Three-threads get more unravelled

James Scarlett, the world’s greatest expert on Scottish tartans, who died in May this year aged 87, once said: “I never believe anything I see in print, even though I wrote it myself.” I know how he feels. James Sumner, another historian, who knows, probably, more about the origins of porter than anyone else, has been in touch to point out that in my piece on three-threads, the drink that was claimed to be one of the early 18th century precursors to porter, I made one of the worst mistakes anybody with any pretensions to being a historian can perpetrate: I failed to go back to the original sources.

The problem was that I was contrasting the famous letter that appeared in the London Chronicle in November 1760 from “Obadiah Poundage” that gives the earliest details of porter’s origins with the version of Poundage’s narrative that appeared soon after in The Gentleman’s Magazine, and quoting from the copy of the London Chronicle letter that appears in HS Corran’s A History of Brewing. The point I was making is that the Gentleman’s Magazine version mention’s three-threads, whereas the version quoted by Corran doesn’t.

But Dr Sumner, who is lecturer in history of technology at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, University of Manchester, did what I should have done and went and read the London Chronicle. There he discovered, the version Corran quotes isn’t the one that actually appears in the Chronicle. In fact, the Chronicle‘s version does mention three-threads, whereas Corran’s version substitutes the words “ale, mild beer and stale”.

To make my offence worse Dr Sumner had actually told me all of (I’m embarrassed to say) six years ago that the Corran version was not the same as the London Chronicle version, but I’d forgotten. Put me in the stocks and throw rotten eggs at me. However, this leaves a mystery – where did Corran get his version from? And, just as important, why is it different from the version in the London Chronicle?

I don’t think Dr Sumner will mind if I quote from his missive to me from 2002:

Some time ago I wrote to Stan Corran and he told me that he first saw the Poundage letter in manuscript in “a red leather manuscript volume in the board room of Arthur Guinness, Dublin”, which led him to the London Chronicle which he checked, and transcribed, at the British Museum’s newspaper collection (as it then was).


Since then Dr Sumner has dug around some more, and he says:

I had half a dozen copies of the Lon Chron checked in different institutions, and not one of them matches Stan Corran’s transcript … I’ve always suspected (but didn’t feel I could write back pressing the point) that what Corran actually transcribed was a manuscript version of the letter held in the Guinness Dublin archives – possibly part of the bundle or collection “Occasional Papers Relative to the Brewery”, which he references on p131 [in A History of Brewing] and says is in the hand of Michael Combrune [the influential 18th century brewer who helped popularise the use of the thermometer by brewers]. My guess is that Combrune sent various papers over during his later correspondence with the Royal Dublin Society.

Alas, since Corran, who worked at Guinness, made his discovery in the Guinness boardroom, the original copy of the version of the letter he printed in A History of Brewing seems to have gone walkies. Dr Sumner says:

I’m extremely curious both as to why Michael Combrune might have ended up with a copy of an unpublished version of the Poundage letter, and also as to why two versions exist in the first place … the Corran version looks like a first draft, and is tantalisingly more autobiographical. I dearly wish we at least had transcripts of the missing sections. Unfortunately, correspondence with [the Guinness archivist] Eibhlin Roche a few years ago failed to turn up the material in the Guinness Archive and nobody seems in any great hurry to trace it.

Anyway the good news is that Dr Sumner has put his findings on the true origins of porter into a paper that is being published by the journal History and Technology. It may, finally, knock on the head the old “Ralph Harwood invented porter as a substitute for three-threads” story, since Dr Sumner’s fascinating paper actually identifies a couple of other London brewers who probably did develop London common brown beer into the drink that eventually swept around the world as porter, by their pioneering use of huge vats, rather than butts (that’s the 108-gallon cask, for American readers), for ageing the beer in.

I’m pleased to say that I identified the main one, Humphrey Parsons of the Red Lion brewery, Lower East Smithfield, just to the east of the Tower of London, as “the first man in fact to bring porter production to perfection” in a piece I wrote for What’s Brewing a few years ago. I fear the “Ralph Harwood invented porter” story will never die, though: Google says the phrase “a brewer of the name of Harwood conceived the idea of making a liquor …” occurs in 46 different books.

You can find Dr Sumner’s article on the interweb here. though you’ll have to pony up £15 to read it, I’m afraid. However, the abstract is in the public domain:

“Porter, a dark style of beer that was the staple of London in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is conventionally addressed as a discrete invention, suited to large-scale production, whose appearance led rapidly to enclosure of the trade by a few industrial-scale producers. This paper by contrast presents the capitalist industrialization of brewing as co-extensive with, and reinforced by, the long-term emergence of a consensus definition of porter; the invention story is a retrospective construct that telescopes a century or more of technical change. Balancing established economic accounts, I address the role of product identity as a rhetorical device. London’s greatest brewers were in part assisted in capturing smaller competitors’ trade by the enshrining of large-scale production as a ‘secret ingredient’ in its own right, essential to the nature of the ‘true’ product.”

What that means, basically, is that Dr Sumner has piles of evidence to show how porter developed over time from a pre-existing product, rather than being “invented” by one man. He also takes an enquiring look at the development of the Ralph Harwood myth, and discusses how and – more interestingly – why it grew up. His conclusion is that while the “traditional” story of porter makes it a customer-driven development, in reality it was much more producer-driven. He also concludes that the name “porter” was not coined for any new product, but emerged as a nickname for an established local brown beer, and he has some interesting comments to make about the concept, from the 1780s or so onwards, of the “big 12” London porter brewers, such as Meux, Reid, Whitbread, the Calverts and Truman..

I’m not sure I agree with the idea that brewers such as Humphrey Parsons, whose porter was eulogised by Oliver Goldsmith as “Parson’s black champagne”, were driving public taste rather than responding to it: I think it more likely to have been a mixture of the two. I don’t believe that a product can be dominant in its market for 120 years or so without genuinely offering the consumers something they wanted. However, it’s a fascinating article, and it ought to provoke very worthwhile debate.

0 thoughts on “Three-threads get more unravelled

  1. I’m not sure we can speak of a “definitive” version, Ron – there’s the version that appeared in the London Chronicle, which was repeated shortly after in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and which is the public version; and there’s the version that Stan Corran claims to have seen at Guinness in Dublin, of which large chunks were reprinted in Corran’s book A History of Beer. The Corran text appears to be the ur-version, or at least an earlier version, the Chronicle text a revised version. If Corran’s version was indeed an ealy draft, that doesn’t make it the definitive version. But the Chronicle version isn’t definitive either, as it misses out things that are in Corran’s version …

    Scholarship would be a little easier if, as James Sumner says, the original manuscript of the Corran version hadn’t apparently disappeared, but this appears to have turned into brewing history’s equivalent of Peking Man. In particular, if we had the original, it might be possible to answer the question: “What was the link between Michael Combrune and ‘Obadiah Poundage’?”

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