The Perils of 19th Century Home-Brew

Two of the previous three posts have considered the number of pubs in the Saundersfoot area in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Continuing this theme, the next two posts look at the importance of drink to the local community, a topic introduced by Gerry Brawn in a comment about one of these posts. Next week’s will cover the effect of changes in licensing laws following the 1830 Beer Act. Today’s changes tack slightly to look at how our ancestors took advantage of lax policing to make a bit of money on the side by brewing and selling their own beer.

St Mary's church, Begelly (Copyright: Robert Edwards) Click to enlarge

A quote from the Rev. Richard Buckby, vicar of Begelly, provides a good introduction. In December 1846 he gave evidence to the assistant commissioner investigating the state of children’s education in Wales. While there is some hyperbole in what Buckby reportedly said, his comments about the effects of home brewing are supported by other witnesses.

“Weddings are times of great rioting and debauchery…They brew as much ale as they can, and sell it, without a licence, to their friends, who are expected to give more than the market price. This is one way in which they can raise money to begin the world with… All these customs are merely varieties of ‘biddings’. The whole system works unmixed mischief.”

This was not a new problem for the local vicars. In 1799 one of Buckby’s predecessors, Rev. John Williams sought advice from the Bishop of St David’s on how to quell similar problems in Begelly and the surrounding parishes. Williams split the problem in two, which together had an “invariable Tendency to much Sin & Impiety”.

His first issue was that bidding weddings were held

“on Saturday whereby Drunkenness & Revelling is kept up all Saturday night & generally the whole of the Sabbath day ensuing…I know not whether it be possible to prevent the Parties’ Marrying on what Day they please…but having them on Saturday & keeping them on the Sabbath is peculiar to this Part of Wales.”

Williams’ complaint was different to Buckby’s.  He seemed to have no problem with the traditions and revelry associated with local weddings, just that they were held over the weekend, with celebrations continuing through Sunday. But it is difficult to believe this was a serious problem that required the bishop’s help: of the 10 weddings held at Williams’ church in 1798-9, just three were on Saturday.

Williams’ second concern was with

“Making what in this Country is called Ales: i.e. Some poor persons brewing occasionally without a License. The Time appointed for selling the Ale is Saturday Night & Sunday. At these meetings there is a great deal of Drunkenness & Revelling…I have reproved & exhorted the People in Publick & in private on the Subject and I believe they are not kept as often as they used to be, yet they are far from being suppressed & are kept concealed from me. According to a late Act of Parliament I am informed that the Magistrate is authorised to suppress all unlicensed Brewings; in Consequence of which I applied to a Magistrate in the Neighbourhood, who would not interfere unless a regular Information was brought before him, which I could not do as I never go to those.”

What was Williams’ issue with this? It is not clear if he was concerned about the breach of the law or that that locals were too drunk on Sunday to attend his church.

Taken together these two problems do suggest a traditional use of alcohol in people’s lives that continued over the next 50 years to Buckby’s time.

Within fifteen years of Buckby’s comments in 1846, the tradition of selling unlicensed beer was coming to an end. The help that Williams sought from the local authorities was finally at hand in the 1850s with the formation of an independent county constabulary replacing the often ineffectual parish constables. As Gerry Brawn points out in his comment, there are several references in local newspapers to magistrates fining those selling beer without a licence. Two examples from December 1859 will suffice. George Brace of Rock Farm, Begelly, was fined 10s for selling beer at his daughter’s wedding. Similarly Josiah Bowen, a collier of Woodside, St Issells, was fined the same amount, his son marrying just a few days earlier. This was about a week’s wages for him.

Note:

Apologies for this post being somewhat longer than my stated aim to write to a maximum of 500 words or so. I wanted to quote Williams at length as it is rare to get such insight about life in the area around 1800.

Sources:

National Library of Wales, St David’s Clergy Presentments, 1799

National Library of Wales, The Blue Books of 1847. Buckby’s comment is on pp 421-2. I am planning to post an analysis of Buckby’s comment in full in due course.

Pembrokeshire Herald

Image of Begelly church: copyright Robert Edwards and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

2 thoughts on “The Perils of 19th Century Home-Brew

  1. A HOME BREW(ERY) of Large proportions
    Altough it was to be hoped that Beerhouse’s could be controlled by the issuing of a license under the 1830 Act it seems that home brewing in the Saundersfoot area was still out of control, for in November 1863 a Thomas Hughes of Amroth was summonsed by PS Royle for selling beer without a license, nothing out of the ordinary for this time; however in evidence Royle asserted that there 100 to 150 persons int he house! and that the defendant brewed two or three atimes nd had sold the beer for two or three weeks. Hughes was fined £7 and 6s 6d costs and in default imprisonment for 3 months. Hughes paid up.
    One word about the above, this honebrewing venture seems to cock a snoot at the law and the amounts brewed must have been in large quantities and not like the little cottage industry of the imagination, also the sheer number of people involved must have caused concern to the police

    • Interesting comment, Gerry

      Why wouldn’t HUghes have taken out a beer-shop licence? With the quantity of turnover he was achieving and the number of people visiting, I would have assumed he’d have gone legit. By this time he had to get a character reference from a local worthy before he could get a licence but the magistrates still could not stop him getting a licence.

      Jon

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