Women, Beer and the City

Laura Miller

The origins of beer in Britain

Beer has been drunk in the City of London from its earliest days; as a metropolis London was founded by the Romans sometime around AD 47 but they tended to drink wine. Whilst the invaders included Dionysus, the god of wine, in their pantheon of deities they were not,despite the popular mental images of them as hedonists, heavy drinkers. It appears that the same could not be said of the ancient Britons they had subdued. The Roman Senator Tacitus observed drily that to invade the Germanic peoples the Romans should have simply got them drunk first. And although mead and wine were on the menu for the native Briton, it was beer that they were usually drinking.

Relief depicting a Roman Tavern

Beer had been brewed in England since at least Celtic times and it was not long before the subjugated local population were selling it to local and Roman alike. Roman bars, or ‘tabernae’, appeared on busy street corners and this is where we get the word ‘tavern’. Another word we get from the Romans is ‘pleb’ and the tabernae were largely patronised by lower class Roman citizens. There is even a good chance that a few of today’s City of London pubs are located on the site of some of those Roman taverns – in the mid-1700s Roman cups and debris were located by workmen in a roman gutter running beside Talbot Court, a small thoroughfare near Monument and the location of the Ship Tavern, itself on the site of a medieval inn. We also know that one of the less respectable professions for a female Roman Londoner was serving drinks in such establishments, so women were at the very least, a presence.

Talbot Court near Bank,with the Ship Tavern at the end

Surprisingly, when the Romans left the City circa AD 410 it was partially unoccupied for over 400 years. The Anglo-Saxons did not enjoy living within its walls amongst the ruins left by the Romans – they concentrated around a new settlement not far away in ‘Lundenwic’ (now known as ‘Aldwych’ which means ‘old city’ in Anglo Saxon). And they continued drinking beer. When King Alfred very sensibly encouraged his subjects move back into a newly fortified City with some protection from marauding Vikings after AD 886, the brewers followed them.

Ale wives

women brewing

Who were these brewers? Whilst monks were prolific brewers (and drinkers) you might be surprised to learn that until the 14th century brewing was also a female trade carried out by Ale wives (the word ‘wife’ simply meant ‘woman’ at that time). There were a number of reasons for this. One was that our ancestors were drinking beer that was made from any number of ingredients although malted barley was popular.  It was made in small batches and did not last long. Beer-making was a kitchen industry, and women were thought to be better suited to that kind of work as it fitted in well with the demands of running the home and was a good source of extra income for families.  

Medieval Ale Wife (note the broom as trading sign)

Ale wives would sell from their homes, most commonly they would hand the drinks out of a window or hatch to the customers who would sit on a hay bale or rough benches. Today, the need for social distancing is making more of us think about drinking outside but this would have been nothing surprising to an Anglo-Saxon drinker, although the weather was just as unpredictable. Ale wives proliferated and their popularity could cause problems. The upper classes needed their poor to be able to work as hard as possible and this resulted in efforts to curtail drinking. Laws were passed, and in AD 970 King Edgar attempted to limit the number of places selling ale. He also introduced fixed measures, beer was measured in ‘pegs’ (this is where the phrase to take someone ‘down a peg or two’ comes from) in the hope it would limit the ale wives’ sales. It didn’t work and more and more was drunk, especially in London which rapidly grew to be the largest urban centre in the land. Women of all social classes were involved in the trade; in many parts of the country it was one of very few trades open to them.

Detail from the Porland Manuscript held at Guildhall library, a doodle next to details of ale wives trading in the City.

The authorities in the medieval City of London were more interested in the quality of the beer rather than curtailing it and we see some women  being registered in of the Worshipful Company of Brewers. In the 13th century an ale wife was expected to follow the ‘Assize of Bread and Ale’ which regulated the sale of beer; however, the regulations were not very regulated themselves and varied hugely. During the Tudor period in the City, the  ‘Ale Conner’ was the person who was responsible for checking the beer, legend has it that they sat on a puddle of beer on a bench wearing leather britches to see if the beer was sticky enough. The City of London still has four Ale Conners to this day but it’s unknown whether they possess leather trousers!

Depiction of the popular image of an alewife

Female dominance of the trade declined after the Black Plague of 1347 – 50 when greater urbanisation led to an increase in demand that could not be met easily by small domestic production. Women in the City of London fared better because they were more likely as wives or widows to have access to capital and money in order to run their business. In the early 1400s beers brewed with hops were introduced from Belgium and the Low Countries. This beer could be stored for longer, it could be kept in large heavy containers and shipped around, and serious money could be made. This really did put an end to strong female involvement in beer production. That is not to say they weren’t involved at all, in 1540 the city of Chester banned women between the age of 14 and 40 from brewing at all - although this was less to do with making the beer and more to do with sexual impropriety. As brewing became a male industry, female brewers came in for criticism. You start to see them associated with sinful women, they appear in church paintings alongside demons and even though ale wives were now a real minority, when it came to depicting a brewer who cheated their customers, the illustration was usually of a woman.

Church carving depicting an ale wife being taken to hell

Double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble... with beer

The common choice of an ad hoc beer sign for the ale wife had often been a stick with greenery or a broomstick stuck up outside the door – this was known as an ale ‘wand’ or ‘stake’ and indicated the beer was ready. The women brewed their beers in cauldrons – and its negative effects on men were well known. It has been suggested the modern iconic image of a European ‘witch’ is largely derived from the image of the Ale wife. We cannot be sure this is the case, but ale wives certainly were associated with sin, it was even suggested the ale wife would never escape from hell.

A very cheerful ale wife in hell

Even Victorian women drank beer

Until the Victorian era, women in the City continued to drink as consumers and to work in taverns and inns. Whilst it has been suggested that the gallons of beer drunk by the average Londoner was the result of a perception of the dangers of drinking water this is unlikely to be the case. The risk of drinking dirty water in the City of London was not considered until the late 1800s and in any case clean water and spring water could be bought. The truth is more prosaic, beer contained calories much needed by the population and they liked the taste, it was an essential provider of nutrition and energy for both men and women. Nor was it all ‘small beer’ or low alcohol beer, there was a range of strengths available, then as now. This is not to say that women who drank didn’t face censure. During the Georgian era Hogarth and his contemporaries were particularly scathing of the women who drank gin in large quantities, but not so much of women drinking beer. In the foreground of Hogarth’s print ‘Beer Street’ his positive counterpart to the disgraceful behaviour in ‘Gin Lane’, we see two women in the foreground enjoying their beer. One, a fishwife, is taking a break before continuing her daily fish-selling business, these women are presented as ‘cheeky’ rather than disgusting. Beer is a ‘healthy’ drink and, as the verse below the image states, linked with ‘Liberty and Love’.

Hogarth’s ‘Beer Street’

Beer becomes a man's drink

Women continued to drink beer throughout the Victorian era and in fact beer was only sold as wholly macho masculine beverage from the 1950s onwards, when it was actively marketed to men in a way so sexist that today it seems laughable. Until then women might have been depicted holding a dainty glass, but it still contained beer. Many Londoners have had great grandmothers who may have occasionally dabbled in a Port and lemon or a glass of Sherry, but whose daily tipple was Ale or Stout.

Beer advertising aimed at women from the 1890s
Beer advertising aimed at women from the 1940s

Craft beer has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, here in the City we have the Worshipful Company of Brewers and the Worshipful Company of Innkeepers promoting the trade and welcoming women brewers and innkeepers. The City of London is home to many remarkable historic pubs and taverns catering to all tastes. Just across the river in Bermondsey we have ‘Beer Mile’ a concentration of new breweries and their tap rooms. The number of women brewers is slowly but steadily rising – a search on the internet will tell you who they are if you want to try some of their brews. Sadly of course, we weren’t able to attend the City of London’s annual City Beerfest this year – but hopefully we’ll all be able to raise a glass next year.

City Beerfest in full swing