Today is 299 years exactly since the first known mention of porter

Happy anniversary: 299 years ago today the word “porter” appeared in print for the first time (as far as we know) as the name of a type of beer.

The passing mention came in a pamphlet dated Wednesday May 22 1721 and written by the then-23-year-old Whig satirist and polemicist Nicholas Amhurst (1697-1742). Amhurst implied that porter was a poor person’s drink, writing that “Whigs … think even poverty much preferable to bondage; had rather dine at a cook’s shop upon beef, cabbage, and porter, than tug at an oar, or rot in a dark stinking dungeon.”

Nicholas Amhurst, who would be deservedly angry to learn that he is only remembered for having once mentioned porter …

The fact that Amhurst (who is buried in Twickenham, less than a mile and a half from where I am writing this) felt no need to explain what porter was suggests it would have been a familiar word to his audience, even if no one had ever put it into print before. All the same, only three years later, in 1724, Daniel Defoe, describing conversations with footmen and other servants, said they took place “over a Mug of Porter, as they call their Alehouse Beer and Ale,” suggesting that porter as a word meaning a type of beer was still obscure enough that his readers needed to be told what it was.

Still, the Swiss traveller César-François de Saussure, who visited London the following year, 1725, for a lengthy stay was familiar with the word, though his evidence is not as definitive as it is generally assumed. De Saussure actually wrote up his account of his trip to England ten or 12 years later, in the early 1740s, in the form of letters to an anonymous “friend” supposedly written while he was in England from his lodgings in East Sheen, Surrey (some four miles from where I sit), and his memories may have been colored by a second visit to London in 1739/40, when porter most definitely was a word on everybody’s lips (in all senses), so his account may not be totally accurate about conditions as they really were in the mid-1720s. The passage about porter is quoted frequently in histories of beer (generally as if it was from a genuine letter of 1726, rather than a made-up letter from 1741 or so): it’s worth, I think, giving it in the original French, as translations often do not do justice to Saussure’s attempt to explain the origins of the word porter, struggling with the subtleties of porter/porteur:

Croiriez-vous bien, que quoiqu’on ait l’eau en abondance à Londres & qu’elle soit assez bonne, cependant on n’y en boit absolument point? Le petit peuple, même les mendians ne savent ce que c’est que de se désaltérer avec de l’eau. On ne boit dans ce pays que de la bière. Il y en a de plusieurs qualités. La petite bière est celle dont tout le monde se sert pour se désaltérer; elle ne coûte qu’un sol le pot et se trouve même sur les meilleures tables. Une autre espèce est connue sous le nom de porter, c’est-à-dire porteur, parce que les porteurs ou portefaix, & tout le petit peuple, en boit beaucoup; c’est une bière épaisse & forte, qui fait le même effet que le vin, quand on en boit une certaine quantité; elle coûte trois sols le pot.

A Fellowship porter, left, and a Ticket or street porter, right, whose favourite beer was named after them …

My own translation of that, giving two different takes on “porteur” to try to get across what De Saussure was saying, is as follows:

“Would you believe that although there is an abundance of water in London and that it is good enough, however there is absolutely no drinking it? The common people, even beggars, do not know what it’s like to quench their thirst with water. One drinks nothing in this country except beer. There are several qualities. Small beer is the one everyone uses to quench their thirst; it only costs one penny per pot and is even found on the best tables. Another type is known under the name of ‘porter‘, that is to say, ‘carrier’, because porters or goods-carriers, and all the little people, drink it a lot; it is a thick and strong beer, which has the same effect as wine, when a certain quantity is drunk; it costs three pence the pot.”

Incidentally, that’s another sharp knock on the head for claims that people drank beer because the water was no good.

Assertions have been made for a Jonathan Swift poem, “A Town Eclogue,” first published in The Tatler in 1710 and set in the Royal Exchange, London, which spoke of “porter’s ale”, being the earliest mention of porter as a drink, and Swift’s friend Alexander Pope in 1716 talked about hack authors’ books “Nurs’d upon Grey Peas, Bullocks Liver, and Porter’s Ale.” It is unlikely, however, that “porter” as a name for the drink brewed in London that became so popular is short for Swift’s and Pope’s “porter’s ale,” because porter, was a (heavily hopped) beer, not a (lightly hopped) ale: the distinction between the two malt drinks was still rigidly observed in the early 18th century. The name porter does not appear among the several types of ale and beer listed in the Vade Mecum for Malt Worms, or Guide for Malt Worms, the two rhyming London pub guides written about 1716-1720, though the Guide does mention an inn in Shoe Lane in the City that is “filled/With Folks that are in Porter’s Liquors skill’d.”

A Fellowship porter’s official badge, made of brass and leather, and bearing the holder’s name and the arms of the City of london

Two decades earlier, in 1703, the author, poet and inn-keeper Ned Ward wrote of a drink he called “Porters Guzzle” (sic) as part of a hasty and cheap breakfast which sounds like a version of the dish called Welsh rarebit, or rabbit, that is, toast with a beer-and-cheese sauce: “a Penny-worth of burnt Bread soften’d in a Mug of Porters Guzzle, improv’d with a slice of Cheshire.” But that was too early to be a mention of porter as later known, and thus “Porters Guzzle” is not the origin of porter as a beer name either: the evidence is that only around or very soon after 1713 did the techniques of greater hopping and longer ageing come together among London brewers such as the Parsons at the Red Lion brewery by St Katharine’s, close to the Tower of London, to turn the original London Brown Beer into porter, the drink that would go on to conquer the world.

5 thoughts on “Today is 299 years exactly since the first known mention of porter

  1. The bit about water being freely available is interesting but as London has taken groundwater since the Romans pitched up it’s not surprising. Perhaps in other areas of the country water wasn’t so freely available so beer may actually have been safer to drink?

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