Bing-drinking at the parsonage – no, that’s not a typographical error.
“Bing-ale”, according to An Alphabet of Kenticisms by Samuel Pegge, the 18th-century vicar of Godmersham, Kent, was “the liquour which the fermor [farmer] of a parsonage [that is, the parson/farmer] gives to the fermours and to the servants, at two separate entertainments, servants first and masters afterwards, at the end of the year, when he has gathered their tythe.”
Undoubtedly the “bing-ale” given to the farmers of the parish by the parson in return for their handing over their tithes (the one-tenth of their produce due to the Church of England) was brewed at the parsonage, for this was still the age of domestic brewing.
Almost every farm, many rectories, vicarages and parsonages, most stately homes, and other country houses besides, from villa to cott, brewed ale and beer, for family and servants. So, too, did university colleges, schools, hospitals and poorhouses.
Until the very last decade of the 18th century six in every 10 pints of beer and ale drunk were brewed by private brewers. Only from 1790 did beer for sale creep above 50 per cent of consumption. Even in 1830 private brewers made one fifth of all the country’s beer.
Private brewing remained so common because beer was still the drink of choice for workers and servants, male and female. César de Saussure, a Swiss visitor to England in the 1720s, commented in a letter home that “in this country … beer … is what everyone drinks when thirsty.” In 1800, the engineer Matthew Boulton calculated that his female servants required half a pint of ale (that is, a stronger brew) and a pint of beer with their midday meal and the same again at suppertime, while the men would need twice as much: six pints a day at mealtimes, two of ale and four of beer. In 1879, servants at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, home of the Dukes of Sutherland, were still allowed four pints a day for men and two for women.
Among the champions of home-brewed beer was the Rev Sir William Marriott Smith-Marriott, Bart, rector of Horsmonden in Kent until 1864. Sir William brewed at the rectory brewhouse, as his hop-farmer neighbours brewed on their farms, and according to Antony Cronk, in A Wealden Rector:
“In the Rector’s opinion the stalwart character of the English Yeoman owed much to wholesome home-brewed beer. ‘Ah! would the humble peasant could /’Ere taste a bev’rage half as good,’ he wrote, deploring the inferior liquid purveyed at the common ale-house.”
The best-recorded clerical brewer was Parson James Woodforde of Weston Longville in Norfolk until his death in 1803, whose journal was published as The Diary of a Country Parson. Woodforde regularly brewed strong and table beer, and in 1790, for example, spent a total of £22 18s 6d on malt to make beer: his butcher’s bill, for comparison, was £46 5s 0d. In a famous passage in April 1778 Woodforde wrote:
“Brewed a vessell of strong Beer today. My two large Piggs, by drinking some Beer grounds taking out of one of my Barrels today, got so amazingly drunk by it, that they were not able to stand and appeared like dead things almost, and so remained all night from dinner time today. I never saw Piggs so drunk in my life. I slit their ears for them without feeling.”
Mentions of rectory and vicarage brewhouses are found across the country. In 1745, an advertisement appeared for “the parsonage house of Brauncepeth” to be let, “all new sashed, and in good repair, three miles from Durham, situate in a very pleasant sporting country … with all manner of conveniences suitable for a nobleman or gentleman’s seat, there being two coach-houses, a stalled stable for seven horses … washhouse. brewhouse, barn, and granary room, together with a large fish-pond, sixty yards long, and fifty broad,” which sounds more like a small lake than a pond.
At Berkeley in Gloucestershire a terrier (list of real estate) of May 1682 described “a Vicarage-house, with a Brew-house, and an Orchard commonly called The Vicarage Close, containing between three or four acres.”
A “true and perfect Terrier, shewing all lands, houses, tithes, and other profits” belonging to the vicarage of Wednesbury, in Staffordshire, in 1726 listed “The Vicarage House, consisting of 4 bays of building, being 2 stories high, with a little study and a closet over it, the same at the west end thereof, with one shiard [sic – ?shed?] and washouse [sic, again] adjoining to the said house, and also one bay of building, called the brewhouse, adjoining to the aforesaid house.”
A terrier of the property belonging to the vicarage of Bradford in Yorkshire in 1820 included “The vicarage-house, built with stone and covered with slate, sixty-four feet in length and thirty-one feet in breadth”, and one “brew house or out-kitchen adjoining to the same house eighteen feet long and ten and a half feet broad within the walls;”
One rectory brewhouse, at Bartholmey in Cheshire, was reckoned to be haunted. Edward Hinchliffe, son of the former rector of Bartholmey, writing in 1856, said that “The restless ghost is said to be the spirit of ‘Randle Crewe’,” and “An old butler of my father’s (still living,) solemnly asserts, that one night he heard the ghostly visitant knocking about the brewing vessels in the brew-house, and that he went to see what was the matter, but found no derangement of the tubs, &c.; all was perfectly quiet.”
At least one vicarage made its own cider. Lance Harman, who was later managing director of a brewery in Banbury, recalled that when his father was vicar at Old Cleeve, near Minehead in Somerset, before the First World War, the gardener, a man called Risdon, would make cider every autumn. Risdon’s method was to heap the cider apples up under a medlar tree and, when they were thoroughly rotten, “aided by all local birds and animals walking over the heap”, they were shovelled into wheelbarrows and taken to the cider press, where they were pressed in straw.
The apple juice was fermented in an open vessel before being barrelled for four weeks, after which it was considered fit to drink. One year “there was what Father considered an excellent vintage”: when the barrel was finished, a dead rat was found inside it.
Rectory brewing, and private brewing in general, was knocked on the head by William Gladstone with the Licensing Act of 1880, which removed all tax on malt but taxed the beer instead. Now, if a private house was worth more than £15 a year, the occupier had to pay full duty on all the beer he brewed. In 1870 there were more than 100,000 householders, large and small, paying the then four shillings private brewing licence. After 1880 the number of licensed private brewers plunged precipitously, dropping more than 80 per cent to just over 17,000 by 1895. In 1907 that number had halved to just 8,605 “persons licensed as brewers not for sale”.
The memory of clerical brewing lives on, however, in two modern concerns. Rectory Ales was started by the Rev Godfrey Broster, the Rector of Plumpton and a former Customs and Excise officer, at Streat Hill, near Hassocks in Sussex in 1995 and is still running today. Parson Woodforde, meanwhile, is remembered in Woodforde’s Norfolk Ales, a small brewery begun in 1981 that is now one of the most successful in East Anglia and brewer, as I have mentioned here before, of one of my favourite bitters, Wherry.
This is a much longer version of an article that appears in the latest edition of the newsletter published by The Rectory Society, founded by my old boss Charles Moore, ex-editor of the Daily Telegraph and a man (like the DT itself) who carries himself as if it’s still 1851 …
Oh, and for those of you confused as to the difference between a rector and a vicar, a rector gets his tithes in his own right, while a vicar gets them vicariously, courtesy of whomever the tithes had been impropriated to- and “parson” covers them both. OK?