Tommy and Tipple
This continues our series on beer in the British Mandate of Palestine. It began with this post, a correspondent’s tour of Palestine Brewery Ltd. in 1944.
The association of Great Britain and its beer internationally is a vast subject that awaits full-length study. An important sub-set is the relationship of beer to H.M. Forces, especially the British Army.
The bond of Army and beer, at least into the mid-20th century, has been amply documented and is probably unique in the world. Where else but Britain would the government have held an inquiry and issued a Report (in 1903) on the supply of beer to Army canteens?*
This was no mere financial/budgetary exercise, as the study extended to styles of beer (e.g. lager vs. ale and the rest), brands, alcohol content, even cellaring methods for draught beer.
What is the reason for this almost mystical tie of Tommy and tipple? Having studied and written on aspects of this vast field, I think it comes down to Britain and beer in general. The association is age-old, emphasized by the pub tradition, but not limited to it.
Beer was never just, in other words, a momentary diversion at the public house, a subject with its own near-sacral history and complexities. Beer went into crop-laden fields to succour harvest workers. It was carried on H.M. ships until rum was found more stable and convenient.
Beer, notably stout, was used by nursing mothers and as a tonic and reviver in hospitals, civilian or military. Beer was supplied to denizens of prisons in Victorian Britain, and to the poorhouse.
In Colonial America and 19th century Canada work gangs required beer or another alcoholic stimulant to clear land, build barns, and erect homes at “bees”.
British soldiers’ adoration of beer was, in our view, an extension of this broader cultural tradition, even as different rationales were optimistically advanced at the height of its influence. These included supplementing nutrition, aiding digestion, and maintaining health. See for example Sam Goodman’s 2018 paper Unpalatable Truths: Food and Drink as Medicine in Colonial British India.
Another paper by Sam Goodman, Spaces of Intemperance & the British Raj, 1860-1920 (2020) emphasizes the unique, “spatial” effects of shipboard and garrison life, and how that influenced use of beer by Forces personnel.
In the language of the Abstract, the “act of drinking [had] as much to do with social performance as … with personal taste, with space in each instance a governing influence on choice of beverage, intent, behaviour, and the perceived identity of the drinker themselves”.
While persuasive to explain a culture of beer and drinking in the Army, we think the phenomenon had broader springs in the British social pattern. Thus, in Mandate Palestine in the ’20s and ’30s Britain and beer were a twain, as they had been historically, as they were in other parts of the Near East and in the Far East.
Of the 40% of the Palestine market for imported beer in 1935 not represented by Syrian beer (see my Part I), a good amount had to be British beer judging by newspaper advertisements and period accounts of Army life. This will be addressed in some detail in future parts in this series.
After the Palestine Brewery started operations in 1936 the military and administrative demand was supplied locally, in part. British beer nonetheless continued to be available in Palestine as we will show, until WW II impacted the importation.
Note: our series continues with Part III.
*See our earlier post discussing the report.