ESSAYS / ARTICLES
[Continued] What contribution was made by the alehouse to the life of early modern towns?
However, the alehouse was far more than just a social centre. It also played a significant part in the economic well being of the town. Although many alehouse keepers were plagued with debt, the alehouse could be, and was in many instances, a thriving business. Ale was one of the only drinks available to the poor in this period, as water was often contaminated and deadly. There was thus always a healthy demand for ale. Moreover, although brewing ale was relatively simple, not everyone in the towns brewed their own as the equipment was rather expensive. Thus it was necessary for many people to purchase their ale. Many people, especially perhaps women who were in charge of providing food and drink for their husbands and children, went to the alehouse and bought a pail full relatively cheaply. Thirsty workmen would frequently send for jugs or pots of ale to consume while they worked. Frequently during the day servants and apprentices would pop in to the alehouse, and spend an hour or so drinking and eating their lunch. Therefore alehouses were a source of wealth to the towns, by serving a popular and basic need. Ale-selling could be a very profitable business. Indeed, some of the alehouse keepers initially went into the business for that very reason. Also brewing itself was becoming a profitable businessnow that most alehouse keepers were buying their ale rather than brewing it. As a result, brewing became more sophisticated. In some towns, the breweries came together forming trade companies in an attempt to curb competition.(6).
In Salisbury in 1563, a "common brew house" was set up and managed by the corporation, and its profits were given to the poor. Indeed, the town officials and the government were not slow to realize the potential of this, and there were attempts to use the profits from alehouses to help ease the problem of poverty in the towns. Dodd believes that it became quite common "to squeeze out of the publican's profits money for any important local enterprise short of funds." (8) also fines paid by unlicensed or defiant alehouse keepers were given to the poor.
The alehouse also helped the poor in another, rather indirect way. Clark argues that under the rather harsh living conditions of the Tudor and Stuart period, when prices were high, wages low, and employment not always easy to come by, the alehouse"provided an invaluable lifeline for the poor, helping them to survive the worst harvest years, when otherwise they might have starved." (8). Beier and Finlay suggest that one of the main reasons why alehouses were densely concentrated in the poorer areas of London, was because they were needed there (9). Not only did the alehouse provide ale and basic foods at cheap prices, but more importantly it seems that many alehouse keepers allowed for things to be paid for "on the slate". This meant that payment could be deferred until the person could pay. This practise admittedly led to the closure of some alehouses, whose keepers were perhaps exploited by their customers, but it seems in all probability that the benefits of the system, appreciated by the needy, meant that they were careful not to overload it and paid when they could. Also it appears that many landlords were willing to accept payment "in kind", which was undoubtedly an invaluable service for the indigent. The alehouse also acted as a kind of "financial centre" for the poor. They could pawn what little goods they possessed in return for money, or they could even offer them as security for a loan. It was also common for second hand goods to be sold there, which suited the poor man's budget. Also increasingly the alehouse was used as an alternative venue to the market. Not only did this have the advantage of being indoors, but it catered for those who could perhaps not afford to buy the large quantities of grain and other produce sold in the market place.
For the unskilled and the elderly, who had little hope of finding employment, opening an alehouse was a means of warding off poverty. To open an alehouse was relatively straight forward. No special training was required, entry was not controlled by gilds, regulation was lax, and most importantly, it did not require large amounts of capital. All that was needed was a few ale pots, and perhaps a bench for the customers to sit on. They did not even have to brew their own ale, as they could purchase it (on credit if necessary, or on a sale or return basis (10)) from the brewers. The keepers of an alehouse were guaranteed some income, and would probably earn enough to tide them over, even if they did not have another occupation. Indeed, it was frequent for alehouse keeping to be a secondary occupation. The sixteenth century in particular was a period of underemployment. Without earning extra money, many families would perhaps starve. Alehouse keeping was a convenient way of earning some extra income, and complimented nicely baking or butchering. However, alehouse keeping was also a secondary occupation amongst tailors, tanners, labourers and other workmen, who could leave their wives in charge while they went out to work. Indeed the running of an alehouse could be a "family business". Sons and daughters could be "employed" as servants, and younger children were frequently found amongst the streets of the towns, tying to attract custom.
However, there is perhaps the need to exercise some degree of caution in looking at the contribution of the alehouse to the life of English towns in this period. So far, only the benefits have been focussed on, and Peter Clark in his work has perhaps painted a rather too "rosy" picture of the early modern alehouse. Certainly the alehouse did make valuable contributions to town life, socially and economically, but the negative contributions cannot be ignored.
Clark's assertion that the alehouse was the prime social centre of the community following the Reformation, needs to be treated with a degree of caution. It is perhaps easy to exaggerate its social importance. N. J. G. Pounds would argue that in the early seventeenth century, the alehouse was actually declining in importance, as houses were becoming more comfortable, encouraging domestic pleasures such as familial reading around the fireplace. (11) Undoubtedly there are limitations to Clark's thesis. To begin with, the church was a place open to all - children, women, men, regardless of age and social position, (although there is reason to believe that the abject poor were discouraged from attending because they had not decent apparel) - but there is sufficient doubt over whether this was true of the alehouse. Alehouses were widespread, but in all probability the numbers they housed were small, and by no means did all the inhabitants of a town frequent them. Some may have been influenced by the Puritan arguments, and not all criticisms levelled at the alehouse were made by puritans, or others may have preferred to spend their evenings at home with their families, or where perhaps too tired to go out after working all day to go out. It is certainly questionable as to what degree the alehouse was a social centre for women. Clarke himself mentions that the alehouse was primarily a"masculine preserve"(12). Foreign ambassadors would have it that women were avid frequenters of the place, more so than men, but arguably if they did go there it was during the day, and perhaps then only to fetch the family's ale. On practical grounds alone it would be difficult for women to attend, considering the continuous demands of housekeeping and children, especially new born babies. Also, in the age of the double standard, it was not considered reputable for women to frequent alehouses alone. Clark argues that to counter this, many attended in groups, but in all probability, the number of men far outweighed the number of women. If women did attend, it was likely that they were single, where there with their lover, as a new wife, or of course to earn some quick money by selling themselves. Also, considering that many men may have gone to the tavern to be released from the cares of family and wife, they would not have taken kindly to their presence anyway. The alehouse may have contributed to the increasing segregation of the sexes, and arguably husbands returning home drunk, perhaps behaving violently, was not an ingredient for domestic bliss in the towns. Also it is likely that the use of the alehouse as a brothel contributed to the spread of venereal disease and illegitimacy.
The alehouse was also a considerable problem for the town officials. To begin with, the establishment of alehouses was difficult to control. Although from the mid-sixteenth century onwards all alehouses were to be licensed, there was an abundance of unlicensed premises throughout this period. In Oxford, in the reign of Charles the First, it was reported to William Laud that there were almost one hundred unlicensed alehouses in that town alone. Alehouses were believed to be everywhere. Thomas Dekker declared in 1632 that the streets of London were "but a continued alehouse".(13)There were far more alehouses in the towns than the officials could cope with, or desired. There were continuous attempts to suppress the houses, but this also posed several problems. To begin with it led to conflict amongst the governing elite, as there was constant disagreement over which alehouses to suppress. Some officials may have had a vested interest in keeping certain alehouses open, whereas others may have benefited from their closure. Consequently, "alehouses suppressed by one J.P. were often able to secure a license from another", (14) and there was thus "little hope of any amendment to be had." (15)Alehouses continued to flourish. Even during the interregnum when the Puritans were in power, they did not succeed in suppressing alehouses altogether. Secondly, it was difficult for the town officials to know how to adequately respond to the unlicensed alehouse. Many probably just turned a blind eye. To suppress them would not only suppress a popular institution that was serving the community, but could also mean that the alehouse keeper himself would be thrown into poverty, perhaps being unable to make a living any other way. Also, if he was sent to prison, then he would perhaps leave a young family to face destitution.
If the town officials could not so much as regulate the number of alehouses, then they certainly could not effectively regulate behaviour within them. Indeed, the internal activity of the alehouse was a concern to the officials. To them it stood out as "a symbol of social decadence and disruption." (16) They feared that the alehouse was a centre of corruption. It was certainly seen to be encouraging disobedience - the disobedience of children to their parents, servants and apprentices to their masters, and subjects to the state. The latter was particularly manifested in religion. It was not only a concern to the Puritans that many members of the lower orders preferred to spend their Sunday afternoons drinking in the alehouse, but to the town officials and the successive governments. Not only was it distracting them from godly pursuits, but their very non-attendance threatened the authority of the government and the law. It was also feared, with some justification, that the alehouse encouraged criminal and violent behaviour. Although for the most part the crimes committed in alehouses were petty crimes and ones that helped the poor immeasurable, some crimes were not so advantageous. The drinking of alcohol in large quantities frequently led to drunkenness, especially as beer was a stronger alcoholic drink and was becoming more widely available. All too often tempers frazzled and fights broke out, sometimes resulting in much damage, fires, serious injuries, death or even homicide. Also, as the alehouse presented a market for stolen goods, this possibly encouraged theft. Even some landlords were involved in criminal activities, although as Clark argues this was not likely to have been common, as the landlords needed to keep on the right side of the town officials if they were to avoid suppression. Unlicensed alehouse keepers did not want to bring unnecessary attention to themselves.
Also, although the alehouse made an invaluable contribution to the relief of poverty, in some respects it also contributed to it. It was a common assertion of the time that many men were spending what little money they had on needless drink and gambling, while "their wives and children are in extreme begging". (17) This point was probably exaggerated by the pious Puritans (they similarly accused the theatre of draining the money of the poor), but undoubtedly there was some ground to their arguments. In Dover, for example, Jane Jaffrey, wife of Nicholas Jaffrey, told how her husband would spend their money on ale, and would beat her if she asked him for money. He would also beat her if she went to the alehouse to bring him home - apparently a common occurrence. Also the unregulated making and selling of ale also exacerbated the problem of grain dearth. When harvests were poor, this meant that valuable grain was being used on ale, when it could have been more profitably used to make bread to feed the hungry.
It can be seen therefore, that the contribution made by the alehouse to the life of the early modern town was multi-faceted. To have emerged with such force in the Tudor period, and to have consolidated this in the Stuart era, alone suggests that the alehouse served a popular and a practical need. Although the alehouse may have presented some problems for the town officials, and encouraged petty crimes; drunkenness, violence and theft, the general contribution of the alehouse seems to have been a positive one. It provided invaluable help and comfort to the indigent, catered for the financial hardships of the lower orders, and was important in providing cheap accommodation for the traveller, trader, immigrant, and young men on completing their apprenticeships. It was also an important social and entertainment centre, where communal celebrations increasingly took place following the Reformation. However, arguably the most important contribution the alehouse made to the life of the towns in this period, was the comfort and solace it gave the young working men and women, who found in the "alehouse hearth, company and cup, that little cheer that made a life of hardship more durable." (18)