The Museum of London, Docklands: a Beguiling Talk About the Social History of the English Pub

The English pub is such a well-loved institution.

Sailortown gallery, Museum of London Docklands
Sailortown gallery, Museum of London Docklands

I know when I lived in Australia for four years, this wonderful institution was much prized for its almost legendary status amongst the Australians, even if they did think we British are a bit weird to go around drinking warm beer all the time.

And at the Museum of London, Docklands, I had the chance to listen to a talk on the social history of this, the most iconic “hostelry”.museum of london docklands

Crowded into The Three Mariners, a replica of a small historical pub within the Museum’s Sailortown recreation, we listened to a most engaging talk on the subject. I learned that the social history of drinking in Britain began when the Romans introduced the taverna to the natives of these isles, and thus began the habit of drinking wine.

Then, later on, after the Romans had given up on us and left, the Vikings invaded – and introduced beer. then we British became used to the alehouses. Ale was a natural choice for England, and later inns began to appear.

During Tudor times, Henry VIII introduced licensing laws.. He wanted the “public house” regulated and ordered.

Then on into the 1600s and 1700s – and gin was the thing. It was very cheap and easy to make; and we know of course from  vivid engravings and from our social history, the effect that the craze for gin had on our society.

And onto William Gladstone – when he was Prime Minister he decided it would be morally superior for us to revert to wine drinking. Prior to his time wine had only been available in kegs. Now he introduced the bottle of wine, and promoted the idea that there was some kind of social refinement or even moral virtue about drinking wine as opposed to beer.

And now of course we have inherited these social  presumptions about our drinking habits. Who, our guide asked, would dare request a strawberry daiquiri when he’s sitting amongst his mates in the pub and they’ve all ordered beer? Social meltdown, at the very least!

It all brought me back to the first time I tasted alcohol. My first love was Asti Spumante; and Blue Nun was the order of the day too, along with Mateus Rose. And when I was at university, I remember such combinations as Guinness and Grapefruit, Dry Martini and Lemonade, and American Dry and Whisky – along with the much-favoured Snowball (Advocaat and Lemonade). And I have long loved a gin and tonic…

But how amusing it is to think how easily we attribute a social value to anything we might do… and no wonder the drinking of alcohol has not escaped this natural tendency of human nature.

But it was great fun to listen to our enthusiastic and lively speaker setting all our ideas about alcohol firmly in the context of English social history.

 

 

Book Review (English Social History): “Through the Keyhole” by Susan C Law

It seems part of the psychological make-up of the English people to bestow power upon the wealthy and privileged; whilst at the same time depriving them of the right to privacy.

And as we’ve all recently seen in the General Election, you have to be tough to play for high stakes; winner takes all, and  unsuccessful opponents lose everything.

Through the Keyhole by Susan C Law
Through the Keyhole by Susan C Law

Today’s obsession with the private lives of celebrities and those “in high places” finds its parallel in Georgian and Regency England, where the public was hungry for moral lapses among the aristocracy. This fascinating and scrupulously researched book shines a spotlight onto a universal aspect of human behaviour – but the scholarly focus is upon how eighteenth century society reacted to it, thus enriching our knowledge of the social history of the time.

Aristocratic rakes are the stuff of novels set in Regency England. One of the most striking things about the book is how intensely the opinion-makers of the time wanted to hold on to the idea of “rank co-existing with honour”, despite all evidence to the contrary. Another outstanding aspect of Susan Law’s account is the hypocrisy of the society as the popular press indulged itself in moralising and judgementalism, along with minimal respect for confidentiality, slander and libel, thus feeding a voracious appetite by the public. But I was also surprised by the disregard that the adulterous aristocrats themselves paid to covering up their tracks, and their failure to have due regard to the ominipresence of their servants. Tumbled bedclothes, two dents in the bed, and hair powder on the pillowcases seem obvious tracks to cover up!

Susan Law examines the craze of the 1790’s for printed court reports of adultery trials, which continued through to the late 1830’s with the popularity of the “Crim Con Gazette”. She examines the changes that took place up until the 1832 Great Reform Act which altered the way the nation saw itself in terms of social hierarchies – opening up “previously unthinkable possibilities for the middle class”. Certainly in the early part of the period it is very noticeable that often “cuckolded” husbands (themselves equally guilty of adultery) might be awarded huge damages and then go on to an honourable career in high office, while adulterous women were far more likely to be “sent away” in shame and have their lives ruined.

Chief among the adulterers later on of course was the Prince Regent, and I was amused to read the opinion of Theresa, sister of the Earl of Morley, who wrote in a letter “’tis dreadful to think of the open profligacy of that Monster…. we must all go to the dogs should he ever unfortunately come to the throne.”

To the non-academic reader, the most interesting parts of this book are when the author gives accounts of specific cases, such as that of Lord Ellenborough and his young wife Jane. There are among these stories accounts that will draw a variety of different responses from the reader; for as the blurb points out, the different stories are passionate, scandalous, poignant and tragic.

A fascinating insight into eighteenth century social history, with plenty of material which will give us cause to reflect upon the preoccupations of today’s Britain as well.