The Brewers' Lament: Porter and Politics in Late Seventeenth-Century England

By Palmer, Douglas B. | The Historian, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Brewers' Lament: Porter and Politics in Late Seventeenth-Century England


Palmer, Douglas B., The Historian


Besides this Excise, how our charges do rise You plainly may see, if you open your eyes That this is not this thing, which such a profit doth bring For this tax was surely made for the King, Not the Brewers.

"The Brewer's Answer," Seventeenth-Century English ballad (1)

EDWARD WARD'S POEM "The Hudibrastick Brewer" satirized the political strength of larger and commercial English brewers at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Ward's verses remarked

   Therefore since some from brewing Tubs
   Of Ale have ris'n to Purple Robes
   And climb'd aloft, as 'tis well known
   From smoaky Stoke-hole to a Throne;

   When Brewers have from Tons [sic] and Coolers
   Arose to be our Sov'reign Rulers,
   And still to their immortal Praise
   Build Coaches daily out of Drays;
   Nay, often sit with Approbation
   Among the Wisdom of the Nation

   And look as big, and talk as fair,
   As any Whig or Tory there... (2)

Ward, who operated a struggling public house and small brewery in the poor London neighborhood of Moorfields, refers to his competitors: the larger commercial brewers of eighteenth-century England. They seemed to resemble the type of monarchs that the nation had gone through a great deal of effort, and no small amount of bloodshed, to replace over the course of two revolutions in the seventeenth century. Moreover, as some perhaps viewed the late Stuart kings, the rise of these brewers did not seem particularly merited by their political acumen; the brewers appeared to have directly ascended from the fires boiling their worts to a throne, complete with regal purple regalia. Perhaps most alarming, these larger brewers, many of whom started out in small public houses like the one Ward operated, resembled another group of arrivistes: the Tories and Whigs of English politics.

Ward's poem, like all good satire, mirrored the political and economic realities of the English brewing trade. Ward was further correct in asserting that several of the brewers of England possessed considerable wealth and political clout. Brewers served as justices of the peace, churchwardens, mayors, and members of Parliament. Sir John Parsons, founder of the Red Lion Brewery in London, provides one particular example; Parsons served as the Master of the Brewers' Company in 1689 and a Member of Parliament from 1685-1717. Known as the "Jacobite Brewer," Parsons published a laudatory eulogy dedicated to Charles II at the king's death in 1685. (3) In spite of his Jacobite politics, however, Parsons managed his influence in a Whiggish Parliament to support his Red Lion business. A Parliamentary Committee of Trade report dated 8 February 1697, for example, reported that the Red Lion Brewery had been awarded a lucrative contract for supplying beer to His Majesty's ships. (4)

Parsons' Jacobite politics did not prevent him from profiting from his political connections, even if faced with a Whig-dominated Parliament. (5) At the level of the smaller brewer, however, the engagement with participatory politics took a different route. Whig historians, like Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), viewed England's progress to political liberalism and commercialism as an inevitable path towards modernity: The enlightened would pull up the teeming throng from political and economic anachronism. (6) Marxists adhered to a similar determinism, since the working classes, mired in a sense of medieval and religious superstition, would simply be unable to stand up to the oppressive forces of modern capitalism. Early modern laborers, according to Friedrich Engels, "never talked politics, never conspired, never thought." (7)

The views of both Whig and Marxist historians regarding popular culture have, of course, been challenged by subsequent generations of historians. "The 'people'" according to Kathleen Wilson, "constituted an 'invented community' in eighteenth-century political argument, one conceived, significantly, as lying outside formal political structures and as having interests dichotomous to those in power. …

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