It looks as if the history of brewing in London can now be taken back to the very earliest decades of the city’s existence, with the discovery of what is claimed to be the city’s – and Britain’s – earliest known brewer, named on a writing tablet from nearly two millennia ago, found in waterlogged ground on a building site 500 yards to the east of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The writing tablet, used as a letter, was one of 15,000 artefacts found when the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) put 50 archaeologists to work betwee 2010 and 2014 digging through thousands of tons of wet mud on a three-acre site between Queen Victoria Street/Bucklersbury and Cannon Street during the early part of the construction of a new European HQ for the media company Bloomberg.
The site, which was previously the home of a 1950s office block, is on the course of the Walbrook, the long-buried river that runs from the border of Hoxton and Shoreditch down between Ludgate Hill and Cornhill to the Thames. Although much of the modern river’s flow is culverted, enough water still soaks the ground to leave it anaerobic, which stops wood, leather and other organic materials from rotting away. More than 400 writing tablets in total were found in the mud and debris of the site, 87 of which still carried legible writing scratched into the wood. The gems included one from around AD65 to 75 addressed “Londinio Mogontio”, “To Mogontius in London”. This is the earliest known mention of London by name, up to half a century before the previous earliest known mention, when Tacitus included the city’s name in his Annals, written around 115-117AD. Another tablet, from around AD80-90/5 has been hailed as the first record of a brewer in London.
There is one small problem – the tablet is addressed Tertio braciario, “to Tertius the braciarius“, and while MOLA has happily translated bracearius as brewer – that is what the word meant in Medieval Latin – it comes from the Celtic word braces, which means either “grain for malting” or, more likely, just “malt”. Archaeologists, apparently over-awed by the authority of the Roman writer Pliny, who referred to braces as the Celtic name for a specific variety of grain, spelt wheat, seem reluctant to accept that he was wrong, and braces probably meant malt in general, made from any grain. Today, in modern Irish, the word for malt is braiche, and “maltster” is braicheadóir while the modern Welsh word for malt is brag, and “maltster” bragwr, all words clearly derived from braces. Braciarius may thus be better translated as “maltster” rather than brewer.