A word or two about booze


Friends, I think the time has come for me to talk about booze.

Apart from anything else, it’s a good excuse to grab down from the shelf the excellent Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England, by Frederick W. Hackwood, one of the most prized books in my collection. I bought it from my friend J, at his second-hand bookshop in Alcombe, Somerset, many years ago – how could I resist with a title like that? Sadly the bookshop is no more – it’s a computer shop now – but the book is still with me. I have no idea whether it’s any longer in print, and so I keep extra special care of it, as I do with all my rarer books.

It was originally published back in 1909, and is written in a delightfully idiosyncratic style. For example, in a chapter on drinking vessels Hackwood writes:

“The Norsemen deemed the highest state of felicity to be a future state in which, seated in the Halls of Woden, they would for ever quaff strong liquors from the skulls of their enemies… Lord Byron was obsessed with this barbaric idea, and in his early youth he ransacked the graves of his ancestors at Newstead Abbey for a skull sufficiently capacious to be fashioned into a carousing cup.”

There are chapters on brewing, licensing, drunkenness, drinking songs, innkeepers, and smoking – of which Hackwood is a firm supporter, quoting (disapprovingly) from James I’s Counterblaste to Tobacco (1604):

“It is, he says, ‘a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.'”

His book also takes in coffee houses, tea gardens, sign painting, inns in fiction, drinking customs, and much, much more besides; and at the back, after the general index, he has another, for inn signs, which include the Devil and Dunstan, the Goose and Gridiron, the Man Loaded With Mischief, the Old Pick My Toe, the Satyr and Bacchanals, and the Who’d have Thought It?

The last of these, framed as a question, leads, according to Hackwood, to the answer, “That malt and hops would have bought it”, i.e. the freehold of the pub. Incidentally, there’s a Who’d A Thought It in Glastonbury, and a very nice pub it is too (whodathoughtit.co.uk).

So if you want to know what a Drunkard’s Coat was (it was a punishment for drunkenness during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth – the offender had to wear an empty barrel with holes cut out for his arms and head), how punch got its name (it comes from the Hindi word paunch, meaning five, as it originally had five ingredients – spirit, water, sugar, lemon, and spice – and was brought to England in the late 1600’s by the East India Company), or why our habit of heavy drinking is all the fault of the Dutch (apparently English soldiers fighting in the Netherlands in the Tudor period picked up the habit of drinking to excess, hence the term “Dutch courage”), then this is the book for you. It’s full of such wonderful trivia, and I could happily while away a whole day reading it.

Interior of the Black Friar pub, London. A fine hostelry.


2 thoughts on “A word or two about booze

  1. Fantastic. That bit about Byron, if true, is epic–and I’m not going to research it just in case it isn’t true. Better to decide for myself that it is. Some people have god. Some have UFOs. Me, I’m going to have Byron quenching his thirst from his great aunt Molly’s skull.

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