Untold lives blog

145 posts categorized "Domestic life"

04 February 2016

The illicit history of booze in Britain

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Researching the illicit history of booze in Britain is a tricky business since it’s not often that anyone makes a record of crimes that people got away with. After all, that would be evidence.

So I was overjoyed when I came across a complete manual explaining how to run an inn in the most underhand manner imaginable: The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion.  It must have been a popular work - the British Library holds copies of the sixth, seventh and eighth editions - and it can’t have done much good for the quality of the beer served in the period but did offer some fascinating insights into the seedier side of the trade.

The beer wasn’t actually all that bad. Sure, the author provides methods for “fixing” beer which has gone sour or which has a bad head, including adding raw beef. He also give a recipe for putting together all the little bits of beer leftover at the end of the day and making them drinkable again by using toasted bread, eggshells and sand. However compared to his suggestions for spirit keeping that was practically honest.


Beer fixing 1

Beer fixing 2

Beer fixing 3

The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion   Noc

The worst part (or the best if you are fascinated by the naughtier side of things like I am) is that The Daily Companion actually provides pages and pages of tables and instructions for accurately measuring the strength, volume and quality of spirits received. It’s exactly the information you would need to ensure you were serving your customers with the very best unadulterated spirits from around the world. But of course that wasn’t why they were provided: they were just to stop any distiller or importer from tricking an inn keeper into taking watered down spirits. The author thought this very important because taking spirits which were already watered down would stop the innkeepers watering them down to maximise their own profits.

Publicans' ready reckoner

The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion   Noc


Then there are the spirit recipes. Some are actually quite good, and a bartender making their own fruit liqueurs today would get nothing but respect for the effort, but others are an obvious cheat to keep down costs. There’s a recipe for making “Nassau Brandy” from grain spirit which is an obvious swindle but at least nothing dangerous.

Nassau brandy recipe

The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion   Noc

The gin is dangerous. Gin is properly made in a still by redistilling a spirit with botanicals and today we have very strict labelling laws which require gin to be made this way. But The Daily Companion insists that no one really bothers with that. You don’t need a still to make gin, all you need to make gin is a barrel and a pestle and mortar. No need even to bother with real juniper, it can be easily replaced with a few ounces of highly toxic turpentine.

  Gin recipe

The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion   Noc


A recipe that bad could only be a descendent of the illegal gin made from necessity fifty years earlier, and so it offers a unique insight into the tastes, the smells and the dangers of the Gin Craze.

Ruth Ball
Head Alchemist, Alchemist Dreams

Further reading:

The illicit history of booze in Britain

11 January 2016

Plough Monday

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Today is Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Day.  Traditionally this was the day when agricultural workers resumed their duties in the fields after the Christmas break.  In some parts of Britain the day was marked by a procession through the village.  A plough attached to long ropes was drawn by 30 or 40 men in clean white shirts with brightly coloured ribbons tied to their arms, shoulders, and hats.  The men were usually accompanied by an old woman, or a young boy dressed as one, known as the 'Bessy'.  Musicians and sometimes Morris Men  joined the celebrations, with a fool collecting money from spectators to spend on a convivial night in the local alehouse.

Plough Monday

 William Hone, The Every-day Book (1826) Noc


If a ploughman returning from work on Plough Monday came with his whip to the farm's kitchen hatch and shouted 'Cock in pot' before the maid could cry 'Cock on the dunghill', he won a cock to eat on Shrove Tuesday.

Celebrations could spill into towns.  On 17 January 1846, the Cambridge Chronicle and Journal reported: 'The annual invasion of Cambridge by the hard-handed sons of toil from the neighbouring villages took place last Monday, and our streets echoed from morn till night the strains of some vile fiddle, the jingling of bells, and the oft-repeated cry of "please remember the poor plough-boy"'.

In 1849, 115 unemployed filesmiths wearing costumes and accompanied by a band borrowed a plough and paraded through Sheffield.  They hoped to raise a few shillings to supplement the financial support being given to them by the file trade: 'We are the men who have not been burdensome to the parish, and have saved the ratepayers more than £10,000. God speed the plough. Remember the poor filesmiths'.  After paying for refreshments, each man took home about 1s 8½d, 'a small pittance, after so hard a day's exertion'.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1826)
British Newspaper Archive - for example, Cambridge Chronicle and Journal  17 January 1846; Sheffield Independent 13 January 1849

Twelfth Day



31 December 2015

Wassailing on New Year’s Eve

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Would you like to go wassailing to celebrate the New Year?  Maybe?  If you knew how? Read on!

It was a British custom on New Year’s Eve to fill a large bowl with wassail, a warm spiced ale concoction. The wassail bowl decorated with holly and ivy was carried from door to door by the young women of the village.  The women offered a drink to the master and mistress of each house, singing doggerel rhymes which wished health and prosperity.  They hoped to receive a small present or gratuity in return. 


Image from the Illustrated London News 22 December 1860 p.579


Sometimes the lord or squire assembled his tenants on New Year’s Eve. The wassail bowl was passed from lip to lip, and those who had quarrelled during the year made up their differences.

Wassailing 2

From  John Mills, Christmas in the olden time or The Wassail Bowl (London, 1846) Noc


There are many songs connected with wassailing.  Here is one from Gloucestershire that was noted down in the 1840s:

Wassail, wassail, all over the town,
Out toast is white, our ale it is brown,
Our bowl it is made of a maplin tree,
We be good fellows, I drink unto thee.

Here’s to Dobbin and to his right ear,
God send our master a happy new year;
A happy new year as e’er I did see,
With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee.

Be here any maids – I suppose there be some,
So they will not let young men stand on the cold stone,
Sing hey maids, come trole back the pin,
And the first maid in the house let us all in.

Come butler, come bring us a bowl of the best,
I hope your old soul in Heaven will rest:
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small,
Then down fall butler, bowl and all.


Young men and women also exchanged clothes on New Year’s Eve, a practice known as ‘mumming’ or ‘disguising’. Dressed in each other’s garments, they went between neighbours’ houses, singing and dancing.

Enjoy your New Year celebrations, whether or not they involve wassailing and mumming!  I hope that you ‘end the old year merrily, and begin the new one well’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1826)
British Newspaper Archive Kentish Gazette 26 December 1843


28 December 2015

‘Four Cheeses in Lead and a Harpsechord’

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What essential items did a Christian missionary need to undertake his duties in India in the 1760s?

On 17 November 1762 Thomas Broughton, Secretary to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, wrote to the Court of Directors of the East India Company to ask that a number of goods required by their Protestant missionaries on the Coromandel Coast be taken out to India by a Company ship.

The list of goods was primarily focused on writing and reading materials –religious books and tracts, reams of paper, sealing wax, ink powder, parchment and 500 quills. Materials and supplies for their printing press were also in demand including tools for its repair and two pairs of iron chases.

Other supplies being sent included soap, penknives, a barometer and thermometer, foreign silver to be used locally as currency, and a harpsichord.



Image taken from Edward Eggleston, A history of the United States and its people, for the use of Schools (1888) BL flickr   Noc

The food supplies were an unusual assortment; along with prunes and pearl barley were four cheeses in lead, lead being the preferred container method for shipping perishable goods at that time, four chests of beer and a case of red port.  The most surprising items being shipped however were indigo and cinnabar, bright pigment dyes which the East India Company obtained from their factories in India and South Asia, but which the Society chose to send to its missionaries from England rather than obtaining it locally on the Coromandel Coast.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records Cc-by

Further Reading
IOR/E/1/44, ff. 634-635

24 December 2015

Christmas 1857 in Calcutta

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In December 1857, the British in India were still trying to suppress the military and civil rebellion which had broken out earlier that year in the north of the sub-continent.  The edition of The Bengal Hurkaru published on Christmas Eve 1857 gives an interesting insight into life in Calcutta at that time. 

  Bengal Hurkaru
MSS Eur C124/34 The Bengal Hurkaru and the Indian Gazette 24 December 1857 Noc

A first glance at the front page suggests that there was nothing worrying the British in Bengal.   There are adverts for shipping firms offering voyages to London and Australia; a notice for the annual general meeting of the Asiatic Society of Bengal; an announcement that a consignment of Stilton cheese had just arrived.  Bengal almanacs and souvenir diaries for 1858 were on sale, and the British Library Calcutta could provide ‘Illustrated Present Books’ including the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Purveyors D. Wilson and Co at ‘The Hall of All Nations’ had plentiful stocks of Christmas fare: turkey; ham; beef; and a wide variety of cakes, sweets and biscuits.

However Wilson’s advert had this statement tucked amongst the lists of treats on offer:
‘It is our hearty hope, that we may with our numerous Friends, join to celebrate a MERRY CHRISTMAS notwithstanding the heavy misfortunes that have befallen the Indian Empire since we last met to discuss the right good cheer which had been provided for all India AND its Inhabitants, in that Monster Establishment, “THE HALL OF ALL NATIONS”. Having however good reason to suppose that the British rule in India, is about being established in a firmer manner than ever it was before, we expect, not unreasonably, that our Friends will need the choicest and rarest Articles procurable, to enable them to usher in with great glee, A HAPPY NEW YEAR’.

The inner pages of the newspaper do carry detailed reports of military operations, including the relief of Lucknow, with lists of casualties and returns of guns and ammunition seized from rebels.  Several military promotions are announced to fill the places of those killed recently.  But these items are sandwiched between news of everyday life in Calcutta – the early closure of grog shops;  the routine comings and goings of East India Company personnel; commercial and shipping intelligence; and performances by Signora Ventura,  the Calcutta Town Band, and minstrels from New Orleans , as well as by ‘an actor of acknowledged Gymnastic abilities from France’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Read about Christmas in Calcutta in 1938

22 December 2015

Christmas Stock-Taking

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Today we share a poem about a Victorian father's Christmas reflections on his children, both dead and alive.

I pass to my populous nursery,
I look round my circled hearth,
On this marvellous anniversary,
This time of the Wondrous Birth.


Christmas stocktaking

The first I see is Charlie,
An urchin just fourteen;
I know he smokes in private,
And never washes clean.

And there was a second Charlie,
Who might have shared his sins,
But died without a name on earth
(N.B. – We started with twins).

Arthur, the lazy rascal,
Though sharp as any nail,
Brought face to face with a school-book
Collapses like a snail.

Johnny, how well I remember
His handsome boyish face!
All I can see is the little cross
That marks his resting-place.

Then Bob, a ten-year spalpeen,*
Is dirty as a grub,
And such a veritable imp,
We call him Beelzebub.

Polly, my eldest daughter,
Has eyes as black as sloes;
But where in nature did she get
That impudent pug-nose?

Dora, the next “young lady”,
 Is very prim and staid;
And weeps, though only six years old,
If we call her an old maid.

Freddy, four years, the “baby”,
Was getting rather a lout,
Till, a year ago, came Amy,
And his nose was clean put out.

Amy, asleep beside me,
Pouting, as if to be kissed,
Is the veriest darling among them,
And closes – at present – my list.


The poem and the accompanying illustration come from one of my favourite books in the British Library collections - Love Lyrics and Valentine Verses for young and old by E M Davies.  Fans of Victorian verse will be thrilled to learn that the book has been digitised to share its delights.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records


14 December 2015

Fear of a premature burial

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The will of Sir George Buggin (1759-1825), son of the East India Company shipbroker Barrington Buggin, contains an unusual request to his executors.  Sir George requested that after he had died and prior to his burial that a surgeon might be appointed to make incisions into the arteries on his arms and legs.

  Buggin will

The National Archives PROB 11/1697/410


This request may seem unusual to us, but it was not uncommon in the 18th and 19th centuries, prompted by a fear of ‘premature burial’. The fear was that an individual would be incorrectly declared dead, perhaps owing to their being in an unconscious state, and then be buried alive without anyone checking to confirm their actual death.


  Poe Premature Burial 077999
Deep, deep, and for ever, into some ordinary and nameless grave. From' The Premature Burial' in Edgar Allan Poe Tales of Mystery and Imagination  (London, 1919) illustration by Harry Clarke. Shelfmark 12703.i.43, opposite p. 342 - Images Online


People concerned about the possibility of being prematurely buried would write a clause into their will requesting that a procedure be undertaken to check that they were actually dead before burial could go ahead. The most common procedures requested were an injection of poison or an incision of some kind, often performed by a surgeon.

The author Hans Christian Anderson, who died in 1875, made such a request in his will. Anderson had been in the habit of keeping a note by his bedside which said ‘am merely in a state of suspended animation’, but he had also instructed in his will that his veins be opened before burial should he be declared dead.

Karen Stapley
Curator, India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
Will of Sir George Buggin of Saint Marylebone, Middlesex, held at The National Archives PROB 11/1697/410
Norman L Canter, After We Die: The Life and Times of a Human Cadaver (Georgetown, 2010)


05 November 2015

Smugging a Guy

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Guy Fawkes Day is traditionally celebrated in the UK on 5 November to mark the failure of the Gunpowder Plot against King James and his Parliament in 1605.  It was officially a public holiday of thanksgiving from 1606 until 1859. Effigies of conspirator Guy Fawkes are burnt on bonfires and fireworks are launched into the night sky.

Gangs of boys in 19th century London would prepare long in advance for the festivities.  Fuel for bonfires was acquired stealthily: raids were made on poorly nailed fences, deserted buildings with wooden floorboards, loose doors.  These ‘burnables’ were secreted where other collectors would not find them.  Next a Guy had to be assembled – a straw man clothed in an old coat, breeches and stockings.  A wooden head could be made from a barber’s block with a face drawn on with chalk and charcoal, topped by a stiff paper cap painted and knotted with paper ribbon strips. A lantern was placed in one hand and a spread bunch of matches in the other.  The Guy was then tied to a chair and carried through the streets, its owners running up to passers-by with a hat for coins exclaiming ‘Pray remember Guy!’ or ‘Penny for the Guy!’. 

  Guy Fawkes
The Fifth of November from William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825), column 1431-1432 Noc


If two Guys met in the street, a scuffle often broke out as each group tried to capture their rival’s effigy.  A gang who hadn’t made a Guy might acquire one by attacking a weaker group, a mission known as ‘going to smug a Guy’.

Humans could also fall victim to smugging  for a Guy as London cobbler William Smith discovered to his cost in November 1852. Smith was ‘on the drink’ celebrating his birthday with several other cobblers.  After visiting at least 20 different pubs, he and his friends ended up at a house near Seven Dials.  There they met four Irishmen: James Byrne, Patrick Hay, Joseph Cullen, and Robert Hogan.  Smith treated the Irishmen to four or more pots of ‘heavy’.  When they complained that the beer lay cold on their stomachs and asked to be bought gin, Smith refused.  The cobblers adjourned to a nearby beer shop and continued drinking.  The Irishmen followed. Cullen told Smith that they would smug him for a Guy for not buying them gin.  Smith thought he was joking and took no notice.  However as he left to go home, the four men pounced on him.  They tied his hands behind his back and placed him in a truck.  They then blacked his face, knocked his hat over his eyes, pinned some firecrackers to his coat, and dragged him into More Street.  There a crowd of more than 100 people watched as they set fire to the crackers to Smith’s great alarm.  After that, Smith was wheeled to a mud heap and pitched into the middle.  The Irishmen were caught by the police as they ran away.  They were tried for assault and fined 20s each or, in default, to seven days’ imprisonment.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper ArchiveBell’s New Weekly Messenger 7 November 1852