Skip Navigation

Welcome to Bedford Borough Council

Home > Newsletters > Boozing in the archives

Boozing in the archives

In 1807 Samuel Whitbread and William Lee Antonie were parliamentary candidates for the Borough of Bedford and lubricated useful local officials with suitable presents. The Clerk of the Assizes received 12 bottles of "Best Port" and the bailiff one bottle of port, while the Under Sheriff's clerks each received three tumblers and three wine glasses. The electors were treated to beer and cider and the ten shillings recorded for "windows broke" hints at a degree of over-enthusiasm in the proceedings. These entries in the account book of John Rawlings, a coach proprietor and wine merchant of Bedford, [Ref: X37/1] illustrates how alcoholic drink impinges on the general economic, social and political history of the county.

The earliest references to public houses often occur in property records such as rentals and title deeds. A Newnham Priory rental of 1506-7 records nine Bedford inns including The Bell, The Christopher, The Lock, The Cresset, The Crown, The Falcon, The George, The Hart and The Swan. [Ref: BHRS. Vol.25]. There are numerous references to alehouses, inns, brewers and licensed premises in our large holdings of title deeds, particularly the brewery collections such as Greene King [Ref: GK Search Our Catalogues] and Charles Wells [Ref: WL ], such as to warrant a parish index of inns and public houses. Records relating to individuals in the drink trade generally do not go back so far, but wills are a useful source. Michael Knight, alias Brocker, of Luton, "beerbrewer" left a will in 1604 [Ref: ABP/W1604/20] while in 1692 Mary Eames of Houghton Regis described herself as an "ale drawer"; perhaps the first documentary reference to a Bedfordshire barmaid? [Ref: ABP/W1692/40]. Unfortunately inventories only survive for about one per-cent of Bedfordshire wills which leaves an enormous gap in the sources as to how early breweries and public houses were equipped. In 1816 Richard Proctor, the proprietor of an unidentified inn on Watling Street at Markyate left:

Three painted liquor casks with brass cocks,

two draught beer machine[s] with lead pipes,

pewter liquor measures, slate score board...

The equipment does not sound unfamiliar to the modern drinker. Other refinements included a sundry book, a meat safe and a "japanned tea tray". [Ref: ABP4/224].

Some nineteenth century brewing records survive and the archives of Higgins Brewery in Horne Lane, Bedford are a good example (Ref: X 369 catalogue). A brewer's stock book for the years 1836-48 [Ref: X369/1] shows the scale and variety of operations in a small early Victorian brewery. At Christmas 1844 the stock of the brewery was valued at _5,275 6s 2d, a large sum for the period, and an indication of how heavily capitalised brewing was compared to many contemporary industries. In store were 600 quarters of barley (15 imperial tons), 409 empty barrels and the following full barrels in descending order of value and probably of alcoholic strength; 21 of XXX ale, 78 of XX ale, 121 of X ale, and 32 of Old Porter. Unfortunately no Australians were around to tell us what the X means. Those who fancy a little home brewing may wish to consult How to Brew, written by David State during the 1840s, who worked for part of his career as a brewer for Whitbreads [Ref: X369/28a]. To complete the tale the 1875 sale catalogue for the Horne Lane Brewery "for many years successfully conducted by J.A. Piggott" gives a detailed list of the brewery plant and the small chain of 35 licensed premises scattered throughout Bedfordshire [Ref: WL73].

If wine is more your tipple than beer the Record Office can still serve you with the surviving records of wine merchants. John Rawlings, referred to earlier, has left a series of account books for the years 1798-1831 concerning his coaching and wine merchant businesses [Ref: X37/20-21, 25-26]. The sales illuminate the wider social history of the period. For instance the four annual purchases of Tent, a deep red low alcohol Spanish wine customarily used as a sacramental wine, by the Churchwardens of Cardington, illustrate the then general practise of the Church of England in holding four communion services a year, usually at Christmas, Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas. Another customer, Admiral Eyles purchased in 1817 a dozen Old Port for 2 14s. and a dozen port at 2 7s. He also slipped in an order for one dozen of soda water, perhaps to cope with the hangovers. [Ref: X37/21].

The production and retailing of drink is only half the story. There are records which tell us what people bought and drank at home or in public. The rich and influential tend to leave the most detailed accounts of their drinking habits. An account book kept by Anthony Grey, 11th Earl of Kent, records the expenditure of the Restoration "man about town" in 1670, including 6d for "half pint of sack" (a white wine imported from Spain and the Canary Islands) and a shilling for "red streak cider". They were expensive drinks when the hire of two horses for the day cost five shillings [Ref: L31/121 Search Our Catalogues]. Over 200 years later tastes had changed. At the election victory dinner held by the Conservatives and Unionists in the Corn Exchange, Bedford in January 1896 the food was eased down with famous clarets including St. Julien, St. Emilion, Margaux (1884) and Chateau Lafitte (1887). Also available was Liebfraumilch and Madeira, described as "very old". The menu included Mock Turtle soup, cod with oyster sauce, ribs of beef and plum puddings [Ref: PM3009].

The drinking habits of the working population are harder to discover from archival sources, unless they ended up in the workhouse where records were created to monitor the supply and consumption of provisions. In Christmas week 1902, the inmates of the Bedford Workhouse consumed 229 pints of ale and 24 ounces of brandy, the latter presumably for medicinal reasons [Ref: PUBF10/4]. Victorian newspapers record numerous cases of drunkenness which came before the magistrates. The Bedfordshire Mercury of 9 March 1863 reported the case of a father and son, John and Charles Kinder, being arrested together at 1 a.m. for being drunk and riotous in Adelaide Terrace, Luton. Both men were fined 12 shillings, about a weeks wages for an agricultural labourer, and faced ten days imprisonment if they defaulted. Fear of the evils of drink led to a powerful Temperance movement in the nineteenth century.

Partly as a result of the Temperance movement the licensed trade was subject to increasing regulation during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The main regulatory body was the County Licensing Committee whose members were selected from local magistrates. The records begin with the Alehouse Recognizances, 1828 [Ref: CLP 12] and a register of Alehouse Recognizances 1822-29 which is arranged by hundred (an old sub-division of the county) identifying individual inns and licensees [Ref: CLP 13]. The Petty Sessions minute books, commencing c.1830, [Ref.PS] record similar information and the dates when public houses changed hands.

Later the committee also administered closure schemes in areas where it was felt there were too many pubs. The resulting series of minutes, agenda papers, reports and letterbooks give an immense amount of information about the licensed trade in Bedfordshire, sources probably unmatched by any other retail trade. For instance, in 1919 a report to the committee, recommending the closure of the Rose and Crown at Kensworth, included a description of the premises including its outside toilet. Weekly beer sales were 1 barrels (about 432 pints). It was noted that Kensworth, with a census population of 528 in 1911, had four pubs! [Ref: CLP17].

Other sources available include photographs and plans. Our extensive holdings of photographs range from the Olney Arms in St. Johns Street, Bedford demolished in 1971 [Ref: Z 50/9/547], to beer bottle tops and labels of Flowers Light Ale brewed in Luton [Ref: Z196/163-164]. The wine bottle labels on the table at the W.H. Allen engineers dinner held on 22 October 1910 can be read with a magnifying glass! [Ref: AQ uncat. 83/2].

Plans of public houses can be found in local authority records. Bedford Borough building plans (commencing 1864) and those for Dunstable Borough (c.1880) and the various Urban and Rural District Councils (c.1900) are also available. However many plans relate to relatively minor alterations such as an extension to the Black Horse pub, Cauldwell Street, Bedford, in 1867. More plans should become available in the future as planning records from local authorities are received by the Records Management Centre and processed for the archives.

Hopefully this article has shown the link between the archival sources for the history of the production, regulation and consumption of alcoholic drinks and of the wider economic and social history of Bedfordshire. Whatever your tipple Beds & Luton Archives has something for you in its extensive holdings.