A Multifaceted View of English Drinking Customs
Richard G. White was a notable American journalist, editor, and author in the mid-century. That’s the 19th century, a frequent haunt here. He was Manhattan-born, descended from the proverbial old New England family. He was the father of Stanford White, the infamous architect.
Biographical material abounds on father Richard too, e.g. this Wikipedia entry. We see him below in characteristic Victorian pose, via this link.
White had studied both medicine and law, electing the latter as a profession. After some years of practice he pivoted to professional writing. Among his specialties were Shakespearean scholarship and musical and general literary criticism.
His book England Without and Within published in 1881 chronicled his travels to England in 1876 in the time-honoured fashion of American pilgrimage for that period.
By pilgrimage, I mean, not just a visit to a country obviously influential in American history, but by someone of English ancestry, who felt a special pull to visit, a “filial bond”. The opening lines explain well the yearning:
… I went to England; to visit which had been one of the great unsatisfied longings of my life. I found there even more to interest me than I had looked for, although I saw less of the country and of my many friends within it than I had hoped to see. It was almost inevitable that a man who had written about matters much less near to him than this was to me should tell the tale of such a journey; and hence this book, which, although an honest one, I believe, and written in a candid spirit, is truly a labor of love.
Indeed despite being eight generations a Yankee he states he never felt as much “at home” as in England. He allowed his sentiment permitted him to be “semi-critical”.
His work had been published in London before the journey, so he was a known quantity there, which facilitated the visit. My interest here is mainly the beer, to which White devotes many passages, indeed a full chapter (the 20th) entitled “A National Vice”.
Despite these forthright words he was somewhat measured, indicating, as other sources attest, that unabated drinking was being reigned back. He made clear nonetheless his distaste for what he regarded as excessive consumption. He asserted the labouring classes were especially afflicted, but exempted not others in the English social pattern.
His remarks on drinks pertained to London certainly but also other parts of England including Cambridge, Birmingham, and Stratford. He notes an almost total absence of water-drinking, perhaps due he says to so much of the stuff “being applied by nature to the inhabitants externally”. American humour.
He does note an apparent shortage of potable water for ordinary drinking, however. He says he drank much less water than at home, but much more than the average English person. He observes that even for everyday dining, both mid-day and evening, no one drinks water but rather “heady, strongly narcotic” beer, or wine, although his dining seems to have been limited to restaurants and chez prosperous hosts.
Only once did he see water being taken in a home setting, by a nephew of his host. The host by an aghast demeanor “royally” rebuked the young relation, which seems hard to believe today, but there it is.
White was struck by how women also drank, of all backgrounds, often combining different drinks in one evening. The American pattern is more temperate, he says, with coffee or tea ruling (apart the staple water) although “a little” lager might be seen on some tables. He states however that English ways had applied at an earlier period in American history.
As to American drinking, he deprecates all beer as “coarse”. White states when he left college he had not imbibed more than three pints of beer in his whole life. Whereas in England, he notes for many this is simply a daily tally.
His style of writing is typically Victorian: rather ornate and with a rhythmic pattern in the clauses and sub-clauses. Still, flashes of the American insouciance appear.
Despite his decided anti-booze drift it would be a mistake to think White wrote a temperance tract. He actually exhibits, rather too much I think for one chary of drink, a liking for English beer. At Trinity College he was much taken with its ale, then brewed at the college, and expressed appreciation to his host.
So enthusiastic was White for this ale, the host bade him drink a special version, the “audit ale”. The Dean of beer writers today, the Briton Roger Protz, described well this historic beer type in a blogpost some years ago. He also discusses modern expressions of the style, which adds further interest.
Protz actually referred to Richard Grant White, not by name, but by noting a 19th century writer compared audit ale to Chateau d’Yquem, the famous French Sauternes. It was White who had made the comparison, stating:
… such a product of malt and hops had never passed my lips before. It was as mighty as that which Cedric found at Torquilstone, as clear as crystal, and had a mingled richness and delicacy of flavor as superior to that of the best brewage I had ever before tasted as that of Chateau Yquem is to ordinary Sauterne.
He goes on for yet another page, savouring concurrently the “aroma of scholarship” arising from quadrangles and elegant book-lined chambers. He even takes home a bottle with him.* He adds, turning more forthrightly away from stock dismissals of drink, that if one is what one drinks, the English have done fairly well given, say Macaulay issued from Trinity.**
For the black beer called porter, another English specialty (more particularly of London) he states:
I was surprised not only at the quantity that I could drink at any time and at all times with impunity, and with apparently good effect, but at the eagerness with which my whole body seemed to imbibe it. I shall never forget a certain place — it was in Fleet Street, I believe… It is well known for the quality of its tap, and a friend took me to it one day… We had just had a hearty breakfast; but as I turned up my glass of this black fluid I seemed to absorb a good part of it on its passage down my throat. It was of delicious flavor, cool without being cold, and of an inexpressible lightness, notwithstanding its thick, heavy look… In “America” I should as soon think of drinking pure alcohol directly after breakfast as a glass of porter.
These material and consequent physiological conditions should always be considered in judging English habits of drinking.
Yes they should Mr. White, setting aside the ambiguity of your last sentence. Indeed one could be forgiven for thinking your frank appreciation of English ale and porter rather diluted your anti-drink prelude.
All a question of the just mean, you say? Well, I could hardly disagree, in that case.
Note re image: Image above was sourced from the link identified and stated in text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research and purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*Sadly, it didn’t evoke the magic of the College tasting. Just as occurs today, a drink that seemed special on travels failed to impress on home turf. White thought the return trip and interval until re-tasting was the reason but allowed too that absent the original context the experience was lesser.
**Thomas Babington Macaulay.