Georgian pub drinkers

The Ale Houses of Nonington

Now bring us in good ale, good ale,  and bring us in good ale .
For our blessed Lady’s sake,  bring us in good ale.
— 15th century carol.

Hops and heresy, bays and beer. All came to England in one year.
— old rhyme

The earliest of Nonington’s four known ale-houses was ” The White Horse” (now Church House) next to St. Mary’s Church which dated back to at least the turn of the 17th century. Later came “The Redd Lyon” which opened at Frogham in 1725, “The Walnut Tree” and “The Royal Oak” , both in Holt Street and both licensed in September 1832, a few months after the seemingly abrupt closure of  ” The White Horse” . “The Oak” is now the only one of the old alehouses still open.

Before the Reformation brewing was often carried out by religious orders and monasteries were frequently the largest brewers in the area and many inns and alehouse evolved from Church properties that had provided shelter and accommodation for travelers.

In early medieval England a pole above the door, garlanded with foliage, signified an alehouse. The naming of inns and alehouse was common by the 12th century and pub signs developed to identify the name of the establishment as most of the population were illiterate. King Richard II passed an Act in 1393, making it compulsory for alehouses and inns to have a sign  to identify them to the official Ale Taster.
From 1522 the licencing of alehouses became mandatory by law and alehouse proprietors had to apply for a licence from the Quarter or Petty Sessions. At the Petty Sessions on April 15th, 1599, Edward Willsfred of Nonington, victualler, was bound over for £5 not to victual, with sureties from Thomas Cocks of Christ Church, Canterbury, gentleman and William Willsfred of Sandwich, surgeon. As he was recorded as being a victualler he must have originally had a licence and not renewed it at the licencing sessions, usually held in September, or he had taken over an ale-house without having the licence transferred. Unfortunately there is no mention of where his premises were, but this is the earliest record of licenced premises in the old parish of Nonington.

Brewing was traditionally women’s work. Beer and ale was brewed by women to provide for domestic needs. In a great house the lady of the house and the stillroom maid took responsibility for providing beer and ale for the household. This was usually brewed once a month for the household’s use with the costs in the 1570′s coming to about 20 shillings for 3 hogsheads yield, a hogshead being 252 gallons.
Some women, often widows, brewed to earn money and were known as alewives. Brewing was one of the few ways then open to women of earning a living.

The price and quality of  beer and ale was strictly controlled in the early 17th century, in 1610 the justices of the peace at Midsummer Sessions at Canterbury in 1610 ordered that:- ”Alebrewers” and “beerebrewers” should not sell “their beere” as “their Ale” at any other rate than a “barrell” of “strong beere” for 6s. 8d. (34 pence), yet John Everden of Canterbury, beerbrewer, between 1 Oct. 1609 and 1 Jan. 1609/10 at Westgate sold to John Thorne of Westgate, victualler, “fifteene barrells of strong beere” at the rate of 8s. (40 pence) a barrell’ .

At this time a barrel of beer , a specific measure, contained 36 Gallons and a barrel of ale 32 gallons’ (an Imperial gallon is equivalent to 4.55 litres).


The map below shows the locations of the four ale houses.

View Nonington’s Alehouses in a larger map

Before 1735 a brandy retailers licence could be obtained for an annual fee of 3/6d which allowed the holder to retail brandy and other spirits, mainly gin. In the early 1700’s gin had become cheaper than beer and ale and large quantities was consumed by ‘the lower classes’ which resulted in terrible social and economic problems amongst the poor which were graphically illustrated by Hogarth. To help alleviate these problems but still raise much needed revenue Parliament passed the so called ‘Gin Act’, actually the ‘Spirits and Duties Act, 1735’  whereby a retailer of spirits in quantities of less than two gallons had to pay a licence duty of £50 a year and further duty of 20/- (£1.00) for every gallon sold. After some rioting and civil unrest spirit drinking accordingly declined amongst the  ‘lower classes’, although subsequent Acts of Parliament were needed in the middle and later part of the 18th century to ‘fine tune’ the licencing laws and reduce the consumption of spirits whilst pacifying the distillers. The consumption of beer and ale subsequently rose as the quantity of gin consumed declined.

Brandy retailers listed in Nonington were:
1709 Harris.
1710-1714. Edwin Parker.
1727-1735. William Harris, who had been licencee of the White Horse in 1726.

The Beer Houses Act of 1830.

The Beer Houses Act of 1830 was passed by the Duke of Wellington, then Britain’s prime minister.  The act was introduced with the intention of eliminating, or at least drastically reducing,  the evil influence of gin and other hard spirits in the lives of the working class and to promote the healthier alternative of beer and cider by increasing competition amongst brewers and thereby reducing the price of beer. The number of brewers rapidly increased, by 1841 there were more than 45,500.   The last provisions of the 1830 act were finally abolished by the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1993.

Under the 1830 Act any householder who paid rates could apply to purchase a license to sell beer or cider in his home and also brew his own beer on his premises for a one-off payment of two guineas.  However, the licence did not authorize the sale of spirits and fortified wines and the beer houses were not permitted to open on Sundays.

William Heath provided political commentary on the Iron Duke’s 1830 Beer Houses Act with his cartoon “Blessing of Cheap Cider”. In the cartoon a large rotund artisan with rolled up eyes and agonized face clutches his ample belly as if in pain as he suffers the effects of a night at the beer house  whilst commenting , “I vunder vether the Duke of Vellington hever drinks Cider.” Whilst it’s debatable whether the Beer-houses Act affected the consumption of spirits it did lead to an explosion in the number of beer houses throughout Britain, particularly in urban areas with large populations of working class people.
Four hundred beer houses opened in the first year, and within eight years 46,000 had opened across the country, outnumbering the  long-established taverns, public houses, inns and hotels.

Beer houses often avoided  traditional public house names like The Red Lion or The Royal Oak and sometimes simply took the owners name or topical names such as soldiers or sportsmen. The bar was often the front parlour of a house with the beer usually kept in the cellar to keep it cool and stop it going sour and was bought up in jugs to be poured into wooden mugs or leather “jacks” for the customers to consume as glass was very expensive and usually only found in the better class establishments catering for wealthier customers. The ease in obtaining permission and the considerable profits meant the number of beer houses  kept rising and in some towns nearly every other house in a street was a beer house, so to control this   new licensing laws were introduced in 1869.

Nationally the Wine and Beer Houses Act of 1869 prevented new beer houses from opening but existing beer houses were allowed to continue and many did so until  the end of the 19th century, as in the case of The Walnut Tree in Holt Street.  After the introduction of this Act the sale of beers, wines or spirits required the obtaining of a licence from local magistrates, many beer houses applied for the new licences and became full public houses.  The Walnut Tree in Holt Street appears to not have been fully licensed under the act, and only had a licence for off-sales of beer.
In towns,  these small establishments often seem oddly located in the middle of terraced housing, unlike purpose-built pubs which are usually found on corners or road junctions.
A very small number continued to sell just beer, locally the The Yew Tree at Barfreston and The Two Sawyers at Woolwich Green just sold beer until after the Second World War.

Nonington parish also had some beer shops where house-holders sold small quantities of beer as off-sales to their neighbours from their houses. There were beer sellers in Church Street, Frogham Street and Ratling Street (see Nonington’s Shops for more information)

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