Cache-Control: public, max-age=1024000 The Taverns of Old London


The changes in the manners and customs of our metropolis may be agreeably gathered from such glimpses as we gain of the history of "houses of entertainment" in the long lapse of centuries. Their records present innumerable pictures in little of society and modes, the interest of which is increased by distance. They show us how the tavern was the great focus of news long before the newspaper fully supplied the intellectual want. Much of the business of early times was transacted in taverns, and it is to some extent in the present day. According to the age, the tavern reflects the manners, the social tastes, customs, and recreations; and there, in days when travelling was difficult and costly, and not unattended with danger, the traveller told his wondrous tale to many an eager listener; and the man who rarely strayed beyond his own parish, was thus made acquainted with the life of the world. Then, the old tavern combined, with much of the comfort of an English home, its luxuries, without the forethought of providing either. Its come-and-go life presented many a useful lesson to the man who looked beyond the cheer of the moment. The master, or taverner, was mostly a person of substance, often of ready wit and cheerful manners—to render his public home attractive.

The "win-hous," or tavern, is enumerated among the houses of entertainment in the time of the Saxons; and no doubt existed in England much earlier. The peg-tankard, a specimen of which we see in the Ashmolean Collection at Oxford, originated with the Saxons; the pegs inside denoted how deep each guest was to drink: hence arose the saying, "he is a peg too low," when a man was out of spirits. The Danes were even more convivial in their habits than the Saxons, and may be presumed to have multiplied the number of "guest houses," as the early taverns were called. The Norman followers of the Conqueror soon fell into the good cheer of their predecessors in England. Although wine was made at this period in great abundance from vineyards in various parts of England, the trade of the taverns was principally supplied from France. The traffic for Bordeaux and the neighbouring provinces is said to have commenced about 1154, through the marriage of Henry II. with Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Normans were the great carriers, and Guienne the place whence most of our wines were brought; and which are described in this reign to have been sold in the ships and in the wine-cellars near the public place of cookery, on the banks of the Thames. We are now speaking of the customs of seven centuries since; of which the public wine-cellar, known to our time as the Shades, adjoining old London Bridge, was unquestionably a relic.

The earliest dealers in wines were of two descriptions: the vintners, or importers; and the taverners, who kept taverns for them, and sold the wine by retail to such as came to the tavern to drink it, or fetched it to their own homes.

In a document of the reign of Edward II., we find mentioned a tenement called Pin Tavern, situated in the Vintry, where the Bordeaux merchants craned their wines out of lighters, and other vessels on the Thames; and here was the famous old tavern with the sign of the Three Cranes. Chaucer makes the apprentice of this period loving better the tavern than the shop:—

"A prentis whilom dwelt in our citee,—

At ev'ry bridale would he sing and hoppe;

He loved bet' the tavern than the shoppe,

For when ther any riding was in Chepe,

Out of the shoppe thider would he lepe;

And til that he had all the sight ysein

And dancid wil, he wold not com agen."

Thus, the idle City apprentice was a great tavern haunter, which was forbidden in his indenture; and to this day, the apprentice's indenture enacts that he shall not "haunt taverns."

In a play of 1608, the apprentices of old Hobson, a rich citizen, in 1560, frequent the Rose and Crown, in the Poultry, and the Dagger, in Cheapside.

"Enter Hobson, Two Prentices, and a Boy.

"1 Pren. Prithee, fellow Goodman, set forth the ware, and looke to the shop a little. I'll but drink a cup of wine with a customer, at the Rose and Crown in the Poultry, and come again presently.

"2 Pren. I must needs step to the Dagger in Cheape, to send a letter into the country unto my father. Stay, boy, you are the youngest prentice; look you to the shop."

In the reign of Richard II., it was ordained by statute that "the wines of Gascoine, of Osey, and of Spain," as well as Rhenish wines, should not be sold above sixpence the gallon; and the taverners of this period frequently became very rich, and filled the highest civic offices, as sheriffs and mayors. The fraternity of vintners and taverners, anciently the Merchant Wine Tonners of Gascoyne, became the Craft of Vintners, incorporated by Henry VI. as the Vintners' Company.

The curious old ballad of London Lyckpenny, written in the reign of Henry V., by Lydgate, a monk of Bury, confirms the statement of the prices in the reign of Richard II. He comes to Cornhill, when the wine-drawer of the Pope's Head tavern, standing without the street-door, it being the custom of drawers thus to waylay passengers, takes the man by the hand, and says,—"Will you drink a pint of wine?" whereunto the countryman answers, "A penny spend I may," and so drank his wine. "For bread nothing did he pay"—for that was given in. This is Stow's account: the ballad makes the taverner, not the drawer, invite the countryman; and the latter, instead of getting bread for nothing, complains of having to go away hungry:—

"The taverner took me by the sleeve,

'Sir,' saith he, 'will you our wine assay?'

I answered, 'That cannot much me grieve,

A penny can do no more than it may;'

I drank a pint, and for it did pay;

Yet, sore a-hungered from thence I yede,

And, wanting money, I could not speed," etc.

There was no eating at taverns at this time, beyond a crust to relish the wine; and he who wished to dine before he drank, had to go to the cook's.

The furnishing of the Boar's Head, in Eastcheap, with sack, in Henry IV., is an anachronism of Shakspeare's; for the vintners kept neither sacks, muscadels, malmseys, bastards, alicants, nor any other wines but white and claret, until 1543. All the other sweet wines before that time, were sold at the apothecaries' shops for no other use but for medicine.

Taking it as the picture of a tavern a century later, we see the alterations which had taken place. The single drawer or taverner of Lydgate's day is now changed to a troop of waiters, besides the under skinker, or tapster. Eating was no longer confined to the cook's row, for we find in Falstaff's bill "a capon 2s. 2d.; sack, two gallons, 5s. 8d.; anchovies and sack, after supper, 2s. 6d.; bread, one halfpenny." And there were evidently different rooms[27] for the guests, as Francis[28] bids a brother waiter "Look down in the Pomgranite;" for which purpose they had windows, or loopholes, affording a view from the upper to the lower apartments. The custom of naming the principal rooms in taverns and hotels is usual to the present day.

Taverns and wine-bibbing had greatly increased in the reign of Edward VI., when it was enacted by statute that no more than 8d. a gallon should be taken for any French wines, and the consumption limited in private houses to ten gallons each person yearly; that there should not be "any more or great number of taverns in London of such tavernes or wine sellers by retaile, above the number of fouretye tavernes or wyne sellers," being less than two, upon an average to each parish. Nor did this number much increase afterwards; for in a return made to the Vintners' Company, late in Elizabeth's reign, there were only one hundred and sixty-eight taverns in the whole city and suburbs.

It seems to have been the fashion among old ballad-mongers, street chroniclers, and journalists, to sing the praises of the taverns in rough-shod verse, and that lively rhyme which, in our day, is termed "patter." Here are a few specimens, of various periods.

In a black-letter poem of Queen Elizabeth's reign, entitled Newes from Bartholomew Fayre, there is this curious enumeration:

"There hath been great sale and utterance of Wine,

Besides Beere, and Ale, and Ipocras fine,

In every country, region, and nation,

But chiefly in Billingsgate, at the Salutation;

And the Bore's Head, near London Stone;

The Swan at Dowgate, a tavern well knowne;

The Miter in Cheape, and then the Bull Head;

And many like places that make noses red;

The Bore's Head in Old Fish-street; Three Cranes in the Vintry;

And now, of late, St. Martins in the Sentree;

The Windmill in Lothbury; the Ship at th' Exchange;

King's Head in New Fish-street, where roysterers do range;

The Mermaid in Cornhill; Red Lion in the Strand;

Three Tuns in Newgate Market; Old Fish-street at the Swan."

This enumeration omits the Mourning Bush, adjoining Aldersgate, containing divers large rooms and lodgings, and shown in Aggas's plan of London, in 1560. There are also omitted The Pope's Head, The London Stone, The Dagger, The Rose and Crown, etc. Several of the above Signs have been continued to our time in the very places mentioned; but nearly all the original buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666; and the few which escaped have been re-built, or so altered, that their former appearance has altogether vanished.

The following list of taverns is given by Thomas Heywood, the author of the fine old play of A Woman killed with Kindness. Heywood, who wrote in 1608, is telling us what particular houses are frequented by particular classes of people:—

"The Gentry to the King's Head,

The nobles to the Crown,

The Knights unto the Golden Fleece,

And to the Plough the Clown.

The churchman to the Mitre,

The shepherd to the Star,

The gardener hies him to the Rose,

To the Drum the man of war;

To the Feathers, ladies you; the Globe

The seaman doth not scorn;

The usurer to the Devil, and

The townsman to the Horn.

The huntsman to the White Hart,

To the Ship the merchants go,

But you who do the Muses love,

The sign called River Po.

The banquerout to the World's End,

The fool to the Fortune Pie,

Unto the Mouth the oyster-wife,

The fiddler to the Pie.

The punk unto the Cockatrice,

The Drunkard to the Vine,

The beggar to the Bush, then meet,

And with Duke Humphrey dine."

In the British Apollo of 1710, is the following doggrel:—

"I'm amused at the signs,

As I pass through the town,

To see the odd mixture—

A Magpie and Crown,

The Whale and the Crow,

The Razor and the Hen,

The Leg and Seven Stars,

The Axe and the Bottle,

The Tun and the Lute,

The Eagle and Child,

The Shovel and Boot."

In Look about You, 1600, we read that "the drawers kept sugar folded up in paper, ready for those who called for sack;" and we further find in another old tract, that the custom existed of bringing two cups of silver in case the wine should be wanted diluted; and this was done by rose-water and sugar, generally about a pennyworth. A sharper in the Bellman of London, described as having decoyed a countryman to a tavern, "calls for two pintes of sundry wines, the drawer setting the wine with two cups, as the custome is, the sharper tastes of one pinte, no matter which, and finds fault with the wine, saying, ''tis too hard, but rose-water and sugar would send it downe merrily'—and for that purpose takes up one of the cups, telling the stranger he is well acquainted with the boy at the barre, and can have two-pennyworth of rose-water for a penny of him; and so steps from his seate: the stranger suspects no harme, because the fawne guest leaves his cloake at the end of the table behind him,—but the other takes good care not to return, and it is then found that he hath stolen ground, and out-leaped the stranger more feet than he can recover in haste, for the cup is leaped with him, for which the wood-cock, that is taken in the springe, must pay fifty shillings, or three pounds, and hath nothing but an old threadbare cloake not worth two groats to make amends for his losses."

Bishop Earle, who wrote in the first half of the seventeenth century, has left this "character" of a tavern of his time. "A tavern is a degree, or (if you will) a pair of stairs above an alehouse, where men are drunk with more credit and apology. If the vintner's nose be at the door, it is a sign sufficient, but the absence of this is supplied by the ivy-bush. It is a broacher of more news than hogsheads, and more jests than news, which are sucked up here by some spungy brain, and from thence squeezed into a comedy. Men come here to make merry, but indeed make a noise, and this music above is answered with a clinking below. The drawers are the civilest people in it, men of good bringing up, and howsoever we esteem them, none can boast more justly of their high calling. 'Tis the best theatre of natures, where they are truly acted, not played, and the business as in the rest of the world up and down, to wit, from the bottom of the cellar to the great chamber. A melancholy man would find here matter to work upon, to see heads, as brittle as glasses, and often broken; men come hither to quarrel, and come here to be made friends; and if Plutarch will lend me his simile, it is even Telephus's sword that makes wounds, and cures them. It is the common consumption of the afternoon, and the murderer or the maker away of a rainy day. It is the torrid zone that scorches the face, and tobacco the gunpowder that blows it up. Much harm would be done if the charitable vintner had not water ready for the flames. A house of sin you may call it, but not a house of darkness, for the candles are never out; and it is like those countries far in the north, where it is as clear at midnight as at mid-day. After a long sitting it becomes like a street in a dashing shower, where the spouts are flushing above, and the conduits running below, etc. To give you the total reckoning of it, it is the busy man's recreation, the idle man's business, the melancholy man's sanctuary, the stranger's welcome, the inns-of-court man's entertainment, the scholar's kindness, and the citizen's courtesy. It is the study of sparkling wits, and a cup of comedy their book, whence we leave them."

The conjunction of vintner and victualler had now become common, and would require other accommodation than those mentioned by the Bishop, as is shown in Massinger's New Way to pay Old Debts, where Justice Greedy makes Tapwell's keeping no victuals in his house as an excuse for pulling down his sign:

"Thou never hadst in thy house to stay men's stomachs,

A piece of Suffolk cheese, or gammon of bacon,

Or any esculent as the learned call it,

For their emolument, but sheer drink only.

For which gross fault I here do damn thy licence,

Forbidding thee henceforth to tap or draw;

For instantly I will in mine own person,

Command the constable to pull down thy sign,

And do't before I eat."

And the decayed vinter, who afterwards applies to Wellborn for payment of his tavern score, answers, on his inquiring who he is:

"A decay'd vintner, Sir;

That might have thriv'd, but that your worship broke me

With trusting you with muscadine and eggs,

And five-pound suppers, with your after-drinkings,

When you lodged upon the Bankside."

Dekker tells us, near this time, of regular ordinaries of three kinds: 1st. An ordinary of the longest reckoning, whither most of your courtly gallants do resort: 2nd. A twelvepenny ordinary, frequented by the justice of the peace, a young Knight; and a threepenny ordinary, to which your London usurer, your stale bachelor, and your thrifty attorney, doth resort. Then Dekker tells us of a custom, especially in the City, to send presents of wine from one room to another, as a complimentary mark of friendship. "Inquire," directs he, "what gallants sup in the next room; and if they be of your acquaintance, do not, after the City fashion, send them in a pottle of wine and your name." Then, we read of Master Brook sending to the Castle Inn at Windsor, a morning draught of sack.

Ned Ward, in the London Spy, 1709, describes several famous taverns, and among them the Rose, anciently, the Rose and Crown, as famous for good wine. "There was no parting," he says, "without a glass; so we went into the Rose Tavern in the Poultry, where the wine, according to its merit, had justly gained a reputation; and there, in a snug room, warmed with brash and faggot, over a quart of good claret, we laughed over our night's adventure."

"From hence, pursuant to my friend's inclination, we adjourned to the sign of the Angel, in Fenchurch-street, where the vintner, like a double-dealing citizen, condescended as well to draw carmen's comfort as the consolatory juice of the vine.

"Having at the King's Head well freighted the hold of our vessels with excellent food and delicious wine, at a small expense, we scribbled the following lines with chalk upon the wall." (See page 98.)

The tapster was a male vendor, not "a woman who had the care of the tap," as Tyrwhitt states. In the 17th century ballad, The Times, occurs:

"The bar-boyes and the tapsters

Leave drawing of their beere,

And running forth in haste they cry,

'See, where Mull'd Sack comes here!'"

The ancient drawers and tapsters were now superseded by the barmaid, and a number of waiters: Ward describes the barmaid as "all ribbon, lace, and feathers, and making such a noise with her bell and her tongue together, that had half-a-dozen paper-mills been at work within three yards of her, they'd have signified no more to her clamorous voice than so many lutes to a drum, which alarmed two or three nimble fellows aloft, who shot themselves downstairs with as much celerity as a mountebank's mercury upon a rope from the top of a church-steeple, every one charged with a mouthful of coming, coming, coming." The barmaid (generally the vintner's daughter) is described as "bred at the dancing-school, becoming a bar well, stepping a minuet finely, playing sweetly on the virginals, 'John come kiss me now, now, now,' and as proud as she was handsome."

Tom Brown sketches a flirting barmaid of the same time, "as a fine lady that stood pulling a rope, and screaming like a peacock against rainy weather, pinned up by herself in a little pew, all people bowing to her as they passed by, as if she was a goddess set up to be worshipped, armed with the chalk and sponge, (which are the principal badges that belong to that honourable station you beheld her in,) was the barmaid."

Of the nimbleness of the waiters, Ward says in another place—"That the chief use he saw in the Monument was, for the improvement of vintners' boys and drawers, who came every week to exercise their supporters, and learn the tavern trip, by running up to the balcony and down again."

Owen Swan, at the Black Swan tavern, Bartholomew Lane, is thus apostrophized by Tom Brown for the goodness of his wine:—

"Thee, Owen, since the God of wine has made

Thee steward of the gay carousing trade,

Whose art decaying nature still supplies,

Warms the faint pulse, and sparkles in our eyes.

Be bountiful like him, bring t'other flask,

Were the stairs wider we would have the cask.

This pow'r we from the God of wine derive,

Draw such as this, and I'll pronounce thou'lt live."

[27] This negatives a belief common in our day that a Covent Garden tavern was the first divided into rooms for guests.

[28] A successor of Francis, a waiter at the Boar's Head, in the last century, had a tablet with an inscription in St. Michael's Crooked-lane churchyard, just at the back of the tavern; setting forth that he died, "drawer at the Boar's Head Tavern, in Great Eastcheap," and was noted for his honesty and sobriety; in that—

"Tho' nurs'd among full hogsheads he defied
The charms of wine, as well as others' pride."

He also practised the singular virtue of drawing good wine and of taking care to "fill his pots," as appears by the closing lines of the inscription:—

"Ye that on Bacchus have a like dependance,
Pray copy Bob in measure and attendance.'"

John Timbs
Club Life of London Vol. II
London, 1866