The English Love of Gambling: A Brief History

Gambling has long been a part of English culture, both popular and upper class, as have been attempts to curb it:

Such attempts had been enshrined in legislation since 1397 when cards were outlawed on work days. A further statute of Henry VIII confined all gambling to Christmas when, assuming the lower orders would be celebrating anyway, its disruptive effects would be minimal.

In the modern period, numerous Acts of Parliament have been aimed at regulating and restricting gambling, illustrating the extent to which it is entrenched in English culture. The 1664 ‘Act against deceitfull disorderly and excessive Gameing’ states that ‘many Mischiefs arise from immoderate Use of Games’. It did not condemn ‘innocent and moderate’ gambling, but took aim at ‘the maintaining and encourageing of sundry idle loose and disorderly persons in their dishonest lewd and dissolute course of life’ and the ‘debauching of many of the younger sort’. At the time, as the Act shows, people were gambling using cards and dice and betting on table tennis, bowls, skittles, shovelboard, cockfighting, horse racing, and dog fights.

Further Acts aimed at restricting gambling include the Gaming Act 1710, the Gaming Act 1738, the Gaming Act 1845, the Metropolitan Streets Act 1867, and the Street Betting Act 1906.

In the 18th century, taxes were imposed on packs of cards and dice. An 18th century statute outlawed the games Ace of Hearts, Faro, Bassett, and Hazard, ‘except in Royal palaces’. By 1847, the number of betting houses in London was estimated to be between 100 and 150:

These were outlawed with the 1853 Betting Houses Act, moving gambling onto the streets. Further legislation led to a crackdown on street betting, and it was completely outlawed with the Street Betting Act of 1906.

As Mike Atherton notes: ‘Despite the prevailing attitudes, the desire among the working classes to gamble was too powerful, and the legislation designed to prevent them from doing so was simply ignored’. ‘Paradoxially’, writes Roger Munting, the Street Betting Act of 1906

may have brought children into closer contact with gambling as often they acted as runners for illegal bookmakers. Furthermore, greyhound racing in major towns from the 1920s was another medium exposing children to the world of popular betting.

Cheap gambling machines were used by children in the 1930s, despite being illegal, and games machines became even more popular in the post-war period. A 1990 national survey found that 44% of 15-19 year olds used slot machines. In South West England in 1993, 62% of children were found to regularly gamble on slot machines.

In terms of legal, adult gambling, 1961 was to bring major changes, with the legalisation of betting shops. Up to 10,000 opened within the first six months, and March 2018 data shows that there are still more than 8,000 operating today.

As the English television horse racing pundit John McCririck notes of the legalisation of betting shops:

Gambling was being dragged out of the Dark Ages, when the only legal bets were made on the racecourse, or the phone. Street betting had been rampant and everyone knew it. Bookies’ runners ferried bets between punters and bookmakers, collecting in pubs and clubs (commonly in the urinals), and on street corners.

Betting shops, then, were meeting an already existing demand, rather than creating a new market. As Stan Hey writes: ‘The prohibitionists and religious observants have lost the battle, for with the global reach of shops and betting websites, gambling in Britain is now a 24-hour activity, worth more than £30bn annually to the economy’. There is, of course, also the National Lottery, the first draw of which took place on November 19, 1994. This has been added to by the Health Lottery and the Postcode Lottery.

Despite the huge reach of gambling in modern England, it, of course, still has its detractors. Writing in The Independent, a favourite newspaper of the liberal middle classes, Terence Blacker fulminates against the National Lottery, which is, he argues, ‘a national disgrace’. ‘This institution seduces punters into a pernicious fantasy of overnight riches and contributes to our something-for-nothing culture’, rants Blacker.

You would think, from reading Blacker’s words, that gambling in England is a modern phenomenon. In reality, it has been a part of English culture for centuries, and you can bet it always will be.

The Irreligiosity of the English: A Brief History

In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn‘ (1941), George Orwell wrote of the English that:

the common people are without definite religious belief, and have been so for centuries. The Anglican Church never had a real hold on them, it was simply a preserve of the landed gentry, and the Nonconformist sects only influenced minorities.

Looking at the history of religion in England after the medieval period, this is a pretty accurate summary. This post will look at the state of church attendance and religious belief in England from the seventeenth century to the present day. The clearest conclusion that emerges is that irreligiosity has long been a defining characteristic of the English people.

Christopher Hill, writing in Some Intellectual Consequences of the English Revolution (1997) notes the following of church attendance in seventeenth century England:

Although church attendance was mandatory up to the year 1650 when it was abolished, the Anglican Episcopalian Church was never all embracing. There is evidence to show that the very poor, rogues, vagabonds, masterless men, and beggars did not ever attend. In some instances parish relief had to be withheld in order to get the poor to attend…

In 1657 compulsory church attendance was restored but its ineffectiveness was evident after 1660 with the existence of de facto sects in the towns. The Anglican or state church drew its congregation for the most part from the privileged 3 percent of the population or those with incomes of more than 100 pounds per year, such as peers, bishops, baronets, knights, esquires, gentlemen, greater and lesser office holders, merchants, traders and lawyers.

So, the church was largely the preserve of the upper class and new middle classes. The popular beliefs of the general population can be ascertained from books of the time intended to critique them. A tract warning against ‘Unlearned Physitians’ (1605) refers to ‘charmes, witchcraft, magnifical incantations, and sorcerie’ and the use of ‘characters, circles, figure-castings, exorcismes, conjurations’, as well as the use of ‘certaine amulets of gold and silver, stamped under an appropriate and selected constellation of the planets, with some magical character’.

Bishop Joseph Hall, writing of the ‘superstitious man’ in his Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608) states that:

old wives and starres are his counsellors: his night spell is his guard, and charms his physicians. He wears Paracelsian characters for the toothache; and a little hallowed wax is his antidote for all evils.

William Ramesay, writing in his The Character of a Quack Astrologer (1673) reports:

He offers, for five pieces, to give you home with you a talisman against flies; a sigil to make you fortunate at gaming; and a spell that shall as certainly preserve you from being rob’d for the future; a sympathetical powder for the violent pains of the tooth-ach.

So, while the English were still attending church in large numbers, compared with today, the ‘common people’ were clearly putting their faith in things well outside its teachings.

The eighteenth century saw an overall decline in formal religious observance. As to what the general population actually believed, it seems likely that the English religious worldview of the majority was still based on folk religion and folk magic. Henry Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares (1725) sought to document and critique ‘a few of that vast Number of Ceremonies and Opinions which are held by the Common People’. Bourne states of ‘the ignorant Part of the World’ (the ‘common people’ of England), ‘as to the opinions they hold, they are almost all superstitious’. Bourne contends that they follow ‘idle traditions… more than the Word of God; and have more dependance upon the lucky omens of the other than his providence, more dread of their unlucky ones, than his wrath and punishment’.

In his essay ‘Churchianity versus Christianity’ (1868), the English Baptist preacher C. H. Spurgeon distinguished between biblical Christianity based on salvation and ‘Churchianity’, in which simply attending church is what defines religiosity, and stated: ‘Whenever Churchianity has ruled, revelry and wantonness have been winked at, so long as saints’ days, sacraments, and priests have been regarded’. That this was the situation in rural parishes of the eighteenth century is suggested by accounts of the time. Henry Bourne describes the festivities associated with the anniversary of the dedication of the community’s church to its tutelary saint as follows:

[T]he inhabitants deck themselves in their gaudiest clothes, and have open doors and splendid entertainments, for the reception and treating of their relations and friends, who visit them on that occasion from every neighbouring town. The morning is spent for the most part at church, though not as that morning was wont to be spent, not in commemorating the saint or martyr, or in gratefully remembering the builder and endower. The remaining part of the day is spent in eating and drinking. Thus also they spend a day or two afterwards, in all sorts of rural pastimes and exercises, such as dancing on the green, wrestling, cudgelling, &c.

So, for many who did attend church, their real interests lay more in the revelry associated with religious festivals than in the teachings and rituals of the church, just as Christmas, Easter, Shrove Tuesday, and so on, are today more associated with eating and drinking than with religious devotion.

Scholarly editions of eighteenth-century visitation returns illustrate the decline in church attendance clearly. For example, The Visitation Records of Archdeacon Joseph Plymley, 1792-1838 show that ‘the average congregation at the best attended service in 19 Anglican parish churches in the Archdeaconry of Salop [Diocese of Lichfield] in 1792-94 was equivalent to 26% of the population.’

This widespread irreligiosity was to decrease slightly in the nineteenth century. ‘The Victorian age was self-consciously religious’, writes Richard Brown, and the ‘prosperity, political liberties and Empire’ of the time were seen to be ‘rooted in Christian and Protestant faith’.

The Religious Census of 1851 gives a revealing insight into the religious landscape of mid-nineteenth century England. Writing in 1853, Horace Mann, who had been in charge of organising the survey, concluded:

It must be apparent that a sadly formidable portion of the English people are habitual neglecters of the public ordinances of religion. Nor is it difficult to indicate to what particular class of the community this portion in the main belongs. The middle classes have augmented rather than diminished that devotional sentiment and strictness of attention to religious services by which, for several centuries, they have so eminently been distinguished. With the upper class, too, the subject of religion has obtained of late a marked degree of notice, and a regular church-attendance is now ranked amongst the recognized proprieties of life.

The working classes (at least 80% of the entire English population at that time), however, made up an ‘absolutely insignificant… portion of the congregations’, wrote Mann, and were ‘as utter strangers to religious ordinances as the people of a heathen nation’.

This was a time in which middle class values of ‘hard work’ and in particular social respectability were ascendant. The middle classes read etiquette manuals and placed great value on ‘doing the right thing’ and on conservative morality and public displays of virtue. They sought to distance themselves from the lower classes: some simply blamed the poor for their misfortune, while others set about spreading conservative values through attempts at outreach, in movements such as those opposed to drinking and gambling:

The temperance movement was led by middle-class social reformers and philanthropists who wanted to manage an unruly working class. They tried to convince working men to spend their wages on clothes, food, and middle-class comforts such as furniture and watches, rather than on beer or spirits…

The temperance campaigns against drunkenness were a symptom of larger middle class ideals, such as a distaste for mobs and their entertainments, the taking of recreation with one’s family, participation in religion, and the ideology of thrift with its stress on individual self-respect, personal moral and physical effort, and prudence.

This was ultimately to end in failure.

There were deeper structural problems within the Church of England that the church failed to recognise and so it began to blame the infidelity of the working classes rather than their own conservatism. The evangelical emphasis on industry, sobriety and thrift appealed to the upwardly mobile middle-classes but had little resonance among working people while its social conservatism simply alienated them. Relief offered by frequently condescending district visitors was frequently resented by the poor who in turn resented the poor’s ingratitude. Yet despite the immense amount of activity and effort the Victorian church poured into philanthropy, second in cost and manpower only to church building, it did little to encourage the working-classes to attend church.

In the end, the middle class revival itself proved to be short-lived, and by 1900, churches ‘were losing their hold on the respectable middle-classes as well’.

Beyond the cities, the beliefs of the rural working English had changed little from previous centuries. ‘White witches’ or ‘cunning folk’ held more sway with the people than the clergy and were consulted for all manner of problems. Writing of rural Devonians, Sarah Hewett stated that ‘in cases of sickness, distress, or adversity, persons at the present time (A.D. 1898) make long expensive journeys to consult the white witch, and to gain relief by her (or his) aid’. Likewise, John Harland and T.T. Wilkinson’s 1867 book on Lancashire Folk-Lore refers to the ‘Lancashire witches’ carrying out divination rituals. Spells, magical charms, incantations, potions, folk cures, and all manner of superstitions characterised rural English belief, rather than orthodox Christianity and the teachings of the church, although by the end of the century, these beliefs were also on the wane. Some of them still linger on today in the form of popular superstitions.

The continuing decline in formal religious observance throughout the twentieth century is well documented. Even in the conservative atmosphere of post-war Britain, where ‘the social role of the church was confirmatory rather than controversial’, ‘a majority in the nation remained largely indifferent to what was going on in the churches’.

The 1960s saw an attempt by the church to revive itself by adapting to the significant cultural shifts that were occurring. Liberal theology became the order of the day, affecting ‘intellectual, organizational, and liturgical’ areas. It was hoped that:

All might still be well if the churches could shake off their image of belonging essentially to the past; instead they must present themselves as modern, up to date, and, above all, relevant… The churches looked to the secular world for a lead and borrowed, in some cases rather uncritically, both its ideas and forms of expression.

This liberalisation and engagement with a new world did not win many converts, however. The liberal clique still has a significant hold over the Church of England and, as Philip North, a Church of England bishop, has argued:

The Church’s agenda is being set not by the poor, but by academia, the moneyed elites, and certain sections of the secular media. It is their preoccupations that dictate the terms of the Church’s debate, and that pose the questions that it expends its energy on answering.

The church remains an elite institution, and thoroughly middle class in orientation. The Talking Jesus survey of 2015, for example, estimated that 81 per cent of practising Christians had a university degree. The authors of A Church For The Poor (2017), reports the Church Times, have found that the ‘truly working-class are woefully under-represented in British churches’ and ‘cite sermons that disparage Sun readers, and social-media postings by Christians who argued for an IQ test before people could vote in the EU referendum’. According to Philip North, ‘all too often, middle-class clergy squirm nervously during Remem­brance Sunday, and excise any hymns that hint of nationalism’.

The one apparent ‘growth area’ in the Church of England in recent years can be found in the evangelical movement centred on the Alpha course and urban churches such as the famous Holy Trinity Brompton: ‘the slickest, richest and fastest-growing division the church has ever seen’, according to The Spectator. The extent and nature of such growth, however, is in reality arguably still very limited:

Critics say attendance figures at new churches rarely represent genuine new growth, but are largely due to “sheep stealing” – poaching existing members of other congregations – and attracting students looking for a new place to worship after leaving their “home church”. They also claim that the congregations of church plants do not reflect the demographics of their inner-city locations, but are overwhelmingly white, middle-class young professionals.

In reality, as The Telegraph reported in 2016, ‘Britain has become a nation of Christmas-only churchgoers, according to new figures showing a boom in attendance at festive services while Sunday congregations slump to an all-time low’. Even then, we are only talking about around 9% of the population.

The actual beliefs of the unchurched English masses arguably hark back to the kind of popular folk religion that existed in pre-modern and pre-industrial society. Polling data reveal that ‘a third of Brits believe in ghosts, spirits or other types of paranormal activity’; ‘British people are more likely to believe in ghosts than a creator God’; and ‘more people may believe in life after death than God’. A 2016 YouGov survey that found more people believing in ghosts than a creator God turned up interesting results amongst those who identified as Christians:

The same survey also found that self-identified Christians are more likely to believe in aliens than the devil, and more likely to believe in fate than in heaven or an eternal soul…

[T]he new YouGov figures suggest that Britain’s “Christian” majority does not hold conventionally Christian beliefs, and that less commonly discussed folk beliefs are often more deeply entrenched than Christian doctrine.

The idea of ‘luck’, good and bad, still has a significant place within popular belief as well. Researchers have discovered that houses with the number 13 on the door sell for £6,500 less than their neighbours and that almost a third less houses are bought on the thirteenth day of the month compared to the monthly average. Some councils have banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. The BBC reports:

Such has been the local aversion to “unlucky” houses [in Worcestershire] that the district council, Wyre Forest, has in recent years banned the use of number 13 in all new developments. Local councillor Stephen Clee resolutely defends the policy.

“We have to listen to what the people say,” he says. “The local community were saying to us, ‘we don’t like living at number 13, so can we do something about it?'”

Wyre Forest is not alone in this – 13 is not used for new houses in authorities ranging from Herefordshire to Lewes in Sussex. West Wiltshire has also introduced a ban…

The English have never been a particularly religious people; in fact, quite the opposite. The church may still provide the formal reference point for ‘English religion’, but hardly anyone goes there. We are more likely to place our faith in a pair of lucky socks (36%) than attend church (1.4%). Irreligiosity has long been a defining feature of the English and likely always will be.

The War On Pubs: A Brief History

The rise of the middle class in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the birth of a new type of Englishman. Whereas previously, English society was largely made up of a wealthy aristocratic elite at the top, and the masses below them, there was now a new and growing class of people who fitted into neither of these categories and were working hard to establish a new social position and a new cultural identity. Middle class culture saw hard work as the highest ideal, with aspiration and respectability at its heart. The public sphere was a place of commerce and structured civility. Etiquette manuals did a roaring trade and doing and saying ‘the right thing‘ began to be associated with what it means to be English:

Men who had risen from humble beginnings worried about fitting in. To help negotiate their new lifestyle they could choose from scores of manuals with titles like How to Behave and Hints from a Gentleman. Here you would find everything you needed to know: when to shake hands; how to bring a conversation politely to an end; how to sit and stand gracefully; what was meant by ‘RSVP’; how to deal with dirty nails or bad breath; how to style your beard; or how to conduct yourself at a dinner party, a picture gallery or church. Armed with one of these books, the newly-hatched middle-class gentleman could avoid making any social gaffes in polite society.

We still see this today. An article in Tatler claims we are ‘crippled by embarrassment’ and that embarrassment is ‘our national affliction’. In reality, it is only middle class people who feel this sense of embarrassment, an embarrassment rooted in the fear of making a social faux pas. It’s not a working class affliction – they are seen as ‘rude’; neither is it an upper class affliction – they are likewise seen as ‘rude’, although this tends to be tolerated more readily. The middle class concern with public image and public decency was rooted in their desire for social mobility and their need to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. Snobbery is in fact far more a middle class phenomenon than an upper class one. Snobbery arises where a person doesn’t feel secure in their social position: they need to reassure themselves that they are better than those people, especially when they have made a conscious effort to separate themselves from their more humble origins. Upper class people do not need to constantly concern themselves with the ‘correct’ behaviour because they are secure in their position in society. Likewise, working class people who do not aspire to become middle class also do not need to endlessly worry about social etiquette or how they might appear to others as they too have their ‘place’ in the social order.

In the middle class ideology, restraint and sobriety were virtues. Public behaviour should be ‘civilised’ and gentle. You wore the ‘right’ clothes, said the ‘right’ things, and adopted the ‘right’ public persona. What you most certainly did not want to do was to involve yourself in public spectacles of ‘bad behaviour”. As a result, the working class love of drinking in public settings was looked upon with disgust by the new middle class. In their minds, drinking was something you did in private, and if you ever did drink a few too many, that was something that only happened on special occasions:

The class dimension of drunkenness was produced by a fundamental distinction between public and private. Drunkenness was only visible when it took place in public; and only certain classes of people drank in pubs or went about drunk…

Since the middle class tended to drink privately, it developed the idea that drunkenness was visible only in social celebration – hence the poor seemed to be having too much fun. The temperance campaigns against drunkenness were a symptom of larger middle class ideals, such as a distaste for mobs and their entertainments, the taking of recreation with one’s family, participation in religion, and the ideology of thrift with its stress on individual self-respect, personal moral and physical effort, and prudence.

To a people obsessed with work and the accumulation of wealth, and with social status, ‘proper’ behaviour, and ‘respectability’, the common man enjoying going out and drinking was something to be frowned upon:

In the eighteenth century, the English middle and upper classes religiously served and drank wine at their dinners, and the working class frequently consumed beer and cider. During the nineteenth century, however, the consumption of alcohol among working-class men began to be viewed as a wasteful and illicit form of entertainment which served no purpose, caused many problems, and was scorned and fought against by the temperance movement.

The middle class assault on our national drink – beer – and our pub culture, began in this period. This alien new breed of Englishman, who strongly disliked the boozing, swearing, irreligiosity, and boorishness of traditional English culture (both upper and lower) sought to make society anew in its image. The 1860 Treaty of Commerce was part of this effort:

William Gladstone, the treaty’s chief architect, spoke openly of what he hoped would be a change in British drinking habits – away from an obsession with beer – so that wine would no longer be a “rich man’s luxury”.

At the same time he was sensitive to the fears of Victorian temperance campaigners that cheaper wine would encourage drunkenness. More wine drinking was meant to civilise British drinkers, claimed Gladstone. His measures were intended for the “promotion of temperance and sobriety as opposed to drunken and demoralised habits”. Other changes – forerunners of the modern ‘off licence’ system – allowed grocers and restaurateurs, rather than just pubs, to sell alcohol. They were intended to weaken the “unnatural divorce between eating and drinking”.

This promotion of wine as a ‘civilising’ force is still evident today, and is part of the middle class disparagement of English culture and the idolisation of Europe. ‘Brits who are care about things like culture, food and quality of life’ like to move to France, writes a Telegraph columnist, gushing about a wonderful land in which wine is ‘everywhere’, ‘the people are more stylish’, and there is ‘a regard for public intellectuals’. In a moment of honest reflection, one Europhile writer at the New Statesman admits: ‘There’s a particular kind of snobbery associated with a love of “old” European culture’. And no-one does snobbery better than the middle class.

Despite the attempt to push wine on a beer-drinking public, and to encourage home consumption through a prototypical off-license system, the love of pubs continued throughout the twentieth century. In recent decades, however, the ideals of Gladstone have been given new life.

Under ‘New Labour’, the middle-class-friendly reorganisation of a left-wing party into a liberal centrist movement, attempts were made once more to bring the centuries-old English drinking culture under control.

The Licensing Act 2003, which came into force in 2005, permitted licenses for ’24-hour drinking’ and was derided by critics as being wholly inappropriate for a nation of heavy drinkers. Labour MP Frank Dobson had it right when he argued:

I think the English – maybe the British – have been binge-drinkers since time immemorial. I don’t think we’re going to turn into Tuscany just because the hours have changed.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s aim with the relaxed licensing laws was to create a ‘continental cafe culture’. ‘Bologna in Birmingham, Madrid in Manchester, why not?’ said a parliamentary committee report in 2003. Naturally, what actually happened was mass drunkenness on the streets at night. However, that is not the end of the story. Where the attempt to create a wine-drinking ‘continental’ environment on the streets of England failed, taxation has succeeded, this time under the Conservatives.

In 1860, Gladstone reduced the tax on wine and encouraged home consumption. We see a similar situation today. Buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket or off-license and you will see no tax difference based on the ABV of the wine. Buy beer and the tax goes up as the ABV increases. If you want to save money, then, you’re better off drinking wine. You’re also better off drinking at home:

One pound in every three spent at pubs goes to the Exchequer. Up to half of Britain’s brewers’ turnover is excise duty. In 2017, beer tax increased by 42%. The epidemic of pub closures is getting worse.

Ultimately, the middle class assault on English pub culture has been a success. Drinking is increasingly being forced into the private sphere and wine consumption is on the rise. In fact, it’s so much on the rise in middle class circles that ‘the middle class’ is reportedly ‘more likely to drink than manual workers’ and ‘harmful drinking’ is now said to be ‘a middle class phenomenon’. But it’s not beer and it’s not in public. And that’s what matters.

Gladstone would be proud.

On the English Love of Swearing

‘Think the English are always polite? Don’t swear on it!’ quips a Daily Mail article, which reports that ‘the average Briton will use up to fourteen curse words each day’. Women, reports the Evening Standard, are even worse in this regard than men. ‘No matter what age they start, the British seem far more fluent at swearing than Americans’, argues a BBC article, noting that we ‘are more likely to link colourful language with having a sense of humour than with coarseness or vulgarity’.

Looking at English history, it soon becomes clear that swearing has always been an integral part of Englishness, despite the waves of condemnation issued forth by those of a more tender disposition.

In pre-modern England, words we consider to be ‘swearing’ today were often used in a more matter-of-fact way, as attested by old place names. Chute Street, in Exeter, for example, was formerly known as ‘Schytebroke’, or ‘Shitbrook’, as the brook (stream) that ran along it was used as an open sewer. The brook still runs beneath the modern road, and is now known as the ‘Shutebrook’. The former ‘Pissing Alley‘ in London is another example of such a functional place name.

There were many streets named ‘Gropecunt Lane’ in the Middle Ages, as they were associated with prostitution. Later generations have renamed them out of embarrassment. Examples include Grape Lane in York and Grope Lane in Shrewsbury. Other similar street names included ‘Cocks Lane’ and ‘Love Lane’.

Such ‘vulgar’ terminology was derived from the speech of common Englishmen and words such as ‘fuck’, ‘shit’, and ‘cunt’ all have Germanic origins. The Oxford Dictionaries site explains:

Following the [Norman] conquest England was thus a two-tiered society, divided upon linguistic grounds. The peasants, who served, spoke a West Germanic language, Old English, the ancestor of both modern English and modern German. The nobles, who ruled, spoke Old French, a Gallo-Roman dialect descended from Latin and spoken in northern France, the ancestor of modern French. Here, then, is the answer as to why our swear words sound so much like German ones; it is precisely because this language is ‘vulgar’ (a word derived from Latin and meaning ‘of the crowd’). Those words that we now call swear words have acquired their power to offend, at least in part, because a long term cultural prejudice has taught people to view the French vocabulary of the conquerors as elevated and cultured and the Germanic vocabulary of the conquered as distasteful and crass.

This association of ‘bad language’ with the common man has endured, for swearing is still referred to as something ‘vulgar’ today. Samuel Johnson’s seminal dictionary of 1755 lists ‘Bilingsgate‘ as a term which means ‘ribaldry; foul language’. He explains that this is ‘a cant word, borrowed from Bilingsgate [sic] in London, a place where there is always a croud [sic] of low people, and frequent brawls and foul language’. Ashley Montagu, in his The Anatomy of Swearing (1967), states:

Women … as distinct from ladies, of the lower classes never ceased to swear as colorfully as their men. Indeed, ‘to swear like a Billingsgate fishwife’ still is as much as to say that the performer has reached the apogee in the art of swearing.

An early attempt at cleaning up the language of the English people is found in a 1623 Act of Parliament, which states:

For as much as all profane Swearing and Cursing is forbidden by the Word of GOD, be it therefore enacted, by the Authority of the then Parliament, that no Person or Persons should from thenceforth profanely Swear or Curse, upon the Penalty of forfeiting one Shilling to the use of the Poor for every Oath or Curse.

The swear box was now a part of law!

The modern English conception of swearing really got going in the 18th and 19th centuries:

The 18th and 19th centuries’ embrace of linguistic delicacy and extreme avoidance of taboo bestowed great power on those words that broached taboo topics directly, freely revealing what middle-class society was trying so desperately to conceal. Under these conditions of repression, obscene words finally came fully into their own. They began to be used in nonliteral ways, and so became not just words that shocked and offended but words with which people could swear.

Despite the prudish sentiments of the time, it wasn’t just ‘commoners’ who were adept at using such language. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Sir Francis Grant stated with disapproval that ‘many dare reckon it Breeding to Swear, Gallantry to be Lewd, Good humour to be Drunk’. In Daily Life in 18th-Century England (1999), Kirstin Olsen notes of swearing:

In theory, it was a crass, working-class vice, but in practice, men of all classes, and women in the working classes at least, swore. England’s gloriously varied obscenities were condemned by moral tracts, outlawed by Act of Parliament, combated by reforming societies, and chastised in the Spectator as ‘foolish’ and ‘superfluous’. Yet it continued.

Popular swearing of the time included ‘son of a bitch’ and ‘son of a whore’, ‘bastard’, ‘slut’, ‘piss’, ‘fart’, ‘bloody’, ‘shit’, ‘arse’, ‘fuck-fist’ and ‘fuck-finger’ (male and female masturbators), and, of course, ‘fuck’ itself. A 1793 handbill attacked a Peer for ‘sitting his arse in the House of Lords and doing nothing’.

With the Town Police Clauses Act 1847, a crackdown was again attempted. Fines or imprisonment for up to fourteen days were the punishment for:

Every person who publicly offers for sale or distribution, or exhibits to public view any profane book, paper, print, drawing, painting, or representation, or sings any profane or obscene song or ballad, or uses any profane or obscene language.

As ever, though, the English continued to swear.

The Public Order Act 1986, our modern equivalent, states that:

A person is guilty of an offence if he uses threatening or abusive words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening or abusive, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

It was a losing battle in the nineteenth century, and it continues to be so today. Indeed, in 2011, a High Court judge ruled that people should not be punished for hurling obscenities in public because such words are now so common they no longer cause distress.

Not everyone in England is comfortable with swearing, of course, even today. Celia Walden, writing in The Telegraph, for example, notes of her daughter:

I’d rather she didn’t end up like the tiny mite I once saw fall out of his pushchair in Shepherd’s Bush, look accusingly up at his mother and calmly enunciate the words: “Bloody hell.”

Walden, though, has been softened up by moving to the US. As the BBC America blog notes: ‘Folks here tend to dismiss cursing as coarse and vulgar whereas, for Brits, it can signify affection or a well-rounded sense of humor’.

Swearing is an integral part of English culture and has been for centuries. We have arguably turned it into an art-form, and it’s one of the many aspects of our language that make it the rich and varied wonder that it is.

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.

The English Tradition of Football Hooliganism

The 2018 World Cup is under way, and numerous stories warning of English hooliganism can be found in the press. ‘More than 1,200 UK football hooligans blocked from flying to Russia’, reports The Telegraph; ‘Mobs of ageing English football hooligans heading to World Cup to get “payback” for brutal Marseilles attacks’, warns The Sun; and ‘England hooligan firms’ hardcore UNITING to “wipe the floor” with Russian Ultras’ says The Daily Star.

Once again, we will hear about a tiny minority ruining things for the peaceful majority of ‘real fans’. But how historically accurate is it to claim that the ‘beautiful game’ is being sullied by the yobbish behaviour of a minority of modern fans?

Not very.

Football was, from the off, a game infused with violence:

Football originated, in a rudimentary form, in England in the thirteenth century. A game played between villages, often on religious holidays and using a pigs bladder as a ball, it was so violent it was almost incomparable to the modern form of the game.

Teams from rival villages would essentially battle with each other, the aim seemingly to kick the ball into the other village’s church. It was banned in 1349 by King Edward III of England, partially because he felt it was distracting his subjects from their military training, but also because of the social unrest which inevitably surrounded the brutal game.

But what of the modern game?

Even when football took on a form closer to today’s, social unrest was rarely far away. In the 1800s violent outbreaks were reported at matches, with the riot act having to be read out at a game in Derby in 1846.

As the nineteenth century wore on and the rules of the game became increasingly rigid the violence continued, with mobs either attacking the opposition’s fans or on occasion the players themselves.

English football hooliganism, then, is as old as the game itself.


See this interesting article on the origin of the word ‘hooligan’. The word was originally used to describe youth street gangs in nineteenth century London, who engaged in violence at a music hall, exhibited threatening behaviour, and were even linked to murder. Sound familiar?

The English love of spicy foods: A brief history

There is an enduring myth that English food has always been somewhat bland and flavourless, and that the English palate has traditionally favoured foods lacking in spices and seasonings. The contemporary widespread enthusiasm for spicy foods is seen as a recent development, which has come about largely thanks to post-war immigration.

The notion of English food being bland is, however, historically illiterate and largely rests upon associating the austerity foods of the war-torn twentieth century with all of English cooking. As this article in The Economist rightly notes, ‘the bland, overboiled, boarding-school food of the mid-20th century, far from representing the real English palate, as many believe, was the product of hardship and not a lack of imagination’.

At least as far back as the Middle Ages, English food has employed a wide variety of seasonings and spices. It wasn’t the case that English people in general disliked such ‘foreign’ flavours, but rather that they were largely the preserve of the wealthy. Prior to the advent of modern globalisation, acquiring these varied flavours took a lot of effort and cost a lot of money:

Spices were very much a luxury commodity, especially in medieval England and Europe as a whole. Spices were much sought-after and highly prized so it was not surprising to find that they featured heavily in the banquet menus of Europe’s noble and rich families. Indeed, the royal courts of Europe relished the use of spices in their food.

Spices and spicy foods were a mark not only of sophistication but also of social status:

The importation of spices resulted in a highly spiced cuisine for the nobility and spices were seen as a sign of wealth. The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. Spices were not only extensively used in the preparation of food but they were also passed around on a ‘spice platter’. Guests at banquets took additional spices from the spice platter and added them to their already spiced food.

Spices used in recipes of the time included black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, mace, allspice, cardamom, cubeb, spikenard, and saffron.

While the ‘common man’ of the time had little access to this variety of flavours, his time would come.

Fast forward to the 18th century and we find that the English enthusiasm for spices continued unabated. Henry Howard’s England’s Newest Way in Cookery (1708), for example, contains a recipe for ‘pickled melons’ that calls for cloves, mace, whole pepper, mustard seeds, three cloves of garlic, three shallots, sliced ginger, salt, white wine vinegar, made mustard, and a bay leaf. His pickled cucumbers recipe uses allspice, then known by the exotic name ‘Jamaica-Pepper’.

Hannah Glasse’s hugely popular The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747) contains recipes such as ‘To make a currey [sic] the Indian way’, ‘To make India pickle’, and ‘To make Paco Lilla [piccalilli], or Indian pickle, the same the Mangoes come over in’. The English love of Indian food was well under way.

By the nineteenth century, people of all social classes were enjoying curries and spicy foods, and the first English curry house opened in London in 1810 – about half a century before the first fish and chip shop.

Alexis Soyer’s A Shilling Cookery for The People (1845) contains numerous references to cayenne pepper, curry powder, and other spices. A recipe for pan fried minced meat includes the instruction: ‘you may add a teaspoonful of chopped herbs, such as onion, chives, or parsley, or a tablespoonful of sharp pickles, or made sauce; a little cayenne, spices, wine, or vinegar, may also be used’. All of his recipes for minced meats, Soyer notes, ‘can be made as curries, and served with rice’. Charles Elme Francatelli’s A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852), meanwhile, teaches the reader ‘how to make a fish curry’ and also includes a recipe for curried rice.

While English working class families were enjoying well seasoned foods and curries, the upper classes developed a passion for hot sauce, and ‘devilled bones’ slathered in hot mustard and cayenne pepper. A critic of such hot food stated that ‘it knows no bounds’ and accused its enthusiasts of seeking to ‘annihilate the sense of taste’ with their spicy concoctions.

The war years were to put an end to the wide availability of spicy foods in England, as imports became harder to come by and rations consisted largely of more basic essentials. However, the post-war period saw the English people once again embrace such foods. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 saw the creation of ‘Coronation Chicken’, made using a curry cream sauce. It remains a popular sandwich filler today.

Curry houses started to take off in the 1960s and ’70s, and London’s Brick Lane, Birmingham’s ‘Balti Triangle‘, and Manchester’s ‘Curry Mile‘ are all hugely popular destinations. Add to this the current popularity of cuisine derived from South America, the Caribbean, Asia, the American South, and so on, and it’s clear that the English passion for spicy foods is back with a vengeance.

From medieval times to the present day, the English have long had a love for seasoned and spicy foods.