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Habiter la ville

Maurice Garden
Yves Lequin

III. Pratiques de la ville

The alehouse and social integration in English towns (1500-1700)

Peter Clark

Texte intégral

  • 1 P.C.W. GUTKIND, «African Urbanism, Mobility and the Social Network» in R. Piddington, editor, Kins (...)

1In recent years social anthropologists have emphasised the importance of popular drinking houses in the modernising cities of the developing world, serving as a vital social nexus for immigrants and poorer or marginal classes. The beer bar in the present East African town has been described as «a central point of contact» for newcomers; «for men it is a place to find a woman; for the down and out it is a way to pick up a drink and some money.» Its equivalent, the winkel, in the capital city of Surinam, «is a neighbourhood way station for lower-class men», «a point in space where they can congregate and interact.»1

  • 2 For the detailed documentation for this paper see Peter CLARK, The English Alehouse: A Social Hist (...)
  • 3 J. PATTEN, English Towns 1500-1700 (Folkestone, 1978), chapter 3; P. CLARK and P. SLACK, English T (...)

2Popular drinking houses played an equally vital role in the urban communities of early modem Europe, performing a wide range of economic and social functions, in addition to selling alcohol.2 In England in the 16th and early 17th centuries there was a particularly high incidence of alehouses in the cities. Ale-sellers had of course existed in medieval towns, but they quite often operated only on a sporadic basis, selling drink out of doors, not inside their houses. From the fifteenth century, however, we see the appearance of fully-fledged alehouses, and their numbers rose markedly after 1500, serving the menu peuple (the largerinns or taverns catered mainly for the urban well-to-do). At Shrewsbury (on the border with Wales) there were about 45 ale-sellers in 1500, an average of 70 a year in the 1560s, and 220 in the 1620s; by then there was one alehouse for every 29 inhabitants. At the cathedral city of Canterbury the number of licensed alehouses doubled between 1577 and 1596 and there was also a proliferation of unlicensed premises. The upsurge of alehouse numbers coincided closely with the rising pace of urbanisation in the 16th and early 17th centuries. If London’s demographic expansion was most spectacular, rising eight-fold to nearly 500.000 (1650), most English towns grew in size by between 50 and 100 per cent. Much of the increase derived from immigration, with migrants often travelling long distances to town. At Canterbury 1580-1640 over 70 per cent of the city’s male inhabitants were newcomers, 29 per cent having journeyed over 40 miles, substantial numbers from the North and West. The picture was broadly similar elsewhere. With town economies unable to absorb the demographic upturn, poverty was rampant. At Shrewsbury in the 1620s 20 per cent of the population needed relief. In other towns like Warwick and Salisbury up to a third of the inhabitants were listed as destitute.3

3The alehouses which multiplied 1500-1650 were often small, squalid establishments. At Canterbury 1560-1640 60 per cent of the alehouses listed in probate inventories had 5 rooms or less. And this inevitably under-represents the proportion of small houses since the inventory evidence is biased towards wealthier inhabitants. In 1605 Chester magistrates complained of «families living in cellars and private chambers selling ale and beer there». Few of these poor alehouses had storage facilities, and private living quarters overlapped with public drinking space. Customers who visited Ann Brian’s establishment at Oxford during the 1630s sat drinking in a low room behind her shop: Ann herself sat behind a curtain rocking the baby’s cradle when she was not serving liquor. In many cases the main drinking room was the kitchen with its large fire. It was often said that alehouses clustered on the urban periphery, in the suburbs, with their large numbers of poor immigrants. But alehouses were not confined to such areas. They were also found in the market areas of towns and in the back alleys behind the main streets. At Nottingham in 1575 there was a complaint against the «great many alehouses in the back-lanes».

4Many of the alehouses were run by poorer people in order to supplement their income. In the 1630s alehousekeepers at Chester were referred to as «the poorer sort which are not able to subsist nor to maintain their families, except by ale-selling». Many urban alehousekeepers retailed drink as a secondary employment and we can analyse the pattern of their principal trades to establish their economic standing. In the Kent market towns 1590-1619 36 per cent of the male alehousekeepers were labourers or husbandmen (smallholders). At Norwich 1587-96 nearly a quarter belonged to the poorer textile trades. Routhly 10 per cent of alehousekeepers were women, most of them impoverished widows. Quite often alesellers were fairly recent migrants to the community.

5The social role of the alehouse in the 16th and early 17th centuries was two-fold. Firstly, it provided a crucial access point for newcomers to the urban community; secondly, it was an important neighbourhood centre for the local poor. Whereas migrants who travelled short distances were commonly able to rely on the hospitality of relatives or friends, many of those people who flocked to English towns before 1650 had moved considerable distances and knew no-one in their new community. They went to the alehouse for a drink, a meal and a place to sleep. The drink was mostly beer, made with hops and more potent than the medieval spiced ale. The food was simple, typically «spiced cakes and buns». The accommodation was also basic. Guests slept on the alehouse floor or table, or occasionally in the same bed as the landlord and his wife. Newcomers might stay there until they had found a house or room to rent in town. In 1600 the Norwich magistrates ordered the arrest of those immigrants who «make stay in alehouses... until they may have opportunity to be inmates» or residents. At Chatham during the 1590s a local victualler lodged half a dozen schipwrights who had come there to build ships for the war with Spain.

6Those immigrants without a job sometimes found temporary work in the alehouse as a pot-boy, or serving wench. Some turned to victualling itself. During the 1620s Chester corporation denounced the «divers mere strangers and foreigners» selling ale in the city. On other occasions the poor incomer learnt of employment from fellow customers. He might also forge ties at the alehouse with other migrants from the same part of the country or with men working in the same trade. For many single labourers away from home the alehouse served as a place to pick up a prostitute or local girl. In the 1620s officials denounced «the many immodest lascivious and shameless women» in Bloomsbury, Wapping and other London suburbs who are entertained by landlords and «sit at the doors of such houses exposing and offering themselves to passers by». Not infrequently the landlady, her daughter or the maid doubled as the whore.

7Alehousekeepers furnished drink and food on credit; they are also found lending immigrants small sums of money on the security of clothes or tools. When his credit ran out the urban migrant tended to drift into petty crime. Robberies were quite often organized at alehouses and stolen property «fenced» there, with the landlord acting as receiver. One Canterbury immigrant claimed that the alehousekeeper where he stayed «knowing him to want money told him that if he would go abroad and find out anything that was worth money and bring the same unto him he would give him money.»

8What about the alehouse’s role as a neighbourhood centre for the local poor? Traditionally the parish church and local craft guilds had provided the main foci of communal activity in English towns. But after the Reformation they were progressively monopolised by the urban elite. The alehouse offered an alternative economic and social forum for artisans and labourers. Here in its neutral space they could take refuge from the cramped chill misery at home. Here they could drink and gossip with other men from the neighbourhood (the clientele was predominantly masculine), and wile away the empty hours created by unemployment or underemployment. Here, when times were really harsh and life almost unbearable, the landlord’s beer was an indispensable anaesthetic, enabling the poor man to slip into drunken oblivion.

9The alehouse helped the urban lower classes in other ways too. A number functioned as corner-stores, supplying people who could not afford to buy at market with bread and other basic commodities on credit. Local residents could also buy wares there from itinerant chapmen and small craftsmen: Most important, it was an arena for ritual and entertainment activities. By the early 17th century communal events and rites de passage were generally accompanied by drinking and revelry at the alehouse. Old-style games like football, quoits, and cricket were played in the street or yard outside, especially by young people. Inside, customers devised new-style games including cards, backgammon, marbles, shove-happeny, noddy-board, milking crommock, and Fox-mine-host. Gambling usually accompanied these activities, often promoted by the alehousekeeper.

10In these ways then the small urban alehouse was closely identified with the growth of towns, immigration and poverty before 1650. It became a vital popular centre, helping to integrate the marginal and migrant classes into the urban community. However during the late 17th and 18th centuries the social role of the urban alehouse began to change, to develop in new directions.

11The number of alehouses began to stabilise. At Shrewsbury the total of licensed premises declined from the 1690s; at Chester the number fluctuated between 120 and 150 for much of the 18th century. Unlicensed premises dwindled away. At the same time, alehouse premises became larger and more permanent. Whereas in the period before 1640 most Canterbury alehouses had five rooms or less, after 1660 the majority had over six rooms. The trend is supported by extensive evidence from other towns. As early as the 1690s one writer claimed that two thirds of all the public houses in the kingdom paid more than £ 5 in annual rent – a substantial sum. Premises were much better equipped than in the past. They had differentiated drinking rooms with separate parlours and tap-rooms. The house of a Stamford alehousekeeper in the 1730s contained a great room with drinking booths partitioned off. There were special rooms where games could be played and clubs and societies meet.

  • 4 J. CHARTRES, Internal Trade in England 1500-1700 (London, 1977).

12Alehousekeepers were more affluent figures. Ballads constantly chorused their prosperity. Evidence for this is supplied by probate inventories. Over half of a group of London victuallers in the late 17th century had personal property worth more than £ 50 when they died. By the early 18th century landlords were more likely to have been born in the community rather than being newcomers as in the years before 1650. Frequently alehouses had one or more servants4.

  • 5 M.D. GEORGE, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1925), pp. 284-6.

13Just as the institution became larger and more respectable, so its social role became less identified with the migrant and destitute, more attuned to respectable urban society. Landlords were less welcoming than in the past to poor migrants, some vagrant poor were actually turned away from the larger alehouses. Alehouses tended to specialise in answering the needs of better-off customers. They catered for the bands of petty chapmen, distributive traders and carriers coming to town in increasing numbers, as a result of the expansion of inland trade in early 18th century England. From 1700 an important new function of urban alehouses was as «houses of call», places where skilled craftsmen tramping between towns could find lodging and refreshment, obtain work, or (if none was available) relief from a craft fund.5

  • 6 J. RULE, The Experience of Labour in 18th Century Industry (London, 1981).

14Instead of drinking cheap beer, as in the past, the customer could now choose from a great range of liquors. The Frenchman Misson visiting London was obliged to declare: «there are a hundred sorts of beer and ale made in England, some not bad». Heavy drinking was widespread, associated with higher wages. In many 18th century towns workmen went drinking at the alehouse from Sunday to Monday – «St Monday» – and even into Tuesday.6

  • 7 J.H. PLUMB, The Commercialisation of Leisure in 18th Century England (Reading, 1973).

15Traditional games continued at the alehouse, but landlords were active and influential in encouraging new style entertainments – billiards, mississipi, cock-fights and horse-races. They advertised the events in local newspapers. Alehousekeepers in fact were in the forefront of the commercialisation of leisure in Hanoverian England.7 Most striking was the great flowering of clubs and societies based at the alehouse. Some were benefit clubs (subscribers received relief when they became sick); others were trade societies; yet more were social clubs. All, however, appealed principally to the better-off skilled workers. Once again respectability was the new keynote.

  • 8 P. MATHIAS, The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830 (Cambridge, 1959).
  • 9 P. CLARK, «Migration in England during the late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries», Past (...)

16How do we explain the transformation of the alehouse in the early modem period, from its role as a rudimentary centre for the impoverished classes before 1650 to its later development as a larger, more respectable establishment catering for superior workers? There was a combination of pressures from above and below. From the late 17th century town rulers were active regulating the drink trade, restricting the number of licensed houses, closing down illicit premises. They were supported by local brewers (increasingly important in the supply of beer in towns) and by the excise officials of the central government.8 But there were also crucial changes in urban society as a whole after 1660. Large-scale, long-distance migration declined, because of improving living standards in the countryside. Movement to town became mainly localised and newcomers were able to lodge with friends or relatives rather than at the alehouse.9 During the late 17th and early 18th centuries urban living standards improved quite markedly. In London between 1700 and 1750 the real wages of labourers increased by approximately 20 per cent; skilled craftsmen did particularly well. With extra money in their pockets and few alternative opportunities for expenditure, alehouse drinking was their principal outlet for conspicuous consumption. In general townspeople no longer went to the alehouse as a refuge from the miseries at home, but to have fun.

17By the 18th century the alehouse was much more closely linked with the economic and political establishment in English towns. There were even attacks on alehouses by crowds of urban poor (in contrast during the 16th century alehouses had frequently served as centres for rioters). Nonetheless, for much of the early modem period the public drinking house remained a principal focus of the social world of ordinary people. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, however, at the end of the 18th century, the traditional alehouse was challenged by a host of new, more specialist food and drink establishments, including gin-shops, coffee-houses, chop-houses and lodging-houses. Thereafter the wider social role of the alehouse (now renamed the public house or pub) steadily declined.


1 P.C.W. GUTKIND, «African Urbanism, Mobility and the Social Network» in R. Piddington, editor, Kinship and Geographical Mobility (Leiden, 1975); G. BRANASHUTE, On the Corner (Assen, Netherlands, 1979); see also W.J. McEWEN, Changing Rural Societies (London, 1975).

2 For the detailed documentation for this paper see Peter CLARK, The English Alehouse: A Social History 1200-1830 (London, 1983); see also P. CLARK, «The Alehouse and the Alternative Society» in D. Pennington and K. Thomas, editors, Puritans and Revolutionaries: Essays Presented to Christopher Hill (Oxford, 1978); and K. WRIGHTSON, «Alehouses, order and reformation in rural England 1590-1660» in E. and S. Yeo, editors. Popular Culture and Class Conflict 1590-1914 (Hassocks, 1981).

3 J. PATTEN, English Towns 1500-1700 (Folkestone, 1978), chapter 3; P. CLARK and P. SLACK, English Towns in Transition 1500-1700 (London, 1976), chapters 6-8.

4 J. CHARTRES, Internal Trade in England 1500-1700 (London, 1977).

5 M.D. GEORGE, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1925), pp. 284-6.

6 J. RULE, The Experience of Labour in 18th Century Industry (London, 1981).

7 J.H. PLUMB, The Commercialisation of Leisure in 18th Century England (Reading, 1973).

8 P. MATHIAS, The Brewing Industry in England 1700-1830 (Cambridge, 1959).

9 P. CLARK, «Migration in England during the late Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries», Past and Present, LXXXIII (1979).

© Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1984

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