The origins of porter (and a bit about three-threads)

I realised recently that I’ve never properly blogged about the actual origins of porter – except to counter the claim that it was invented as a substitute for “three-threads” by someone called Ralph Harwood, and to point out that it wasn’t named after market porters, but river and street porters. And I don’t seem to have written about the latest discoveries on three-threads, the drink that has (wrongly) been mixed up in the porter story.

Fly back, then, three centuries, to the time of Queen Anne (1702-1714), when the drinks you’d be most likely to find in a London alehouse would be (according to a contemporary “good pub guide”, the Vade Mecum for Malt Worms) mild beer and stale beer (both made from brown malt); amber beer (made from pale malt); ale (including strong Twopenny pale ale, Derby ale, Burton ale, Oxford ale, Nottingham ale and York pale ale); and stout.

Remember, those names don’t mean what they do today: “mild” beer was fresh and recently brewed; “stale” beer wasn’t off, but the “mild” beer aged and matured; ale meant very specifically a less hopped drink than beer, while stout could be any colour, as long as it was strong. In addition, the ale brewers and the beer brewers were still two different groups of people.

London’s drinkers, then and for centuries later, liked to mix their brews: one tranche of pub-goers would order stale beer, which cost four old pence a pot (or quart), but stale beer and mild beer together was a popular drink: and others, according to a by-then elderly brewery worker calling himself “Obadiah Poundage”, writing in 1760 drank a mixture called “three-threads”, costing three pence a pot.

A great deal has been written about three-threads, because a man called John Feltham, writing in 1802, claimed (with no evidence that I can find) that three-threads was a popular drink made up of “a third of ale, beer and twopenny”, for which “the publican had the trouble to go to three casks and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor.” According to Feltham, porter was invented to taste like three-threads, but because it came from one cask, it saved the publicans the trouble and waste of mixing the drink afresh every order from three separate casks. There is no evidence at all for this claim. But Feltham’s description of what went into three-threads, and his statement that porter was designed to copy it, but as a single beer that would not need to be served from three different casks, has been repeated by almost every writer on beer for two centuries.

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The forgotten story of London’s porters

It’s a mark of the low status given to working class history that the role in London’s life and economy played by the city’s thousands of street and river porters, the men who gave their name to the beer, is almost completely forgotten, only 70 or so years after the last of the porters died.

Almost no modern books on the history of London mention the Ticket Porters and their rivals the Fellowship Porters, not even Weinreb and Hibbert’s 1,000-page London Encyclopedia (which does, however, manage to mangle a nonsensical story about ale conners and the Tiger pub at the Tower of London).

The exception is Peter Earle’s A City Full of People, subtitled Men and Women of London 1650-1750, published in 1994, which leans for its scholarship about the subject on Walter Stern’s The Porters of London, written in 1960.

This lack of general knowledge about the people who played an irreplaceable role in London’s economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries, one that was the equivalent of white van delivery driver, motorcycle courier and postman rolled into one, meant confusion for beer writers in the 1970s when they came to write about porter the drink.

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