Wrecking the reputation of Griff Rhys Jones

Thanks to Griff Rhys Jones, one of the “myths” pages on this blog saw a sudden spike in hits last night and today, as large numbers of sceptics turned to Google to check out one of the claims in the gurning comedian’s new BBC television programme on The World’s Greatest Cities.

Dr Butler's head
Dr Butler’s head

The first episode was on London, and one of the places Griff visited (how does a man with such a Welsh name have such an English accent, btw?) was the Old Dr Butler’s Head in Mason’s Avenue, near Moorgate, in the City. The pub is named after William Butler, the physician to James VI of Scotland and I of England, and “Doctor” Butler (he never actually qualified), who died in 1618, was famous for inventing a “purging ale” that containing seven different herbs and roots, which was described in 1680 as

“an excellent stomack drink [which] helps digestion, expels wind, and dissolves congealed phlegm upon the lungs, and is therefore good against colds, coughs, ptisical and consumptive distempers; and being drunk in the evening, it moderately fortifies nature, causeth good rest, and hugely corroborates the brain and memory.”

Eighteenth-century recipes for the drink listed the ingredients as betony (a bitter grassland plant), sage, agrimony (a wayside plant popular in herbal medicine), scurvy-grass (a seaside plant high in Vitamin C, also used to make scurvy-grass ale), Roman wormwood (less potent than “regular” wormwood but still bitter), elecampane (a dandelion-like bitter plant that continues to be used in herbal cough mixtures) and horseradish, which were to be mixed and put in a bag which should be hung in casks of new ale while they underwent fermentation.

The name “Butler’s Head” indicated that the pub sold the doctor’s ale (and not, as the programme last night apparently claimed, that he owned the pub – there were once at least two other Butler’s Heads in London, including one in Telegraph Street, the other side of Moorgate, which only closed in the late 1990s). Today the Dr Butler’s Head in Mason’s Avenue is a Shepherd Neame outlet, and last night’s programme showed the launch of a new “herbal” beer at the pub.

Shots of Griff pulling the first pints of the new beer were preceded by a view of the City of London ale conners “testing” it by pouring some out onto a wooden bench and then sitting it the puddle in leather breeches to see if they stuck to the bench. Unfortunately for Griff’s credibility, and that of his researchers, the number one hit on Google for “ale conners” is my page on the subject, which utterly debunks the idea of medieval ale conners sitting in beer, points out that there is no evidence at all that any such thing ever happened, and underlines the fact that the best way to test beer is simply to taste it, rather than ruin your trousers and the pub’s furniture with wet ale.

So – sorry, Griff, but lots of people, having Googled “ale conners” and checked out the Zythophile, now think you don’t know what you’re talking about. Next time you want some research done about beer or pubs, do get in touch …

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