A brief history of tankards

Hollie Stephens on the tale of tankards to date


Buried treasure 

One winter day in 2007, in a field in near Newport, Wales, a local man was searching the ground with a metal detector. Among his findings that day were two bronze bowls and a bronze wine strainer dating to the Iron Age, which were pronounced treasure. Other objects were buried alongside these, in what is assumed to have been a religious offering, including a wooden tankard deemed to be 2000 years old, making it the oldest tankard ever found. 

The artefacts are thought to have been placed in the ground around the time that the Roman army was launching a campaign against the Silures tribe of the Iron Age, sometime around AD 50. The tankard (not itself deemed treasure) seems a particularly miraculous discovery given the biodegradable nature of its primary construction material. It was buried in soil which had become waterlogged, helping to prevent any exposure to air and rendering the item recognisable as a drinking vessel upon excavation. The tankard is now displayed in the National Museum of Wales, located in Cardiff. 

Tankards are tall beer mugs with a handle and a hinged lid. The unlidded variety may also be referred to as tankards, or simply ‘mugs’. The phrase ‘getting tanked’ is thought to have originated from these drinking vessels, which seem oversized by modern beer glass standards. For example, the wooden tankard found in the field in South Wales would have held around four pints (rendering a single pour a noble weeknight effort for any Welsh drinker). If glugged at anything like the rate of a modern day serving of ale, drinking from a traditional tankard could make for a very merry evening indeed. 

Why lids?

Today, it might seem odd and a little awkward to consider drinking out of a lidded drinking vessel, and yet this was a standard practice until the second half the 18th century.

Although it is not known for certain why tankards were lidded, some historians have speculated that it was to prevent debris from falling into one’s beer, especially when drinking in establishments which may not have had roofs designed in accordance with modern day codes. For example, thatched roofs were common in rural areas of the UK until the 18th century, when other building supplies became available in greater quantities and at lower costs thanks to the Industrial Revolution. Thatched roofs might be constructed from materials such as flax, grass, and straw, tied into bundles, laid upon roof beams, and fastened into place using rods. The tankard lids may have been designed to avoid the unwanted addition of dirt and insects which might fall mid-session; surely an experience that would ruin a perfectly pleasant afternoon beer.

From wood, to leather, to pewter

Early tankards, like the one found in a Langstone field, were typically constructed from wooden staves and bronze plate, with a copper alloy handle attached with rivets. This is similar to the modern construction of wooden barrels but on a tiny scale. Later, tankards were constructed from different materials, including porcelain, pottery and even leather. 

Vessels made from leather have been used for drinking since Neolithic times, and were in vogue again during the reign of the Tudors. Yet another common saying, ‘fill your boots’, might well have originated from this tradition, as drinking mugs resembled old and worn shoes. Beeswax or similar alternatives were used to create waterproof membranes on the interior of such vessels to help preserve the life of the leather. 

‘fill your boots’, might well have originated from this tradition, as drinking mugs resembled old and worn shoes

Precious metals such as silver or pewter were also commonly used in the UK, Germany and across Scandinavia. Pewter, an alloy of tin, was sometimes known as ‘poor man’s silver’, as it resembled silver closely when polished. Although pewter was not always the most ubiquitous material for tankard construction, examples of pewter exist as far back as the Roman era. Until the wide availability of ceramics and pottery, pewter was also used for domestic wares. The earliest surviving pewter tankards date to the mid-17th century. They had straight sides and raised lids with flat tops.

I spoke with Carl Ricketts, a former president of the Pewter Society and author of the book Early English Pewter Drinking Vessels, to learn more about how, when, and why pewter became a popular choice for beer containers.

“Until the advent of early mass production in the Staffordshire potteries, it would have been most likely to encounter pewter in pubs. Because of the easier breakage of pottery, the publicans probably stuck with pewter mugs and measures for much longer, especially near centres of production such as London.”

The malleability of pewter makes it versatile and easy to care for. Carl explains this is a benefit for items which are heavily used. “Pewter has tended to be used to create objects whose hardness was not so critical, and indeed for drinking vessels and measures, a softer alloy was preferred as it was easier to reshape when dented or deformed, which often happened in pubs!”

Pewter used to be manufactured using lead, which was later found to be poisonous. Modern pewter alloys are lead-free. One such is Britannia metal, comprised of tin, antimony, and copper. Early manufacturing of Britannia metal centred in Sheffield, and this form of pewter was most prolific from the late 18th century until the middle of the Victorian era. 

The personal touch 

Today, tankards make popular gifts for anniversaries, milestone birthdays or retirements, and are more likely to be seen displayed on a mantlepiece than in permanent circulation in the beer glass cabinet. The sense of ownership of a tankard or beer mug appears to be a substantial part of the appeal. It is more than just any old drinking vessel; it is a special one bearing the name of the drinker, or an important message. Perhaps it was hand-crafted to a design specified by the owner, as unique as the person who will sip from it. Drinking from a tankard bearing someone else’s name appears to be the equivalent of taking an evidently personalised mug from the cupboard in a shared office space; something of a social faux pas. 

In some cases, a single tankard may be shared by a group. The Union Bar at Imperial College London maintains the largest known collection of pewter tankards in Europe. Each tankard represents a volunteer position within the union, and each may only be used by the people whose names are engraved upon it, or the student currently holding the relevant position.

Built to last

Few pubs remain where serving from metal tankards or mugs is the norm. Many years ago, I stepped into the Fox and Anchor pub (now owned by Youngs) in London. Its proximity to Smithfields market would likely have made it an early-afternoon haunt of hardworking traders in years gone by. I hadn’t chosen to visit specifically to drink from a tankard or pewter mug – I had it on good authority that their goose fat chips were some of the best in the city – but once I saw the rows of metal drinking vessels hanging neatly from a rail along the back bar, I couldn’t resist. 

There was something undeniably satisfying about drinking from something that wouldn’t shatter or smash when dropped. Upon the surface, clumsy behaviours of raucous and over-zealous drinkers could be fossilised and preserved for hundreds or thousands of years. As I sipped at my pint, I ran my fingers gently over the dimples and scratches, wondering how and when they got there, and how many more would be laid on top of them with the passage of time. 

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