Today in drinking history: beer price rise causes tumults in Westminster, 1761.

Eighteenth century Londoners, especially the ‘poorer sort’, had, like many communities before and since, a keen eye for when they were being ripped off, especially for basic commodities.

A certain ‘moral economy’ existed, including a collective view of how much people should expect to pay for basic foodstuffs, and a preparedness to intervene in the marketplace and forcibly readjust prices if they rose too high beyond what was considered affordable and acceptable. Bread was the main staple fought over: at times of high wheat prices and (since bread was the main diet of the poor) widespread hunger, bakers and millers would be the target of rioters, often accused along with farmers and landowners of hoarding grain to jack up prices. Bread riots could involve the whole community, though, they were often led by women. In previous centuries, it was common for rioters to seize stocks of bread and force bakers to sell it at a price they thought fair, or a long-established price; this was the strongest example of the so-called ‘moral economy’ (discussed by EP Thompson and other radical historians) a set of economic and social practices based in a popular view of how certain basic needs ought to be fairly and cheaply available.

The idea of a moral economy was one that crossed class boundaries, a reflection of the paternalist society, where all knew their place, but all classes had responsibilities and there were certain given rights to survival.

Alcohol, too, of course, is a staple part of the diet… and was considered even more so in the 1700s. Although the oft-repeated legend that ‘people in the past drank beer because water supplies were all polluted’ is not completely true, ale, and later beer, was drunk on a daily basis in great quantities. Partly because it was thought to be healthier, more nutritious than water, and people may have felt that brewing processes made it safer; also because it was generally used to lubricate and compensate for the hours of hard, low-paid work many folk did. Many workers in numerous trades were partly paid in ale or beer; this went hand in hand with the traditional use of pubs and taverns as places were people went to look for work (many trades had pubs they used as meeting points), and got paid each day, week or less often… Pubs, alehouses, inns were the one of the main centres of social life. And people like to get pissed.

The price of beer was therefore a crucial daily issue; almost as fiercely watched as the price of bread. With wages generally low in most trades, and rising only slowly if at all, small price rises could make all the difference. In the 1730s, the Walpole government had attempted to slap heavy restrictions on the sale of gin (even more than beer, the tipple of the poorest at the time), partly to restrict its turbulent social effects by pricing it out of many people’s reach. The London poor and many of the slightly better off, had reacted with fury, rioting, attacking informers who were grassing up ginsellers, and determinedly parrying harder on illicit spirits. Beer may have been favourably compared to gin in the contemporary mind (see Hogarth’s Gin Lane/Beer Street prints), but it was even more vital to many more daily existences.

In 1761, some London publicans tried to raise the price; happening all at once, this was clearly a pre-planned cartel trying to spring it on the drinking classes all at once:

“The price of beer was raised to 3d ½ per quart, by many publicans, at the instigation, it is said, of their brewers, on account of the new duty upon malt; but they soon sold it at the old rate of 3d. as they found their houses deserted by their customers. And soon after many of them, at a meeting held by them, came to a resolution to let it remain there. Some tumults were occasioned thereby, in many parts of the town, where labouring and poor people chiefly live, and great discontent and murmuring everywhere. Several of the Westminster publicans were on this occasion carried before a magistrate, and fined 5 shillings each, it being contrary to an act passed in the reign of king William III, which fixes beer at 3d. per quart. The publick alledge that though malt and hops were, about four years ago, at double the price they are now, the brewers, without advancing their price, made great fortunes, and that the additional duty of 3 shillings per barrel, reduces their profits but one thirteenth part of the whole, that is to say, where a brewer heretofore cleared 1300 pounds, h may now, notwithstanding this new tax, clear 1200 pounds, and so in proportion for other sums.” (The Annual Register, June 24th 1761)

The fact that the government in the time of William III had taken the step of limiting the price of beer illustrates how seriously they took this matter; afraid to provoke a very large constituency into uproar? State regulation in 1761 was clearly irritating to the producers, the publicans, who obviously felt the profits to be reaped were being unfairly held down, had a grouse against the brewers, who had them over a barrel, as it were. At this time, the brewing industry was being revolutionised, especially in London; the development of porter earlier in the century, aged in the brewery rather than sent to the pub to age, had tilted the power in brewing towards large breweries, and the great brewing firms had already started to rise, gathering a larger and larger share of the market. It’s possible the pub price rise was a desperate attempt by publicans to garner a bit more as breweries took a bigger slice; alternatively, maybe it was a ploy by the breweries, leaning on pubs to impose a profit-raising measure…

It’s not clear of what nature, and how widespread, the ‘tumults’ mentioned were, but London crowds had a long habit of gathering quickly and acting collectively and decisively on immediate economic issues. So was it local riots, fights in individual pubs? The price rise may have been speculative, let’s try it out and see if we can get away with it – and the lesson was quickly learned, as the price reverted quickly to its prior level.

Attempts to raise prices continued, some of them industry-based, some government revenue-raising measures. But attempts to suddenly raise prices would continue to cause resistance and aggro, for a century and a half (as we have previously related…)

Could do with a few tumults today… every time the price of beer goes up…


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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