Tides of change

Louise Crane looks at how the mighty Thames has shaped drinking habits in London and beyond


Old Father Thames has played a role in many a tale, from Dickens to Defoe, Will Self to Jerome K Jerome. See Ratty as he “messes about in boats” in Kenneth Graeme’s Wind In The Willows, or catch Sherlock Holmes’s pursuit of assassins through the docks from West India to Isle of Dogs in The Sign of Four. The Thames has also been a major player in the story of England’s alcoholic drinks, acting as gatekeeper for what came in, and what went out.

Since Roman times, London has had a working dock. Its length, connection to the open sea and in later years to England’s canal system made it the perfect gateway for goods and people, and a major reason for London’s domination over England’s other cities. The goods it helped trade brought new wonders from near and far to England. Take, for instance, gin. This originated in Holland, where a drink called jenever was born. Originally the distillation of malt wine, it was strong, fiery, and largely unpalatable. Herbs and spices were used to mask the flavour, and the juniper berry added for their supposed medicinal benefits. For a while, the only source of jenever was English soldiers returning from battles in the Low Countries at the end of the 16th century, until its popularity demanded an import trade. Not to be outshone (or rather, out-profited) by foreign producers, English distillers were soon on the lookout for their nearest juniper bush, and “gin” was born in the early 1600s. Its popularity really took off when William, Prince of Orange (and Stadtholder of the Netherlands) was crowned King of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1689.

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Between 1689 and 1697, Great Britain was at war with France, and Parliament enacted a prohibitively high duty on the import of spirits, including the immensely popular French brandy, to encourage domestic interests such as brewing. Grain was soon highly demanded by not only brewers but gin distillers wishing to supply the gaping maws of English drinkers with soothing spirit. The distillers had to make do with low quality grain, and with their imperfect early distillation techniques, produced a raw spirit that required a lot of flavouring to make it palatable. The answer lay, literally, in the docks, where spices, sugar and citrus fruits from the colonies abound. These events led to London’s woeful Gin Craze, which you can read more about on page 91.

London has always had plenty of breweries lining the Thames. One such brewer whose name lives on is George Hodgson, known as the man who created a heavily-hopped, strong beer to survive the journey that ships were now making out from the Thames to India. Or was he? As per many stories surrounding beer, this one is something of a myth. Hodgson really did ship such a beer to India in the 1700s, but he didn’t create it. He was simply the most successful producer of a style already in existence, his fortune more down to serendipity and proximity than any kind of divine inspiration.

Hodgson’s brewery at Bow was a short boat ride away from Blackwall on the Thames, home to the docks used by the now-legendary East India Company. So it became the brewery of choice for captains looking for a decent beer to sell in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras (alongside their cargo of English china, food and furniture) to whom Hodgson extended credit, up to 18 months, on the beer they bought from him. It just so happened that this brew matured exceptionally well on the long, four-month voyage to India thanks to the microclimate of the ships’ holds. With a little planning and a lot of luck, Hodgson acquired around half the Indian market, and earned himself a name that would be said with fervour on the lips of IPA lovers today.

The most popular beer of the eighteenth century can thank the Thames for its name and reputation. Porter developed as a style when brewers started hopping their beer more and storing it for longer, and found its name in its keenest customers: the city’s many street and river porters. In November 1799 a brief announcement appeared in The Times newspaper: “A Porter Brewery is about to be established at Portsmouth, by a number of opulent Gentlemen, who have subscribed £5000 each. The Thames water for this undertaking is to be conveyed by shipping.”

This might strike us as somewhat unusual, given the Thames’ reputation for being a river of stench and sewage before it was cleaned up in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its mention reflects that many drinkers of the time believed that decent porter had to be brewed with water from the Thames. George Watkins, author of The compleat brewer; or, The art and mystery of brewing explained, published in 1760, echoed this feeling in his book, writing, “WATER may be distinguished into four kinds: Spring, River, Rain and Pond, and what is the worst in appearance often makes the best drink. No water can be fouler than that of the Thames, yet the clearest porter is brewed with it.” Though he does go on to say that Thames water is not essential for brewing porter, it definitely seems that the Thames’s reputation dictated how porter was made throughout the country.

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Recalling the unclean state of the Thames will likely make you remember that people of the Middle Ages were forced to drink ‘small beer’, a sometimes filtered weak ale (probably below 3%) that was of similar consistency to thin porridge, rather than water, since it was far less likely to cause illness as the boiling stage of production kills offending microorganisms. There’s a general understanding that until drinking water was piped into homes, beer was the only safe bet for a healthy tummy, and even for avoiding death. But there are a number of historians who counter this supposed fact, including food history blogger Jim Chevallier: “Not only are there specific – and very casual – mentions of people drinking water all through the Medieval era, but there seems to be no evidence that they thought of it as unhealthy except when (as today) it overtly appeared so. Doctors had slightly more nuanced views, but certainly neither recommended against drinking water in general nor using alcohol to avoid it.”

Chevallier quotes from a book called Misconceptions About the Middle Ages, by Stephen Harris and Bryon L. Grigsby, which says: “The myth of constant beer drinking is also false; water was available to drink in many forms (rivers, rain water, melted snow) and was often used to dilute wine.” So why do we think that the Middle Agers were constantly quaffing beer and not water? Probably because water wasn’t written about as much as beer, because there was little reason to write about it: water wasn’t sold, transported or taxed in the same way beer was. It’s likely the people preferred to drink beer, but would drink water when they couldn’t, as per the phrase, “Beer if I have it or water if I have no beer,” which appeared in a 10th century Saxon educational text for learning Latin. This would likely be for variation, flavour, and energy. Before germ theory was developed in the 1860s, people weren’t aware of bacteria and viruses, so they weren’t drinking beer for the reason it was ‘cleaner’ than water, but simply that it smelt and tasted better.

On the odd historical occasion, Old Father Thames played host to drinking itself. In times of severe weather between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Thames could freeze over for weeks at a time. (Back then, temperatures were colder as the Northern Hemisphere was locked in a period known as the ‘Little Ice Age’ - compare the average temperature for January 1814 with that of January 2016, -2.9°C versus 4.6°C.) Without the opportunity of work on the river, enterprising watermen and lightermen would organise “frost fairs”, setting up food and drink stalls and charging for access. The smell of roast meats, chestnuts and hot mulled wine would waft through the air as punters donned their skates to take to the river and enter a cross between the circus, a Christmas market and a festival. There would be bull-baiting, sledging, bowling, dancing, and – almost unbelievably – horse and coach races, shops, pubs and bars.

London’s last frost fair was in February 1814, during the third coldest winter since records began in 1659. Weeks and weeks of bitter chill, blanketing fog and whirling snow left the river glassy still, and on the first of the month, the party began. The food and drink was a feast, with oxen and mutton, mince pies and gingerbread soaked in booze, and a huge number of bars selling drinks such as purl, a mix of gin and wormwood wine served hot, and mum, a beer infused with spices. Fruit and gingerbread vendors plied the spoilt-for-choice revellers with hot gin (for a fee) and we can only imagine their skating was a little skittish come night-time. After five days of near-debauchery, the winds of winter changed direction and the ice started to crack. Time to retreat to the shore.

These are just a few tales of how the Thames shaped what we drank. From jenever to gingerbread, porter to IPA, it has carried, hosted, made and seen some of the most popular drinks in our national cabinet. Although the docks have now fallen silent, London’s breweries new and old still overlook the Thames, and the huge success of gin carried through to the style London dry. You can still sit in a pub called The Swan overlooking the river, and hopefully this will never change. One thing that will though is our weather, so you can bet that next snowy day we’ll be down on the banks, willing that water to freeze.

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