”
Verlaine (1873) considered Londoners to be “noisy as ducks, eternally drunk,” while Dostoevsky (1862) noted that “everyone is in a hurry to drink himself into insensibility.” A German journalist, Max Schlesinger (1853), saw the inhabitants of a public house “standing, staggering, crouching, or lying down, groaning, and cursing, drink and forget.” An observer closer to home, Charles Booth, noticed that drinking among women in the 1890s had materially increased. “One drunken woman in a street will set all the women in it drinking,” he quotes one male inhabitant of the East End as saying. Nearly all women “get drunk of Monday. They say “we have our fling; we like to have a little fuddle on Monday.’” All classes of London women seem to have been drinking, largely because it was no longer considered wrong for a female to enter a public house for a “nip.” In the evening, children of the poorer classes were sent around to the local public house to have a jug filled with ale; as Booth reported, “it was constant come and go, one moment to go in and get the jug filled, and out again the next; none of the children waited to talk or play with one another, but at once hurried home.”
Gentlemen drank as deeply and freely as the poor. Thackeray noted those “who glory in drinking bouts” with “bottle-noses” and “pimpled faces.” “I was so cut last night” is one of the phrases he recalled.
In each year of the nineteenth century, approximately 25,000 people were arrested for drunkenness in the streets. Yet the conditions of life often drove poorer Londoners into their condition. One of them, a collector of “pure” (dog excrement) told Mayhew that he had often been drunk “for three months together”—he had “bent his head down to his cup to drink, being utterly incapable of raising it to his lips.”
So even though the gin fever had subsided, and its shops closed down, its spirit—we might say—was continued in the “gin palaces” of the nineteenth century. These large establishments, clad in shining plate-glass windows with stucco rosettes and gilt cornices, were resplendent with advertisements lit by gas-lamps announcing “the only real brandy in London” or “the famous cordial, medicated gin, which is so strongly recommended by the faculty.” The fine lettering reveals the attractions of “The Out and Out!,” “The No Mistake,” “The Good for Mixing” and “The real Knock-me-down.” Yet the exterior brightness was generally deceptive; the scene within these “palaces” was a dismal one, almost reminiscent of the old gin-shops. There was characteristically a long bar of mahogany, behind which were casks painted green and gold, with the customers standing—or sitting on old barrels—along a narrow and dirty area beside it. It might be noted here, too, that social observers believed drink to be “at the root of all the poverty and distress with which they came into contact.” Again the emphasis is upon the unhappy conditions of the city itself, literally driving men and women to drink with its relentless speed, urgency and oppression. Of the skeletons investigated in St. Bride’s Lower Churchyard, “just under 10 per cent had at least one fracture.” It is also revealed, in the fascinating London Bodies compiled by Alex Werner, that “almost half of these were rib fractures, commonly caused by stumbling or brawling.”
In the same period the breweries had become one of the wonders of London, one of the sights to which foreign visitors were directed. By the 1830s there were twelve principal brewers, producing, according to Charles Knight’s London, “two barrels, or 76 gallons, of beer per annum for every inhabitant of the metropolis—man, woman and child.” Who would not want to observe all this industry and enterprise? One German visitor was impressed by the “vast establishment” of Whitbread’s brewery in Chiswell Street, with its buildings “higher than a church” and its horses “the giants of their breed.” In similar fashion, in the summer of 1827, a German prince “turned my ‘cab’ to Barclay’s brewery, in Park Street, Southwark, which the vastness of its dimensions renders almost romantic.” He observed that steam engines drove the machinery which manufactured from twelve to fifteen thousand barrels a day; ninety-nine of the larger barrels, each one “as high as a house,” are kept in “gigantic sheds”; 150 horses “like elephants” transport the beer. His awareness of the size and immensity of London are here reflected in its capacity for beer and, in a final parallel, he notes that from the roof of the brewery “you have a very fine panoramic view of London.”
That emblematic significance was recognised by painters as well as visitors, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century there was established what London art historians have termed “the brewery genre.” Ten years after the prince’s visit, for example, Barclay’s brewery was painted by an anonymous hand; the entrance is depicted, together with the thriving life of London all around it. To the right is the great brewhouse, with a suspension bridge connecting to the other side of the street. In the foreground a butcher’s boy, in the blue apron typical of his trade, stands with another customer beside a baked-potato van; barrels of beer on sleds are being drawn by horses into the yard, passing a dray which is just leaving. In the street, to the right, a hansom cab is bringing in more visitors. It is a picture of appetite, with the meat carried on the shoulders of the butcher’s boy as an apt token of the London diet, as well as of immense energy and industry.
But there are other ways of conveying the immensity of the city’s drinking. Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Doré visited the same premises for their London: a Pilgrimage—“the town of Malt and Hops” as Jerrold called it in 1871—in order to see the brewing of the beer named Entire which assuaged “Thirsty London.” Jerrold noted that against the great towers and barrels the working men “look like flies,” and indeed in Doré’s engravings these dark anonymous shapes tend to their beer-mashing and beer-making duties like votaries; all is in shadow and chiaroscuro, with fitful gleams illuminating the activities of these small figures in vast enclosed spaces. Here again the life of the city is like that within some great decaying prison, with the metal pipes and cylinders as its bars and gates. Jerrold, like the German visitor before him, looked over London “with St. Paul’s dominating the view from the north,” and apostrophises beer as the city’s sacred drink. “We are,” he remarked, “upon classic ground.”
The gin palace was supplanted by the public house which was the direct descendant of the tavern and the alehouse. Of course taverns survived in the older parts of London, known to their adherents for privacy and quiet, to their detractors for gloom and silence. Public houses continued the tradition of segregation, with saloon, lounge and private bars being distinguished from public bars and jug and bottle departments. Many pubs were not salubrious, with plain and dirty interiors and a long “zinc-topped” counter where men sat solemnly drinking—“You enter by a heavy door that is held ajar by a thick leather strap … striking you in the back as you go in and often knocking off your hat.” Instead of the gin palace’s long bar, the public house bar was characteristically in the shape of a horseshoe with the variously coloured bottles rising up within its interior space. The furniture was plain enough, with chairs and benches, tables and spittoons, upon a sawdusted floor. By 1870 there were some 20,000 public houses and beer-shops in the metropolis, catering to half a million customers each day, reminiscent of “dusty, miry, smoky, beery, brewery London.”
A stranger asking directions in 1854, according to The Little World of London, was likely to be told “Straight on till you come to the Three Turks, then to turn to the right and cross over at the Dog and Duck, and go on again till you come to the Bear and the Bottle, then to turn the corner at the Jolly Old Cocks, and after passing the Veteran, the Guy Fawkes, the Iron Duke, to take the first turn to the right which will bring you to it.” In this period there were seventy King’s Heads and ninety King’s Arms, fifty Queen’s Heads and seventy Crowns, fifty Roses and twenty-five Royal Oaks, thirty Bricklayers Arms and fifteen Watermen’s Arms, sixteen Black Bulls and twenty Cocks, thirty Foxes and thirty Swans. A favoured colour in pubs’ names was red, no doubt complementing the analogy in London between drink and fire, while London’s favourite number seemed to be three: the Three Hats, the Three Herrings, the Three Pigeons, and so on. There were also more mysterious signs such as the Grave Maurice, the Cat and Salutation and the Ham and Windmill.
The variety and plentitude of the nineteenth-century pubs continued well into the twentieth century, with the basic shape and nature changing very little, ranging from the munificent West End establishment to the sawdusted corner pub in Poplar or in Peckham. Then, in one of those paradoxes of London life, public houses became more mixed and lively places during the Second World War. The beer may have run out before the close of proceedings, and glasses may have been in short supply, but Philip Ziegler suggests in London at War that “they were the only places in wartime London where one could entertain and be entertained cheaply, and find the companionship badly needed during the war.” There was an odd superstition that pubs were more likely to be hit by bombs, but this did not seem to affect their popularity; in fact, during the forced absence of men, women once again began to use pubs. A report of 1943 recorded that “they were often to be seen there with other women or even on their own.” “Never had the London pubs been more stimulating,” John Lehmann recalled, “never has one been able to hear more extraordinary revelations, never witness more unlikely encounters.”
By the end of that war in 1945 there were still some four thousand pubs in the capital, and peace brought a new resurgence of interest. Novels and films have conveyed the atmosphere of pubs in the late 1940s and early 1950s, from the East End, where the men still wore caps and scarves and the girls danced “holding cigarettes in their fingers,” to local saloons where what Orwell described as the “warm fog of smoke and beer” surrounded the “regulars.”
That emphasis upon conviviality continued into the twenty-first century, with pianos and juke-boxes being steadily supplanted by video games, fruit machines and eventually wide-screen televisions generally devoted to football. With the gradual take-over of public houses by the larger brewers and the establishment of chains in the 1960s and 1970s, however, there emerged a greater degree of standardisation and modernisation from which many London pubs have never recovered. Certain chains, for example, had the ceilings of their public houses smoked or painted brown to mimic the interior of the ancient alehouses, while various nineteenth-century objets and old books were discreetly planted to ensure an air of authenticity. But, of all the cities in the world, artificial history does not work in London.
Among the 1,500 licensed premises now listed within central London the familiar names still exist. Even if there is no real comparison between “London” of 1857 and “Central London” of 2000, it is at least comforting to find a significant number still of Red Lions and Queen’s Heads and Green Mans. “Three” is still a favourite number, from the Three Compasses in Rotherhithe Street to the Three Tuns in Portman Mews. There are no more Spotted Dogs or Jolly Sailors but instead a number of Slug and Lettuces. There are still Saints’ and Shakespeare’s Heads, but there are now five Finnegans Wakes, a Dean Swift, a George Orwell, an Artful Dodger and a Gilbert and Sullivan. The Running Footman is no more, but there are three Scruffy Murphys.
Despite justified complaints about the standardisation of both beer and the surroundings in which it is drunk, there is at the beginning of the twenty-first century a great deal more variety of public house than at any time in London’s history. There are pubs with upstairs theatres and pubs with karaoke nights, pubs with live music and pubs with dancing, pubs with restaurants and pubs with gardens, theatrical pubs in Shaftesbury Avenue and business pubs in Leadenhall Market, ancient pubs such as the Mitre in Ely Passage and the Bishop’s Finger in Smithfield, pubs with drag-acts and pubs with striptease, pubs with special beers and theme pubs devoted variously to Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes and other London dignitaries; there are gay pubs for homosexuals and pubs for transvestites. And, in more traditional spirit, bicyclists still meet at the Downs, Clapton, where the Pickwick Bicycle Club first met on 22 June 1870.
There is another continuity. Recent surveys suggest that, despite varying levels of intoxication through the twentieth century, Londoners have returned to their old habits. It is now recorded that the average consumption in the city is higher than elsewhere so that according to a Survey of Alcohol Needs and Services published in 1991 “one and a half million Londoners may be exceeding recommended ‘sensible’ levels” with “a quarter of a million drinking at a dangerous level.” So the city manifests, as always, the “immoderate drinking of foolish persons.” The names for drunkards and drunkenness in London are many and various—“soaks,” “whets,” “topers,” “piss-heads” and “piss artists” are “boozy,” “fluffy,” “well-gone,” “legless,” “crocked,” “wrecked,” “paralytic,” “ratarsed,” “shit-faced” and “arse-holed.” They are “up the Monument” or “half seas over”; they are “on a bender,” “out of it” or “off their tits.”
Today’s vagrant drinkers of Spitalfields, Stepney, Camden, Waterloo and parts of Islington, are known as the “death drinkers.” They subsist on a diet of methylated spirits (jake or the blue), surgical spirit (surge or the white) and other forms of crude alcohol. It has been estimated that there are between one and two thousand down-and-out alcoholics in the city; they congregate under arches, in small parks, or on open sites where building has yet to begin; these places are known to their inhabitants by various names such as the Caves, Running Water, or the Ramp. These vagrants themselves have names like No-Toes, Ginger, Jumping Joe and Black Sam; they are covered by scars and sores, blackened by the makeshift fires conjured upon bomb-sites. When they die— as they do relatively quickly—they are interred in the City Cemetery at Forest Gate. London buries them because London has killed them.