It’s depressing and frightening, sometimes, if you start tugging at loose threads in the historical narrative, because the whole fabric can start unravelling. This all began with the Canadian beer blogger and beer historian Alan McLeod emailing me about claims that the “Hull ale” that was being drunk in the 17th century in London was really ale from Burton upon Trent, shipped down that river to the sea, and taking the Yorkshire port’s name on the way. Did I have any views, he asked?
I confess I’ve repeated the idea that “Hull ale probably really means Burton ale” myself, but Alan had several good points to make against it: Hull, like other ports, was known for its own ales, Burton lacked common brewers until the start of the 18th century, and in any case, until the opening of the Trent Navigation in 1712 it was not easy for Burton brewers to get their ales shipped out anywhere. So I hit the internets.
It all began to fall down with Peter Mathias’s reference in the otherwise magisterial The Brewing Industry in England (p150), written in 1959, to Samuel Pepys drinking Hull ale in London in 1660. Mathias wrote that “of course”, this Hull ale was “probably” from Burton upon Trent, with the town allegedly being “well known in the capital for its ale in the seventeenth century”, and the first consignment “reputedly” sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane London in 1623. However, once you start digging, these claims appear to be completely wrong. The reference Mathias gives, to back all this up, The history and antiquities of Staffordshire by Stebbing Shaw, published in 1798, Volume 1 p13, is only available in Google Books via snippet view but it appears not to give a specific year for Burton Ale being sold at the Peacock at all. What it says, talking about Burton, is:
“And so great is the celebrity of this place for its ale brewed here, that, besides a very considerable home consumption, both in the country and in London (where it was first sold at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, a house still celebrated for the vending of this liquor) vast quantities have been exported to Sweden, Denmark, Russia and many other kingdoms.”
– but with no date for when Burton Ale was first sold at the Peacock.
Almost a century before Mathias, William Molyneaux, in Burton on Tent: Its History, Its Waters and its Breweries (1869 ) claimed in a footnote (p223) that
“About the year 1630 Burton ale was sold at the Peacock inn in Gray’s Inn Lane and had even then acquired a high reputation amongst the famous ales of England.”
But Molyneaux offered no reference to back this up. This claim was subsequently repeated in several books. However, there is no evidence at all that the Peacock was even open in the 17th century.
One big problem is that very little seems to be recorded of the early history of the Peacock, though what is know is certainly tied up with Burton Ale. The pub was definitely going by 1751, when George Ash, “who was servant to Mr Ford at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane,” opened his own pub under the same name at Charing Cross, where he had in stock “a quantity of Burton Ale, to be sold wholesale or retail”, according to an ad in the London Daily Advertiser on May 25 that year. But the tavern does not appear in the Vade Mecum for Maltworms, the anonymous guide to London pubs and taverns written circa 1718, which if it was famous I would have expected (that book, incidentally, mentions Derby Ale twice, and Burton ale once – and Oxford Ale three times). It was briefly mentioned again in 1755, still being kept by Mr Ford. The poet John Langhorne is said to have drunk Burton ale at the Gray’s Inn Lane Peacock, and he lived in the vicinity of Gray’s Inn around 1764-66. Two other writers, Gilbert Stuart, and William Thomson, both Scottish exiles, drank in the Peacock in the 1780s, where, according to Thomson’s obituary, “in rivulets of Burton ale [they] not unfrequently quaffed libations to their favourite deity, until the clock informed them of the approaching day.” Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1796 said the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, “where Burton ale is sold in nyps”, was known as the “nyp-shop”.
The antiquarist Richard Warner, writing in 1802 in the orotund style popular with Georgian essayists, called Burton Ale “that rich and glutinous beverage named after the town and well known in the neighbourhood of Gray’s Inn Lane, ‘balm of the cares, sweet solace of the toils’ of many an exhausted Limb of the Law who at the renowned Peacock reinvigorates the powers with a nipperkin of Burton ale and a whiff of the Indian weed,” indicating that the pub was popular with barristers from Gray’s Inn. It was frequented by those who needed barristers, too. In October 1814 a 68-year-old woman named Elizabeth McDonald was sentenced Old Bailey to be hanged after she attempted to pass a counterfeit shilling at the Peacock and was seized by the landlord, William Kilsbey. The pub seems to have changed its name to the Fox and Peacock by 1845, but was back as the Peacock again in 1870, by which time Gray’s Inn Lane was Gray’s Inn Road. It was described as “totally modernised” in 1880, and was still being kept in 1882 by the marvellously named Nicholas Pollyblank who had been there since 1875, according to the 1882’s Post Office Directory. However, it disappears some time after that, evidently when that part of Gray’s Inn Road was redeveloped.
Is it possible that the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Road was actually much older than the year 1751, its (currently) first known appearance in the records? Certainly the advert in the London Daily Advertiser hints that the pub had been going for some time, to built up enough of a reputation that George Ash would want to boast of his connection with it. But it would be wrong to push the pub back more than ten years at the most just based on that. It is certainly true that pubs can stay under the radar for many decades after their founding: there was one pub in Mile End, East London with the excellent name of Why Not Beat Dragon, which first surfaces in an Old Bailey court case from 1723, but which has a name that refers to a race at Newmarket four decades earlier, in 1684, when a horse called Dragon was beaten by (you’re ahead of me here) another called Why Not. The pub must have been opened as the Why Not Beat Dragon very soon after the race took place, but apparently stayed unrecorded for almost 40 years.
An even longer example of an apparently “invisible” pub is the (now closed) Eagle and Child in Whitwell, Hertfordshire. It looks to take its name from the crest of the Stanley family, Earls of Derby, who were lords of the manor of Stagenhoe in nearby St Paul’s Walden from 1488 until 1582. The implication has to be that the pub opened, or at least received its name, some day during this 94-year Tudor timespan when the Stanleys were a big name in the area. But the pub’s first known mention comes in 1725, implying that it remained unrecorded by history for more than 140 years, at least, from the time when the Stanleys were local landowners to almost a century and a half after they had gone.
All the same, despite these examples, I find it highly implausible that a pub in as central a site as Gray’s Inn Lane/Road could have been open for 120 years before 1751 without anybody making some kind of record of its existence that would survive until today. On the evidence, I’d be surprised if the Peacock was much older than the 1710s or 1720s.
I don’t know where Molyneaux got his claim that the Peacock sold Burton Ale around 1630 from, but the reference to Burton ale being sold in London in 1623 appears to come from John Bushnan’s Burton and its Bitter Ale (pub 1853), which says
“In 1623 the Burton ale made itself known in London as Darbie or Derby from which town it used to reach London as we find in a singular work published that year entitled Panala a la Catholica or a Compound Ale.”
What that pamphlet, written by the deeply obscure William Folkingham (and also known as Panala Alacatholica, according to some souces, while the author’s surname is also found as Folkington) talks about, according to the extract reprinted by Bushnan, is:
“a cup of nappie ale (right Darbie, not Dagger ale, though effectually animating) well boyled, defecated, and cleared, that it shall equall the best-brewed beer in transparence, please the most curious palatt with milde quicknesse of relish.”
“Defecated” there, of course, means “cleared of dregs” (what did you think it could mean? Wash your mind out now). But all the evidence is that Bushnan is entirely wrong in asserting that “Darbie Ale” actually meant Burton ale. Derby was famous in its own right in the 17th century as a centre for brewing, with a large number of malthouses and inns, and it was only five miles by packhorse from the Trent, from where ale could be carried away by water to Hull, and from there to London and elsewhere. “Darbie Ale” being mentioned in Folkingham’s pamphlet does not prove it was on sale in London, though it, and other mentions, underline the idea that Derby Ale was well-enough known in the capital in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. There is a reference to “Darbie Ale” in an anti-Puritan pamphlet called Martin Junior, published around 1589/90. William Camden, in his great survey Britannia, published in 1607, declared that Derby was “vero celebritas” – truly famous – for “ceruisia, quam coquit optima“, excellent ale. The pseudo-Chaucerian The Cobbler of Canturbury, published in 1608, says that “there must be admitted no compare betweene a Cup of Darby ale and a dish of durtie water.”
In 1611 a play by John Cook, Tu Quoque or The City Gallant, performed in front of James I, included the lines: “I have sent my daughter this morning as far as Pimlico to fetch a draught of Derby ale, that it may fetch a colour in her cheeks,” suggesting that Derby Ale was indeed on sale in London in early Stuart times. In 1637, John Taylor, the “Water Poet”, and one of the last campaigners against hops and in favour of traditional unhopped ale, wrote Drinke and Welcome: or The famous historie of the most part of drinks, in use now in the kingdomes of Great Brittaine and Ireland, which hailed the ales of “Yorke, Chester, Hull, Nottingham, Darby, Gravesend”, but does not mention Burton at all. A Civil War Royalist newsletter, Mercurius Pragmaticus, spoke sarcastically in 1649 of “a flagon of Darby Ale” that would make someone’s brains “runne over with the froth of non-sense”. “The froth of non-sense” looks to be a good description of Bushnan’s assertion that “Derby ale” was a synonym for Burton Ale.
Bushnan goes on to say that
“The Dagger Ale here alluded to was that sold at a house in Holborn in the same manner as the ale of Burton was about the same period at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane.”
and this appears to have led Colin Owen in The Development of Industry in Burton upon Trent (1978, p31) to claim that
“by the early 1620s Burton Ale (sometimes under the name of ‘Darbie Ale’) was being sold at the Dagger in Holborn and at the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane, where it was held in high esteem”
referencing Bushnan. But, of course, Bushnan doesn’t say the Dagger sold Burton or Derby ales – it was selling its own Dagger Ale – and Bushnan also gives no source for the claim that the Peacock was selling Burton ale at this time.
However, Burton had 46 licensed victuallers in 1604, so it is certainly not impossible that some of those inn or alehouse operators, who would all almost certainly have been brewing their own ale, were shipping some outside the district. Benjamin Printon, the first known common brewer in Burton, started operations probably some time around the year of his marriage, in 1708, and his business was very likely boosted by the opening of the Trent Navigation in 1712, but there is a hint that Burton innkeepers were already using the Trent to ship beer to other markets before then (Owen, p33), probably carrying casks by horse or cart to where the Trent started being navigable (which would have been Nottingham, six to eight hours away).
The frequently repeated claim that Printon actually began brewing in 1708, incidentally, is again based on Stebbing Shaw. But what Shaw actually wrote in 1798, talking about brewing in Burton, was that
“The first origin of this business here was about 90 years ago, and simply commenced with a few public houses ; and, one Benjamin Printon was the first, who began in a small way (by employing only three men) any thing like the business of a common brewer.”
Taking “about 90 years ago” in 1798 to mean 1708, other writers have used Shaw’s words, wrongly, to make a definite claim that Printon starting brewing that year. But you’ll note that Shaw doesn’t actually say it was Printon that began “about 90 years ago”, merely that Printon was the first common brewer, rather than innkeeper-brewer, in Burton, with the public house brewers being the ones who started exporting their beer “about 90 years ago” and Printon coming along later. (John Bushnan got into a terrible mess over the claim that Benjamin Printon is really Benjamin Prilson, which itself, Bushnan tried to claim, was a misreading of Benjamin Wilson, founder of what became Allsopp’s brewery: all total nonsense.)
Printon, by the way, is regularly said to have been the (or “a”) “chief client” of William Bass before Bass gave up working as a carrier and started in the brewing business himself in 1777. But this is impossible: Printon died in 1729, when Bass was nine years old, and Bass only moved to Burton to start as a carrier in or around the late 1750s. It is possible that Bass carried beer for the family that took over Printon’s brewery, the Musgraves (or Musgroves), whose “genuine Burton ale” was advertised for sale at the St Dunstan’s coffee house in Fleet Street, London in 1751 at the extremely high price of ten pence a quart: ordinary porter was only 3d a quart. But someone else can investigate that …
Incidentally, A Topographical History of Staffordshire: Including Its Agriculture, Mines and Manufactures … By William Pitt, published 1817, claims:
“The origin of this lucrative business was in the year 1610 [sic], when Benjamin Printon began a small brewery, and his success induced others to engage in the same business.”
surely a misprint (or misprinton).
The first definite evidence we have for Burton Ale on sale in London comes from a report printed in the edition of the Spectator magazine for May 20 1712, when at the end of a trip to the Spring Gardens pleasure grounds at “Fox Hall” (Vauxhall) on the south side of the Thames, the author and the fictional Sir Roger de Coverley “concluded our walk with a glass of Burton ale and a slice of hung beef.” The Vade Mecum for Malt Worms around 1718 shows Burton Ale on sale at the Guy of Warwick in Milk Street, in the City of London, while on January 11 1718 a London-based newspaper called the Post-Man published an ad showing “Fine Burton Ale, Bottled or in Hogsheads” on sale at “the sign of the Sawyers near Fleet Lane Bridge”.
Still, what about the famous quote from Daniel Defoe, writing in his Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726, that “the best character you give to Ale in London is calling it Burton Ale”, a quote regularly repeated by authors writing about Burton beer? Well, the problem is, Defoe never said it. It’s actually a quote from another travel writer entirely, the Scots spy John Macky, in A Journey through England, which was published just before Defoe, in 1724. Macky, talking of Lichfield, said:
“The Ale is incomparable here, as it is all over this County of Stafford. Burton is the most famous Town in England for it, as also Stafford and Newcastle in this Shire. And indeed the best Character you give to Ale in London is calling it Burton Ale; from whence they send vast Quantities to London: Yet they brew at London some that goes by that Denomination.”
I suspect (though I haven’t researched it) that later editors of Defoe’s work lifted chunks of that quote from Macky and stuck it into later “enlarged and improved” editions of Danny boy’s works. But we can still gather from the quote that by the early 1720s Derby ale had lost its pre-eminence, to be replaced by its neighbouring rival across the border in Staffordshire. And, indeed, mentions in London newspapers in the 18th century of Derby ale are rare to non-existent. (Defoe, incidentally, did not mention Burton ale at all in his original first edition, and says only of Derby: “What Trade there is in the Town is chiefly in good Malt and good Ale.”)
So, to conclude or round up: claims that Burton Ale was on sale in London in the 17th century are unsubstantiated, though Derby Ale certainly was, and despite claims by Burtonians there is no evidence that “Derby Ale” was another name for Burton Ale: Derby ale was exactly what it said on the tin, or rather cask. By the 18th century Derby Ale had been pushed out of the London market, however. Of claims about Benjamin Printon, one is based on a misinterpretation and one is nonsense. There is no evidence that the Peacock in Gray’s Inn Lane was the first place in the capital to sell Burton ale, and it looks unlikely it was doing so in the 17th century. That’s six myths scotched. Thanks, Alan.