The English Drinking Culture: A Brief History

When it comes to alcohol and the English people, there are two main traditions: the first is that we drink lots of it, and the second is that of claiming that things have never been so bad.

According to Public Health England:

Alcohol is now more affordable and people are drinking more than they did in the past… Despite recent declines in sales, as a nation we are still drinking too much… Most adults in England drink alcohol – more than 10 million people are drinking at levels that increase the risk of harming their health.

News reports over the past decade paint a grim picture: ‘Binge drinking turns alcohol into bigger killer of the working class than the well off’ (Daily Mail); ‘Supermarkets “overflowing” with cheap alcohol’ (Evening Standard); ‘supermarkets selling beer cheaper than water’ (Channel 4); ‘The middle-class women drinking themselves to death’ (Daily Mail); ‘The shocking extent of middle-class drinking revealed’ (Daily Mail); ‘Middle class parents fuelling teen drinking’ (The Telegraph); ‘Pill that replaces alcohol aims to end middle-class drinking “epidemic”‘ (The i); ‘Cheaper alcohol boosts calls for minimum prices’ (The Times); ‘The killer on Britain’s streets – super-strength alcohol’ (The Guardian); ‘Millions to call in sick with World Cup hangovers’ (Daily Star). And so on.

In reality, this is nothing new. Alcohol consumption has risen and fallen many times during English history, and each new generation has found some way to claim that things have never been so bad. The one interesting twist in the latest bout of alcohol-related hysteria comes in the form of a new concern that it is the middle class who are drinking themselves into oblivion; a welcome change from the historically more common narratives of working class degeneracy threatening the nation.

The fact is that England is, and always has been, a nation of drinkers. In fact, moralists of previous centuries would probably be pleased with how relatively little we now drink compared with the people of their times.

Both habitual and heavy drinking have been a part of English culture for as long as the English have been around. In the medieval period, daily drinking was the norm, but not, as a popular myth has it, because water was unsafe to drink (a myth put to rest by Jim Chevallier and Ian Mansfield). To quote from Ælfric’s Colloquy (10th century): ‘I drink ale… and water if I have no ale’. For everyday use, there was lower ABV ‘small beer’, but there was also the much stronger ‘godale‘ (‘good ale’), also known as ‘double beer‘. Cider, wine, and mead were also drunk. The medieval calendar was peppered with saints days and other religious festivals, and all of these were accompanied by heavy drinking:

Masquerade, the inversion of conventional authority, satire, sexual freedom, and considerable drunkenness were central to festive culture, including church-ales and religious feasts in medieval England.

Periodically, steps were taken to reduce the extent of such revellry. In 1448, Henry VI banned fairs and markets on traditional feast days and Sundays, due to ‘drunkenness and strifes’ causing ‘abominable injuries and offences done to almighty God’. In 1563, the Council of Trent warned against allowing religious festivals to be ‘perverted into revelling and drunkenness’. Protestant radicals, meanwhile, accused popular fairs and church-ales of being nothing more than an excuse for ‘bullbeating, bowling, drunkenness, dancing, and such like’. Had it been around in those days, the Daily Mail would have been appalled.

In the early modern period, the English drinking culture was again seen as a cause for concern. Ian Spencer Hornsey’s excellent book A History of Beer and Brewing provides the following examples:

1552: From ‘An Act for Keepers of Ale-houses to be bounde by Recognizances’:

Forasmuch as intolerable hurts and troubles to the commonwealth of this realm do daily grow and increase through such abuses and disorders as are had and used in common ale-houses and other houses called tippling houses, it is enacted that Justices of Peace can abolish ale-houses at their discretion, and that no tippling-house can be opened without a licence.

1572: Edmund Grindal, Archbishop of York, in a stern warning to the clergy of England:

Ye shall not keep, or suffer to be kept in your parsonage or vicarage houses, tippling houses or taverns, nor shall ye sell ale, beer, or wine.

1577: William Harrison, writing in his Description of England:

Certes I know some ale-knights so much addicted thereunto that they will not cease from morrow until even to visit the same, cleansing house after house, till they defile themselves, and either fall quite under the board, or else, not daring to stir from their stools sit still pinking with their narrow eyes, as half sleeping, till the fume of their adversary be digested that he may go to it afresh.

1583: Philip Stubbs, an Elizabethan moralist, writing about drunkenness:

I say that it is a horrible vice, and too much used in England. Every county, city, town, village, and other places hath abundance of alehouses, taverns, and inns, which are so frought with malt-worms, night and day, that you would wonder to see them. You shall have them there sitting at the wine and good-ale all the day long, yea, all the night too, peradventure a whole week together, so long as any money is left; swilling, gulling and carousing from one to another, till never a one can speak a ready word.

‘How they stutter and stammer, stagger and reel to and fro, like madmen’, wrote Stubbs, ‘some vomiting, spewing and disgorging their filthy stomachs, othersome pissing under the board as they sit’. A 2009 House of Commons Health Committee report states that towns across the country are at night ‘awash with drunks, vomit and disorder’; so, little has changed.

In his fascinating book, Man Walks Into A Pub, Pete Brown notes:

In 1577, there was an alehouse for every 120 of the population. By 1636, this figure was one for every ninety-five. From 1684, the annual production of common brewers (wholesalers) and brewing victuallers (retailers) was recorded, and together with the estimated production from private brewing they were turning out nearly nineteen million barrels [of beer] a year, or 2.3 pints per day for every man, woman, and child in the country.

And this wasn’t low ABV medieval-style small beer, either. In 1680, a member of parliament urged that ‘There must be a reformation of ale… It is as strong as wine and will burn like sack’.

Beer wasn’t the only popular drink towards the end of the 17th century, for brandy was also widely consumed. For political reasons (brandy being of French origin), the English were encouraged to abandon it in favour of gin. After 1694, gin cost less than beer and is estimated to have had twice the alcohol content of the gin sold today. Brown writes:

Consumption rocketed, and by 1742 a population one tenth the size of today’s was necking around nineteen million gallons a year, ten times the amount we get through now. Anyone was free to open a gin shop, and it is estimated that in some parts of London one in every four houses sold gin.

The epidemic of drinking that ensued worried the ruling class, who were concerned that a population so dissolute was endangering Britain’s wealth and would be unable to carry out military service:

An example comes from the opening of the Gin Act of 1736. It stated the law was needed because of the prevalence of gin consumption among ‘the people of lower and inferior rank’. This led to ‘the destruction of their healths, rendering them unfit for useful labour and business, debauching their morals, and citing them to all manner of vices’.

The Tippling Act of 1751 resulted in an increase in gin prices and decreased consumption. Beer returned to the fore, for:

While drunkenness was often spoken of affectionately when it was induced by beer, England’s national drink, gin was considered a foreign drink, and therefore less acceptable.

Despite opposition to the gin mania of the ‘inferior classes’, their ‘superiors’ were really in no position to judge:

However you explain it, it seems likely that a good part of the population of 18th-century Britain had, in modern terms, a significant drinking problem, greater the higher up you look on the social scale. Gout was everywhere amongst the rich and the gentry, especially in men, who were the heaviest drinkers. Men boasted of their ability to drink huge amounts and remain able to function. To qualify as a rake virtually required you to consume up to three bottles of port a day. During his time as Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger was said to take up to six bottles daily.

In the 18th century, water was avoided, although not due to fears of contamination. The Swiss travel writer Cesar de Saussure reported of his time in England: ‘Would you believe it, although water is to be had in abundance in London and of fairly good quality, absolutely none is drunk?’ ‘Men of all ages drink abominably’, wrote a Scottish MP to his wife.

The American founding father Benjamin Franklin spent some of his days living in London and worked in a printing house, where he was mockingly known as ‘Water-American’ for drinking water at work:

At my first admission into this printinghouse I took to working at press, imagining I felt a want of the bodily exercise I had been used to in America, where presswork is mixed with composing. I drank only water; the other workmen, near fifty in number, were great guzzlers of beer. On occasion, I carried tip and down stairs a large form of types in each hand, when others carried but one in both hands. They wondered to see, from this and several instances, that the Water-American, as they called me, was stronger than themselves, who drank strong beer!

We had an ale-house boy who attended always in the house to supply the workmen. My companion at the press drank every day a pint before breakfast, a pint at breakfast with his bread and cheese, a pint between breakfast and dinner, a pint at dinner, a pint in the afternoon about six O’clock, and another when he had done his day’s work. I thought it a detestable custom; but it was necessary, he supposed, to drink strong beer that he might be strong to labor.

I endeavored to convince him that the bodily strength afforded by beer could only be in proportion to the grain or flour of the barley dissolved in the water of which it was made; that there was more flour in a pennyworth of bread; and, therefore, if he would eat that with a pint of water, it would give him more strength than a quart of beer. He drank on, however, and had four or five shillings to pay out of his wages every Saturday night for that muddling liquor, an expense I was free from.

An analysis of the recipes and production process of beer at the time suggests its strength was around 7% ABV. So, like so many other Englishmen and women of the time, Franklin’s colleague was massively exceeding modern government guidelines on alcohol consumption on a daily basis.

The English tradition of excessive drinking continued on throughout the nineteenth century:

The per capita figures show that alcohol consumption was actually rising at this period, peaking in the period 1875-1879. At all events, drunkenness was far more visible in an urban society than in the rural communities of the past.

The temperance movement started to take hold, however, through an alliance forged between Christian moralists and the owners of industry, whose concern with drinking lay less in its moral deficiencies than in its effects on the productivity of workers.

Alcohol consumption in England began to decline, although not at every level of society. While the workers were encouraged to follow a more sober path, the political class continued as before. Herbert Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, ‘was regularly under the influence, and used to sway on his feet when speaking or answering questions in the House of Commons’. A popular musical hall ditty included the lines: ‘Mr Asquith says in a manner sweet and calm: another little drink won’t do us any harm’. The legendary wartime leader Winston Churchill was also a heavy drinker, particularly of brandy and champagne:

During the inter-war years, he once mischievously invited a party of Mormons down to Chartwell for lunch. They duly attacked the fizzy water and the orange juice with their accustomed gusto, while Churchill imbibed something stronger with equal vigour.

At some point, the chief Mormon turned to his host, and observed: “Mr Churchill, the reason I do not drink is that alcohol combines the kick of the antelope with the bite of the viper.”

Churchill fixed the Mormon with his most beatifically wicked smile, and replied: “All my life, I have been searching for a drink like that.”

Perhaps, Churchill’s search was completed following his visit to Copenhagen in 1950. The Danish brewer Carlsberg produced a new a beer to commemorate the visit, which we now know by the name ‘Special Brew’:

Following a Danish tradition of brewing new beers for special occasions, the recipe was intended to include ‘cognac flavours in its tasting notes’, marking Churchill’s liking for brandy. Carlsberg originally named the beer ‘V-øllet’ (literally, ‘the V-beer’), as a reference to VE and VJ day. Although, on receipt of two crates of the beer from Carlsberg the following year, Churchill wrote to thank the brewery for what he simply called the ‘commemoration lager’.

Special Brew is, of course, notorious today as one of the ‘super-strength lagers’ associated with ‘problem drinking’.

The last two decades of the twentieth century saw the resurgence of the English drinking culture. From the late ’70s into the ’80s, various youth movements emerged that were associated with heavy drinking. There were the skinhead and punk scenes: put simply, ‘they liked fighting and drinking’. The English two-tone and ska band Bad Manners put out a record titled ‘Special Brew‘; Oi! bands like the Cockney Rejects and the 4-Skins released songs with titles like ‘Fighting In The Streets‘ and ‘ACAB‘ (‘All Coppers Are Bastards’). And of course, there were The Sex Pistols, ‘flaunting their heavy drinking, playing poorly, and taunting and spitting on the crowd’.

Beyond the music scenes, there was the rise of football hooliganism, ‘lager louts’, and even ‘rural rioters’:

Football hooliganism in the 1980s was such a concern that Margaret Thatcher’s government set up a “war cabinet” to tackle it.

But the Iron Lady’s ministers were also deeply worried about another blot on the landscape – increasing levels of crime in sleepy communities up and down the UK.

The rise of the “rural rioter” caused such anxiety that home secretary Douglas Hurd commissioned urgent research into how to tackle the worsening spectre of “drunken mob violence” in the “shires”.

Against a backdrop of widespread football violence in Britain and incidents such as the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, when 39 Juventus fans died during the European Cup Final against Liverpool, Mr Hurd ordered senior police to investigate the problem of young people causing trouble in towns and villages after too many drinks on Friday and Saturday nights.

Previously unseen Cabinet Office files, released by the National Archives at Kew, west London, show that Mr Hurd saw “similarities between the rural rioter and the football hooligan”.

As for the lager lout:

In 1988 the British government faced a now forgotten domestic crisis.

Previously placid towns, villages and suburbs up and down the country were suddenly awash with mob violence – the kind of thing people expected in forsaken inner cities but which seemed newly terrifying as it spread to provincial market squares and high streets.

The police panicked, the public fretted, and politicians were pressed to take action.

What was causing this rash of insanity? Who or what was to blame for this descent into madness?

In September 1988 at an informal press briefing John Patten MP, Minister for Home Affairs, pointed the finger: the chaos was a result of ‘the Saturday night lager cult’ and ‘lager louts’.

The football hooligan phenomenon resulted in a government crackdown. The Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol etc.) Act (1985) made it a criminal offence to

  • Be drunk at a football ground
  • Drink alcohol within view of the pitch from 15 minutes before the start of the match to 15 minutes after the end of the match
  • Drink alcohol on certain coaches, trains and motor vehicles travelling to a football match.

The term ‘lager lout’ has fallen out of use, although a 2008 news article did warn of the rise of the ‘Saga Lout‘:

A new breed of older Britons is drinking too much on holiday and causing the sort of trouble normally associated with the younger generation, the Foreign Office warns today. An increasing number of 50-somethings – known as “Saga louts” – are over-indulging in alcohol and food and becoming abusive to locals, an analysis of surveys shows.

The late-’80s to mid-’90s was the era of acid house and the rave scene. Many younger people swapped beer for LSD and ecstasy tablets, and were more likely to be seen guzzling bottled water at events than pints of lager. But then, along came Oasis:

When we think of the Nineties, the monobrow image of the Gallagher brothers is stamped indelibly across the decade. It is surely one of the oddest love affairs in pop history, when a gang of heavy-drinking scallywags were clutched to the bosom of the nation, celebrated from Coronation Street to Downing Street while waving two fingers at everyone, including each other. Oasis did something no pop group since the Beatles had done, infusing the whole country with their self-belief.

‘It’s a crazy situation’, sang Liam Gallagher, ‘but all I need are cigarettes and alcohol!’

The rave era was over, and ‘lad culture’ was on the rise, just in time for the 1996 UEFA European Football Championship:

Vindaloo Na Na Euro 96 was peak, unrelenting LAD. It was a whole year of chest beating, public urination and chanting ’til one’s throat was sore. Crumpled cans in passionate fists, waking up with curry on your face and looking in the mirror asking, “OOO ARE YA?”

Beer-fuelled hooliganism made a comeback and two thousand England fans rioted in central London.

At the same time, the media was also stirring up a moral panic over the growing popularity of so-called ‘alcopops’ – sweet, soft-drink type bottled drinks containing vodka and other spirits:

For a brief spell in the mid to late 1990s one could almost have been forgiven for believing the end of civilisation was nigh, and alcopops were to blame. The headlines of the day reflect a heightened sense of alarm about the effects of such drinks.

“Judge’s fury at alcopops”, “Designer drinks lead young astray”, “Alcopops sale led to death” and “Alcopop blitz as more kids get hooked on booze”.

A 1997 advertising industry article notes:

Not so long ago it was Ecstasy and the rave scene. Now it’s alcopops – the moral majority’s latest bete noir. Alcopops are being blamed for everything, prompting calls for them to be heavily regulated or even banned. Church leaders, politicians, pressure groups and the media have all jumped on the anti-alcopops bandwagon, falling over each other to accuse the drinks industry of deliberately targeting juvenile drinkers and of causing an increase in underage drunkenness.

Products were withdrawn and product launches cancelled. Eventually, the fuss died down and there are only a handful of alcopops-type drinks still sold today.

The 2000s were marked by concern over binge drinking, antisocial behaviour, women’s drinking, and underage drinking. 29% of young adults were classed as ‘binge drinkers’ in 2005, and in 2008 underage drinking in Britain was reported to be ‘among the worst in the world’. At the same time, a 2008 report also suggested that ‘alcohol consumption has levelled off by youth, as well as young adults, since the turn of the century’ and that ‘some of the most highly publicised excesses of 1990s alcohol-frenzied leisure may have run their course’.

By 2013, binge drinking was down to 18% and more than a fifth of the population said they drank no alcohol at all. ‘Dying habits: UK cuts down on heavy drinking and smoking’, reported The Guardian. ‘These 3 charts show Britain’s young people are giving up alcohol’, claimed Business Insider in 2015. Media reports from 2017 include: ‘Number of Britons regularly drinking alcohol drops to 12-year low’ (The Independent); ‘More than a quarter of young adults in the UK do not drink alcohol’ (The Guardian); ‘Rise of teetotalism: almost half of Brits shun regular drinking’ (The Telegraph). All of this while Public Health England states that one in four adults in England (10.4 million people) are drinking too much.

These conflicting messages and reports are unsurprising, as the history of drinking in England shows that the levels of use have gone up and down in various periods. No doubt, at least if the past is anything to go by, we should be getting new claims of a growing epidemic of English boozing some time in the next ten years or so. The fact is that drinking is, and always has been, an integral part of English culture. The history of the English drinking culture suggests that we are really pretty tame these days compared with some of our forebears. We are certainly no worse.

Make mine a pint.

3 thoughts on “The English Drinking Culture: A Brief History

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