Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee,
Drink to thee, drink to thee,
With the wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee.
I am old enough to remember life before central heating, dears, when in December and January the Belling bed warmer, like a pink flying saucer, was our weapon against freezing sheets, and Jack Frost drew ice-portraits on the inside of the bedroom windows. But at least the trains and buses, when they ran, were heated: there’s a terrific (and too little known) Charles Dickens short story called The Holly Tree where he describes a traveller by horsedrawn coach setting out from the Peacock inn in late December London, early in the 19th century, when the weather was so bad there were blocks of ice in the Thames. Once the passenger was inside the coach, the ostlers piled straw around him up to his waist, as insulation, before sending him off north, a human haybox.
When Dickens’s traveller had arrived at the Peacock he “found everybody drinking hot purl, in self-preservation” – our predecessors being of the sensible opinion that no matter how blazing the fire you might be standing before, on a cold night there was still a requirement to warm the insides as well as the outsides. Purl was ale heated until almost boiling (never actually boil any hopped drink, the bitterness is likely to be ramped up to an extremely unpleasant level) with a shot of gin, generally in the ration of 10 parts ale to one part spirits, and flavourings of the maker’s choice: usually something bitter, such as Roman wormwood (less powerful than “standard” wormwood), with perhaps orange peel, ginger and, by the middle of the 19th century at least, sugar.
Purl was just one of a family of flavoured, frequently hot ale drinks that kept Britons warm before central heating. Another was Wassail, taking its name from the medieval English drinkers’ salutation wæs hæil, “be healthy” or “be fortunate”. Wassail became particularly associated with the celebrations on Christmas Eve, Twelfth Night and New Year’s Eve, and better-off homes would have special wassail bowls from which the prepared drink was served. Jesus College, Oxford owns a huge silver-gilt Wassail bowl with a capacity of ten gallons, presented by Sir Watkyn Williams Wynn, the Welsh Jacobite politician, in 1732. This is the Jesus recipe for Wassail, in 1835 at least: