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Dr Mark Hailwood's book Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England is now published in paperback.

People power stopped early attempts to ruin fun of the pub

Interfering politicians once tried to restrict drinkers to spending just an hour in the pub and to close locals at just 9pm, new research shows.

People power in the Stuart era defeated their attempts to introduce these killjoy restrictions, according to a new book.

As people prepare to celebrate the Christmas period in hostelries, a new book on the history of the pub shows revellers defied attempts to stop them drinking by attacking and swearing at officials and locking them out of alehouses. In many areas this led to the rules not being enacted.

The first alehouses were given licenses in 1552. But James I, keen to show solidarity with Puritans in England, tried to introduce the bizarre restrictions. These laws were introduced by the Privy Council in the years after James I took power after 1603. Rich landowners, acting as local magistrates, were meant to implement them but in many parts of the country this never happened.

Those charged with enforcement, volunteer constables, were unwilling to tell their friends and relations they couldn’t enjoy their free time in their local hostelry. In many cases they experienced abuse and couldn’t enforce the law, and they often made no attempt to do so.

University of Exeter historian Mark Hailwood, whose book Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England is now published in paperback, said: “People power won, and in the end the authorities accepted that pubs were very hard to regulate, and realised that pubs weren’t as threatening as they feared anyway. Instead they turned their attentions to other public spaces.”

Dr Hailwood has used court records to piece together what life was like in pubs 500 years ago. He examined documents in Somerset, Wiltshire, Essex, Cheshire, Nottingham and Reading to find evidence of alehouses mentioned when people were punished for misdemeanours.

Dr Hailwood has uncovered evidence of magistrates being sworn at when they went to pubs at 9pm to close them. In Kent a magistrate was locked out of a pub when he went to try and close it, and on Exmoor one was physically attacked. This hostility was especially seen in rural areas with mining communities such as the Forest of Dean and the Mendips in Somerset and Kingswood in Gloucestershire. Magistrates in urban areas were keener to implement the laws. The Mayor of Nottingham had to swear to combat unruly drinkers as part of his oath of office.

Using court records has allowed Dr Hailwood to find unique stories about individuals which have been buried in the archives for centuries. This includes the story of Yorkshire yeoman farmer Adam Eyre, who in Christmas 1647 decided he didn’t want to spend any more money in alehouses. This only lasted until Boxing Day, when he was persuaded to take a restorative drink after a fall. This turned into an epic pub crawl covering 28 miles and as many as 18 pints of ale.

These tales show the war against alehouses wasn’t just a case of class war, as Mr Eyre was of the “middling sort”. He was one of the many people across all classes and genders that came to cherish the new, central role of the pub in English life.

These same laws stayed in place for decades, and were severe enough for the serious Puritans, who banned much public entertainment. Instead the Puritans tried again to make sure the laws were actually enforced, but they were pragmatic enough to know that pubs could be useful, and set up common town breweries, for example in Salisbury, which allowed local authorities to keep the profits from drinking and cut of the supply of alcohol when they needed to. Charles II, when resorted to the throne, was not particularly interested in enforcing them.

Dr Hailwood said: “After the Civil War Charles II became anxious about the new coffee houses, which were arenas of political debate, and attention turned to trying to ban them instead. In the 18th century it was gin drinking that the authorities spent their efforts trying to stamp out.”

Many early alehouses were run by widows or injured soldiers, as licenses were only given to people who didn’t have the opportunity to work in other ways. For this reason they were often set up in people’s homes, and found in small villages and market towns. It was a tough job for the landladies, who were expected to police bad behaviour and who often were victims of violence and even sexual assault and rape. But it was one of the only well-paid jobs a lower class woman could do.
Women were regular alehouse visitors, and the segregation and “men only” bars only came into force when England became industrialised. Women often drank in alehouses with their husbands, and young women frequented them as part of mixed-gender groups of friends.

Dr Hailwood said: “Of course inns had been around for longer, because they were connected to the travel network, but these were more like hotels than local pubs. Then, after the Reformation, there was a need for something in the community to replace the many church festivals which had been abolished. The new religious regime didn't want so much drinking and merriment taking place on religious holy days, or in and around the churchyard where such festivities had formerly been held, and the alehouse emerged to fill this gap.

“In these early pubs there were often fights and arguments, especially when it came to paying the bar bill, resulting in the offenders being punished by the authorities. In the early modern period who you drank with was a symbolic gesture, and people often also fell out over being excluded from a drinking company. But it would be wrong to think these were always rough places, or that people drank in big, rowdy groups. If you went to an alehouse it was often to meet with two or three people for an evening of quiet socialising. They were family or colleagues.”


Date: 30 December 2016

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