You’ve read the stories, I’m sure: you’ve probably got, as I have, a mental picture. The mailcoach rattles through the arch into the straw-strewn innyard, chickens flying out of the way, the outside passengers ducking to avoid losing their hats – or heads. The ostler and stable-boys, alerted by the sound of the guard’s horn as the coach came down the High Street, rush to unhitch the old, tired, sweat-spattered team of horses and lead them away, at the same time bringing out a fresh team. The red-faced landlord, in tan breeches, black waistcoat, white shirt and white apron, his hair tied back in a short ponytail by a black bow, hands up a yard-long glass brimful of ale to the overcoat-laden mailcoach driver, who has no time in his schedule even to get down from his box. In a swing perfected by daily practice, the driver drains the long glass without a spill, hands it back down to the cheery publican and, refreshed, whips up his new horses, who gallop off back out onto the highway, the passenger-laden coach bouncing behind them and 10 more miles of muddy, rutted road ahead before they can all rest at the next stop. If there’s not a painting of that scene on the oak-panelled walls of some pub dining room with 18th century pretentions somewhere in England, I’ll swallow the nearest tricorn hat.
It’s a great tale, repeated often, and I never dissected it until I read it again in the Oxford Companion to Beer, where it appears in the entry for “drinking customs”:
“The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel has more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate steps the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach.”
Perhaps because this occurs just four paragraphs after a claim that King Edgar, a pre-Conquest king of England, tried to limit villages to only one alehouse each in an attempt to cut drunkenness, which is definitely a pile of Anglo-Saxon pants (the permanently established alehouse as a village institution was probably at least three centuries away when Edgar was on the throne, and there wasn’t the infrastructure in his time to enforce such a law anyway – and nor is there a single parchment scrap of evidence for such a decree), myths were at the front of my brain, which is why this time when I read about coach drivers and yards of ale I finally went: “?”
I’m lucky, living in West London, a very short walk from a train station. I can get up to the British Library at St Pancras in less than the
50 70 minutes advertised time between ordering books via the online catalogue and those books being brought up from the shelves. Turn right out of King’s Cross past the stores built for Thomas Salt, brewer of Burton upon Trent, in the 19th century to keep shipments of pale ale in, up the Euston Road and into the BL, one of my favourite places on the planet (it even has a couple of hop plants growing up one wall). Check my coat in the downstairs lockers, up the wide stairs, walk through the doors of the Humanities A 1 reading room, find a seat among a couple of hundred or more other scholars researching who knows what, go up to the collection desk and pick up the haul: half a dozen or so Victorian and Edwardian books and periodicals.
There was certainly a fair amount of interest in the “ale-yard” glass, though as H Symer Cuming, who presented a paper on “The Ale-Yard or Long Glass” to the British Archaeological Society in 1874, declared: “The ale-yard and its parts form a singular group of vessels which are far more spoken about written about.” Symer Cuming, who gave the capacity of a yard of ale as a quart, said he had “searched in vain in printed books” for the history of the ale-yard: and I have searched in vain myself for any mention at all from earlier than my lifetime of stage coach drivers drinking from yards of ale.
Symer Cuming definitely doesn’t mention stage-coach drivers, though he gives a nod to the Alma beerhouse, near Galley Hill, Swanscombe, Kent, built in 1860, which in his era had a sign saying: “London Porter and Ales Sold by the Yard” (a joke also found at the George Inn, Bexley High Street, Kent, according to a writer in 1889, although see later). He mentions the mock “corporation” at Hale, Cheshire (now in Trafford, Manchester) that had the “Hale-yard” as its mace (another repeated joke: in Hanley, in the Potteries, the mock “corporation” swore in each new member with a ceremony that involved drinking from a yard-long glass, though the contents were apparently port when the ceremony began in 1783, before changing to beer and, by the start of the 20th century, champagne. Over the years the Hanley revellers broke their ale-yard at least twice). Symer Cuming also says that yard-of-ale glasses came in both footed and footless forms, the latter the familiar bulb-ended version. But coachmen in a hurry: not a word, though Symer Cuming was writing within 20 years of the last mailcoaches being driven off the road by steam trains.
The magazine Notes and Queries, Victorian England’s answer to Wikipedia, covered the subject of the yard of ale glass, or yard of beer glass, multiple times in the 1860s, 1870s and 1880s. One of the first mentions, in 1869, describes the ceremony of the “long glass” at Eton, when “RHBH” wrote:
There still exists at Eton the custom of drinking a yard of ale, or, as it is called there, the long glass. Once a week, in the summer half, about twenty to thirty of the boys in the boats, or of the principal cricket or foot-ball players, invited by the captain of the boats and the captain of the cricket eleven, assemble in a room at a small public house for luncheon. The luncheon, or “cellar”, as it is called, consists of bread and cheese, salads, beer and cider-cup. At the conclusion of the luncheon, a boy, previously invited for the purpose, is requested to step forward; he sits down on a chair, a napkin is tied round his neck, and the long glass filled with beer is presented to him. Watches are pulled out, and at a given signal he begins to drink. If he does it in good time he is greeted with loud applause; but if he leaves a drop at the bottom of the bowl it has to be refilled and he has to drink again. Two or three fellows are asked to drink at each cellar, and after this initiation they are entitled to be asked on future occasions. This is a very old institution.
These were schoolboys, of course, aged probably between 15 or 16 and 18. The “beer bong” is not new. (A brief article in the Lincolnshire Chronicle in April 1899, incidentally, agrees the Eton glass held a pint, indicates the “long glass” ceremony still took place, and says the record time for emptying it was nine seconds.)
Another N&Q correspondent, “Ellcee”, in 1869 said that for public houses, possession of, and flaunting, a “yard of ale” glass was “not at all an uncommon mode of inducing custom fifty or sixty years ago”; that is, around 1809 to 1819, and a third pointed out that the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) possessed what it called a “forfeit glass” a yard long and with a bulb at one end, which was apparently made in Venice in the 17th century, and had been donated by the Duke of Bucchleuch. Others mentioned ale-yard glasses that could be seen at places such as Knole House in Sevenoaks, the Red Lion, Retford, a pub in Sandgate, Kent, the Wrestlers Inn, Cambridge, and elsewhere. In 1882 a description was given of the custom associated with the yard of beer glass around Bexley, Kent:
In several houses may be seen an advertisement that “Beer is sold by the yard.” And so it is, in accordance with a local custom. There is a glass vessel exactly three feet in length, with a very narrow stem, slightly lipped at the mouth and a globular bowl at the bottom … This is filled with beer, and any one who can drink it without spilling it may have it for nothing, but if he spills one drop he pays double. It looks so easy and it is so difficult, not to say impossible, to a novice. You take the vessel in both hands, apply the lip to your mouth and then gently tilt it. At first the beer flows quietly and slowly, and you think how admirably you are overcoming the difficulty. Suddenly, when the vessel is tilted a little, more the air rushes up the stem into the bowl and splashes about half a pint into your face. The cheapest plan is to treat the barman to a yard of beer and see how he does it. He will be only too happy to oblige you, and the Bexley ale vanishes with a rapidity only equalled by that of the beer consumed at Heidelberg among the students. The custom has extended far beyond Bexley and not only in the neighbouring villages but even near Oxford the yard of beer is advertised.
(A later correspondent revealed that it was only, again, the George Inn, Bexley that provided the yard of ale, and even it had stopped doing so “within the last twelvemonth” when the glass was accidently smashed.) But again, not one writer talked of coach drivers in connection with yards of ale.
The same absence of evidence occurs in specialist books on drinking glasses. The history of the Worshipful Company of Glass Sellers, published in 1898, has a drawing of the Eton “long glass”, but no coach drivers. Beverages Past and Present by Edward Randolph Emerson, published in 1908, calls the ale-yard “decidedly original” to the English, describing it as “a trumpet-shaped glass exactly a yard in length, the narrow end being closed, and expanded into a large ball.” Emerson gave a good account of the problems of drinking from a yard of ale:
Its internal capacity is a little more than a pint, and when filled with ale many a thirsty tyro has been challenged to empty it without taking it from his mouth. This is no easy task. So long as the tube contains fluid, it drains out smoothly, but when air reaches the bulb it displaces the liquor with a splash, startling the toper, and compelling him involuntarily to withdraw his mouth by the rush of the cold liquid over his face and dress.
Nowhere, however, does he mention coach drivers.
Emerson’s claim as to the difficulty of draining a yard of ale is challenged by Percy H Bate, author of English Table Glass, published in 1905, who describes ale yards (and half-yards) as coming in two forms,
those with feet and those without. Those without feet generally have a bulb at the base … and this bulb is supposed to render the emptying of them at one draught very difficult, the ale leaving the bulb with a rush and drenching the drinker. But, so far as I know, the difficulty is more imaginary than real; at any rate I have not found it at all difficult to empty the only one I ever had in my possession.
Bate added that
Being used as tests of skill at merry-makings and convivial assemblies, in which horse-play was not an unknown factor, most of the many that must have existed have been destroyed, and they are now distinctly rare.
Among the vessels Bate mentions are footless “travellers’ glasses”, which, he said, would be filled with spirits as the coach arrived at an inn for a change of horses, emptied by the passengers “without delay”, and “the coach would roll on.” (Apparently some inns would trick the passengers with glasses that, when filled with gin, looked of normal capacity, but which actually had extra-thick walls and contained much less than the tuppence-worth of spirits charged for. The whole operation was done so quickly that the coach was off out through the archway before the passengers realised they had been diddled.) But on the coach drivers themselves, and how they might have been refreshed, he is again, silent.
Specialist books on coach travel also fail to supply references to coach drivers and ale-yards. Stage-coach and mail in days of yore by Charles H Harper, published in 1907, says the coach-horn was known as the “yard of tin”, but that is the closest it gets. The yard of ale continues to be mentioned as a curiosity through the first half of the 20th century, along with the difficulty of drinking from it – “gardyloo!”, a correspondent in the Western Mail writes in March 1934 in a description of an ale yard to be seen at Exeter museum – but still the coach driver makes no appearance in the story.
The earliest reference to the coach driver legend I have found is from 1952, just 60 years ago, in a report of a day trip by the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art:
On the return journey the party visited the ancient coaching inn at Hatherleigh [west Devon], this proving one of the most attractive features of the excursion, for the hostelry dates from 1450 … To enter the rooms is to recapture the spirit of ancient times: for on the old walls are hung scores of objects of former use, powder-flasks, leathern bottles, mulling-slippers, and many other implements, particularly the “yard of ale” and “yard-and-a-half of ale” glasses handed to drivers of stage coaches.
(Mulling slippers, incidentally, are not what you put on your feet while wearing your thinking cap, but tin or copper slipper-shaped containers for filling with mulled beer and poking into the coals of a fire to warm the contents.)
By the 1960s, barely a decade after this first mention, the “yard-of-ale was a means of quenching a stagecoach driver’s thirst at an inn stop so that he could remain in the box” story seems to have become mainstream, and any inn worth its fake oak beams had a yard of ale on the wall as well. Here’s a description from the Brewing Review of a “pub” built as part of a British Week exhibition in Copenhagen in 1964 – read and weep:
It was entirely built of wood with a false ceiling and a roof of realistic wooden tiles, and contained a collection of sporting prints, a darts-board, a yard of ale glass, horse brasses and post horns and in every way typified the traditional “local”.
Along with the yard of ale glass on the wall came the revival of the yard-of-ale drinking contest, so that pubs from Boston to Sydney had men drenching themselves in beer as they tried to emulate the Eton wet bobs and dry bobs of the 19th century and finish their yard in under 10 seconds. (The current record is five seconds, apparently.)
But with all that, I hope you’ll agree, we have found no evidence that the yard of ale was originally “designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers” in a hurry. In fact, there is no evidence that the yard of ale was ever used to refresh coach drivers at all (and if it had been, it certainly wouldn’t have been handed up to the driver through an inn window, which would be an excellent way to either spill the ale or smash the glass). Instead, I think, it seems clear that the yard of ale was (1) produced as something of a show-off, for the glassmaker and the owner, and (2) primarily or almost solely supplied and bought as a “forfeit glass”, for use in drinking games and contests of skill, just as it is today.
However, the point of all this is not to show that the OCB is wrong, again. It’s to show how difficult it is to verify, or not, even the most widely known “fact”. Given that the coach driver/yard of ale meme has been repeated so often over the past 40 or 50 years, and it takes up only a couple of sentences in an OCB article of several hundred words, the writer was actually perfectly justified in not searching out references to back the claim up. For those two sentences, at the OUP’s rate of five cents a word, the writer would have earned about £1.75. It cost me three times that to travel up to the British Library and back, and I only live in West London. Factor in the time it all took, and researching every sentence you write rapidly becomes woefully cost-ineffective.
The problem is: you can’t afford to check everything. But at the same time, as we have seen, you can’t trust anything, certainly nothing written a century and a half or more after the times it claims to describe. Primary research is paramount, and secondary sources are not enough to be sure. The motto of the historian has to be: “Non lego, non credo“. So, pinned by the horns of this dilemma, what do you do? I don’t know. Certainly, if you are writing a short article, I think it’s entirely forgivable to use solely secondary sources: you don’t have time to do anything else. Not so much if you are writing a book. But the problem with the OCB is that, magnificent though its intentions are, it is really only a collection of short articles, few or none of which were written by people with any time to conduct primary research, and who were not being paid enough to conduct primary research anyway. So, understandably, they repeated the secondary sources: which is unfortunate when, as with the yard of ale/coach drivers story, those secondary sources appear to be completely wrong.