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Porter Myths and Mysteries

by Martyn Cornell

Just over two centuries ago, in 1802, a man called John Feltham, bought out a guidebook called The Picture of London which included three pages on "The Porter Brewery" (using "brewery" in the 18th-century sense of "brewing industry"). Feltham said the story he was about to tell of the origins of porter, "not having yet been printed, we think … proper to record in this work". What he then wrote has been the basis of almost every history of porter ever since. Sadly, little of it appears to be true.

Porter, Feltham said, "obtained its name about the year 1730 from the following circumstances … prior to the above-mentioned period the malt liquors in general use were ale, beer and twopenny … In course of time it … became the practice to call for a pint or tankard of three-threads, meaning a third of ale, beer and twopenny; and thus the publican had the trouble to go to three casks and turn three cocks for a pint of liquor. To avoid this trouble and waste a brewer by the name of Harwood conceived the idea of making a liquor which should partake of the united flavours of ale, beer and twopenny. He did so and called it Entire or Entire-butt, meaning that it was served entirely from one cask; and as it was a very hearty nourishing liquor it was very suitable for porters and other working people. Hence it obtained the name porter."

Feltham's version of history, sometimes lightly leavened with two extracts from other narrative published in 1760 and 1788 which gave 1722 as the year of porter's invention and revealed Harwood's first name and brewery site, has been repeated by nearly every writer on beer since 1802, often using exactly the same phrases. The Penny Magazine for March 1841, for example, contains an almost identical account to Feltham's 38 years earlier, while Richard Valpy French, in Nineteen Centuries of Drink in England, published in 1884, offered an easily-recognisable paraphrase of his words. Another 25 years on, in 1909, and Frederick Hackwood's Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England was still using whole sentences originally written by Feltham in his own account of the birth of porter a century before (though Hackwood was wildly wrong with the year porter first arrived, suggesting it was "about 1750").

This repetition over two centuries has reinforced the apprehension that entire, alias porter, was invented in 1722 by a single brewer, Ralph Harwood of Shoreditch, to save publicans the bother of mixing a pot of "three-threads" from three separate casks, and was called entire because it was "entirely" from one cask. However, the surviving contemporary accounts suggest none of these statements is true.

Ralph Harwood was certainly a brewer in Shoreditch, and from at least 1703, when he is recorded as a brewer leasing four cottages in nearby Hoxton. His brewery was the same premises as John Byde's Bell brewhouse, which existed off Shoreditch High Street in 1653. Byde was Master of the Brewers' Company in the City in 1643-4, and Sheriff of London in 1647. His beer was popular with the diarist Samuel Pepys, who recorded several trips out to Mile End in 1667 to drink at a pub called the Rose and Crown, "a good place for Alderman Bide's ale". A man called Thomas Byde, presumably a descendant of the alderman, still owned the brewhouse site in 1780, but by then it had been leased out to other brewers for very many decades.

Kent's Directory and Alphabetical List of Trades in London for 1736 shows Ralph and James Harwood in partnership as brewers in Shoreditch. Ralph Harwood was an important enough operator to be a trustee of the Lea Navigation in the 1740s. Other London beer makers who were trustees of the navigation included the big porter brewers Felix and Peter Calvert, and Rivers Dickinson, whose family ran the Cannon brewery in Clerkenwell. The Lea river was vital to London's brewers, as it was the route the malt barges used to bring their supplies from the great malting town of Ware, in Hertfordshire, which produced up to 60 per cent of the malt consumed in the capital's beer. To ensure this supply route operated efficiently, London's bigger brewers always took a great interest in keeping the navigation running.

But the Harwoods' brewery in Shoreditch, unlike the Calverts' or Dickinson's, was never among the very biggest concerns. In 1760 it was only the 20th biggest brewery in London, making 17,760 barrels a year, not even a quarter as much as the biggest, Calvert and Seward. Even in 1792, when it was run by Thomas Proctor, it ranked only 23rd out of 148 breweries in and around the capital: it was brewing 19,993 barrels of strong beer and 312 barrels of small. Nor, under the Harwoods, was the Shoreditch business particularly successful. Ralph Harwood was continuing in partnership at the brewery with James Harwood in 1744, the Shoreditch ratebooks reveal. In August 1747, however, the Gentleman's Magazine recorded the bankruptcy of Ralph and James Harwood of Shoreditch, "brewers and partners".

Despite this setback, the Shoreditch ratebooks show Ralph and James were still together at the brewery in 1748. But Ralph died in September 1749, in Tottenham. James Harwood was on his own at the Shoreditch brewery in 1750, though by 1752 it was in the hands of Andrew Pankeman and Co, and the ratebooks suggest Pankeman ran it until Thomas Proctor took over in 1773. All the same, the brewery was listed under the name Harwood by the Annual Register in 1760, and when James Harwood died in 1762, his obituary notice described him as "an eminent brewer in Shoreditch, and the first that brought porter to perfection". Thus it was James Harwood, rather than Ralph, who was first identified with porter, and as the man who perfected it, rather than its inventor.

Porter certainly needed perfecting. The only eye-witness report of the birth of this new style of beer was made around 40 years after the event, by an elderly “outdoor clerk” (or brewery rep) at one of the London breweries, writing in the London Chronicle in November 1760 under the pseudonym Obadiah Poundage. Poundage told the Chronicle's readers that when “Porter or Entire Butt” was first brewed, “it was far from being in the perfection which since we have had it. I well remember for many years it was not expected, nor was it thought possible, for it to be made fine and bright, and four and five months was deemed to be sufficient age for it to be drunk at.”

Poundage, who claimed to be 86, and who said he had worked in the brewing industry for 70 years, wrote that porter had first been brewed “about the year 1722”. But he did not name anybody as the first brewer. It was not until nearly 30 years after Poundage's account appeared that Ralph Harwood was put forward as the great originator. In “A Short Description of Shoreditch Parish” by “A Parishioner”, published in the Gentleman's Magazine on October 14 1788, the anonymous author wrote “... on the east side of the High Street is Proctor's brewhouse, formerly Ralph Harwood's, who, it is said, was the first brewer of porter-beer, which he made there.” The article then quoted a song by “poet Gutteridge, a native of Shoreditch”:

It was thus around 70 years after porter arrived that Ralph Harwood was first named as its inventor, and by a fellow resident of Shoreditch, hardly an unbiased witness.

Certainly London's drinkers liked to have their beers mixed to achieve the flavour they wanted, a habit that lasted centuries. Mixed beer drinks such as mild-and-bitter, Burton- and-bitter or brown-and-mild continued to be popular until the 1960s (and even in the late 1990s mixed drinks such as “lager and light” were occasionally asked for in London's pubs). Three-threads is probably a corruption of “three thirds”: it is not unlike the name given in East Anglia until recently to a mixture of mild and bitter, a “pint of twos”. (The name cannot, incidentally, be derived from taps or spigots “threaded” or screwed into the separate casks, as some modern writers have asserted, since the spigots were never screwed but always hammered in to a hole bored not quite all the way through the end of the cask.)

Turning back to the contemporary evidence, Obadiah Poundage in 1760 said that before porter, in the years of Queen Anne (1702-1714), the regular drinks in London were ale, which was still sweet and heavy, and beer, which was much more hopped and thus more bitter. However, Londoners found the beer too bitter, and “in general” the ale and beer were mixed together, and bought by customers from the “Ale draper” (or alehouse keeper) at “twopence halfpenny and twopence three farthings the quart”.

Meanwhile, Poundage wrote, the country gentry “residing in London more than they had in former times”, had brought with them around the start of Queen Anne's reign a taste for strong pale ales. Pale malt for pale ale cost more than the brown malt the London brewers used for their regular brown beers, not least because pale malt required better-quality barley, and more expensive fuel to dry it, while brown malt could be made from poorer grain. As a result pale ale retailed at 45 per cent more than regular brown beer: four pence the quart, or two pence a pint, which gave it the name twopenny.

London's brown beer brewers, prompted by loss of sales to the pale ale brewers, began trying to win back customers by adding more hops to their mild (or new) beer, Poundage said, while the habit also grew of allowing the brown beer to age – “stale”. This would have given it the sort of tart, vinous qualities found today in a Belgian or Dutch “oud bruin” brown ale. (“Stale” originally meant a liquid that had been allowed to stand long enough to clear, and the modern, derogatory sense of “not fresh” only started coming in during the 16th century). The maturing was done by third-party entrepreneurs who would buy fresh, mild beer, keep it until it was matured, or “stale”, and then sell it to the publicans, an arrangement which saved both brewers and publicans cash-flow difficulties.

Some drinkers now liked to order “mild beer and stale mixed”, others “ale, mild beer and stale blended together at three pence per quart, but many used all stale at fourpence per pot,” Poundage said. Notice, incidentally, that Poundage's recipe for the three-drink mixture, ale, mild beer and stale beer, is different from Feltham's version of three-threads 42 years later, ale, beer and twopenny – and notice, too, that he says the mixture was “blended together”, not “mixed in the pot”.

A couple of small “good pub guides” to the city written in verse give a rare contemporary record of the beers drunk in London's taverns around the time this was happening. The “Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms”, was published about 1716-1718, just after George I arrived on Britain's throne, and its companion, the “Guide for Malt-Worms”, was written in or soon after 1720 (since it mentions the South Sea Bubble). They were probably composed anonymously by the London tavern keeper and poet Edward “Ned” Ward. The most frequently mentioned drinks in the two books are mild and stale (sometimes paired together, suggesting they were indeed drunk together) and twopenny. Others are amber; double beer; stout; “humming stingo”; oat ale; October; Dorchester (at eight pence a quart, twice the price of twopenny); “pale Hocky”; Burton ale; Oxford ale; “York's pale ale”; and “Bull's Milk Beer”.

There is also one reference in the Vade Mecum, under the Bull's Head, Leadenhall Street, to “Tom Man's Entire” – “for so the Belch is called that sets his Face on Fire”. This suggests that as early as 1718, entire was already being used as the name of a beer. Porter is not named in either book, except possibly in a comment in the Guide that a tavern in Shoe Lane is “filled/with folks that are in Porter's liquors skilled.” But under the Hole in the Wall, Hatton Garden, the Vade Mecum says:

This is the only mention of three-threads in the two guides. But it suggests the drink came to the publican ready-blended in full casks for dispensing straight away, rather than having to be mixed by the tavern keeper or potboy in the tankard from three separate casks. It would certainly make sense for a popular drink to be pre-mixed. It is also at least possible that a replacement for three-threads was called entire butt, meaning unmixed beer, if three- threads was, by contrast, “mixed butt”, full casks of ready-blended pale ale, mild beer and stale beer. The fact that three-threads only gets one mention, while other beers such as mild and stale get several, incidentally, suggests it was not as popular as later writers claim, a blow to the idea that porter was invented as a replacement for three-threads.

However, there is a far better explanation for the name entire butt, which links it to contemporary brewing practice, rather than Feltham's idea that it was called “entire” because it was drawn from only one cask. Butt-beer was a synonym for porter, according to the London and Country Brewer, a brewing manual first published in the 1730s. Entire, or “intire”, was an expression used by brewers to indicate a beer where the first, second and third mashes had been mixed and fermented together to make one grade of beer, rather than brewed separately to produce three different-strength beers: the 1735 edition of the London and Country Brewer, for example, mentions “intire small beer”, brewed from a complete set of mashes, rather than just the last, weak mash, the normal source for small beer. Entire butt got its name because, as 18th century recipes make clear, it was butt-beer made from an entire set of mashings, unlike stout butt beer, another brew mentioned in the London and Country Brewer, which would have been a strong (or stout) beer made from the first, strongest mash only.

Obadiah Poundage wrote in 1760 that the invention of entire butt was deliberate, that “about the year 1722” the brown beer brewers of London “conceived there was a method to be found” which would do away with the middlemen who were storing beer until it was mature and selling it back to publicans as “stale” at a higher price, and also do away with the subsequent need to mix beers to match the public's taste. Poundage said the London brewers decided that “beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public.” This improved brew sold at three pence a quart, the same price as three-threads and less than stale beer, and although “at first it was slow in making its way … in the end the experiment succeeded beyond expectation,” Poundage declared.

As for the name of the new beer, Poundage said, “the labouring people, porters etc. experienced its wholesomeness and utility, they assumed to themselves the use thereof, from whence it was called Porter or Entire Butt.” This is slightly confused, like much of Poundage's narrative, but it does confirm that at the beginning porter and entire butt were the same beer, something that has been doubted by some writers. It also confirms that the beer was nicknamed porter because it was consumed by porters.

Several fanciful stories have been needlessly invented to try to explain the name porter, when the simplest answer is the one given by contemporary sources: it was called porter because porters drank it. The important place of porters in the economic history of London has now been generally forgotten, but for several hundred years they were a large, thriving and hugely necessary part of the capital's commercial life.

London had thousands of registered porters in the 18th century, the two main groups being the “fellowship porters”, who mostly unloaded “measurable” goods (corn, coal and salt) from ships on the river; and the “ticket porters”. The ticket porters, who wore a pewter “ticket” or badge bearing the arms of the City of London, were themselves two separate groups, “uptown porters”, concerned with carrying goods about the city, who wore a white apron as well as the “ticket”, and “waterside porters”, who worked on the city's wharves and quays doing the portering jobs the fellowship porters did not touch. Thousands more men combined unofficial, casual portering with other unskilled jobs such as “chairman”, or sedan chair operative.

There were at least two public houses called the Ticket Porter in London, one in Moorfields and the other (which was only closed and demolished around 1970) in Arthur Street, near London Bridge. Charles Dickens invented a riverside pub called the “Six Jolly Fellowship Porters” in his novel Our Mutual Friend. The Fellowship Porters are said in fact to have used the Ship, in Gate Street, just to the north of Lincoln's Inn, where new members were initiated. A description of the rite written in the 1920s says that a quart of strong ale was ordered, and the novitiate's badge of office was dropped into the mug. The would-be porter then had to extract the badge with his teeth without spilling any ale.

The porters' hot, hard work bought the desire for a sharp, filling, refreshing, nutritive beer: it has been estimated that 18th century manual workers were getting 2,000 calories a day from beer, the equivalent of an uneatable quantity of bread. As a result they were great frequenters of pubs, both on duty and off. A writer in the Penny Magazine in 1841, describing a former public house called the Triumphant Chariot near Hyde Park Corner, in the 1770s said that outside the pub, by the kerb-stone, was a bench for the porters and a board [that is, table] over it “for depositing their loads” while they stopped for “deep draughts of stout … such as are idealised in Hogarth's Beer Street.” Similar resting-places for porters outside pubs, the Penny Magazine said, “were once universal.”

Sometimes the beer was forced upon the porters. One London brewer, Reid & Co of the Griffin Brewery in what is now Clerkenwell Road, hired teams of porters to shift sacks of malt into the brewery. Reid's made the porters pick up their pay at one of its pubs, and it expected them to drink a pint of beer in the pub after they had been paid. When Reid's increased the price per load of malt it paid to the porters, it also increased the amount of beer they were expected to drink, to a “pot”, or two pints. Brewers were big hirers of porters, with Barclay Perkins's Thames-side brewery taking on up to 140 fellowship porters at a time to unload malt barges.

Poundage's claim that the brewers “conceived” the idea of entire butt supposes that they knew enough to be able to design a beer that they could be confident would capture public taste. Poundage was a propagandist for the brewers (his letter to the Chronicle was a long argument against higher beer taxes) and would want to make them appear skilled operators. It seems quite possible, however, that the first entire butt was a lucky accident. The sole ingredient of the earliest porters, apart from hops and water, was “high brown” “blown” or “snapped” malt, which had been dried very quickly at high temperature. The result was that the husks of the malt grains snapped like heated popcorn, and the malt became very dark in colour. It is hard to see the first “blown” malt being made deliberately: there would have been no ready market for apparently ruined grain. It is easy to imagine, however, that one day in the early years of George I's reign a Hertfordshire brown malt maker accidentally left a batch of malt too long in the kiln, and had to sell the popped, almost charred result cheaply to one of his London brown-beer brewer customers.

The brewer (perhaps it was Ralph Harwood, it probably wasn't one of the leading brewers, who would have no need to buy cheap, damaged materials) made a beer out of this “damaged” malt which turned out to be qualitatively different from the brown beers then being made by London brewers from “ordinary” brown malt, which was kilned at a temperature five to ten degrees Fahrenheit lower than “high brown” malt. The new beer sold well to the city's drinkers, and the brewer went back to the maltster to ask for some more of this new kind of malt. Whether or not it was seen as a replacement for “threethreads” or any other popular drink in London's alehouses at the time, the city's “labouring class”, among them those thousands of porters, soon came to prefer the new beer to any other brew.

However, there is evidence that porter was never “invented” at all, but evolved out of the brown beer already being made in London. A hundred years after the arrival of porter a brewer called John Tuck, author of the “Private Brewer's Guide to the Art of Brewing Ale and Porter”, published 1822, said porter came about because the London breweries “began to improve” the “heavy and glutinous” brown beer that existed about 1720. Tuck said that the “improved” brown beer “was started, well hopped, into butts, and was kept a considerable time to grow mellow. Being the beverage of labouring men, it obtained the name of PORTER and was called INTIRE BUTT BEER.” Porter or entire butt, according to this version of history, was simply a hoppier, more aged interpretation of London brown beer, matured in butts, brewed using an entire mash, which caught on with the portering classes.

The earliest specific mention of porter by name comes in a pamphlet by the Whig political journalist and poet Nicholas Amhurst dated May 22 1721, which talks about dining at a cook's shop “upon beef, cabbage and porter” as being preferable to the life of a galley slave. Five years later, in November 1726, the 21-year-old Swiss traveller César de Saussure, writing home from lodgings in East Sheen, on the edge of the capital, said about England that “nothing but beer is drunk and it is made in several qualities. Small beer is what everyone drinks when thirsty; it is used even in the best houses and costs only a penny a pot. Another kind of beer is called porter … because the greater quantity of this beer is consumed by the working classes. It is a thick and strong beverage, and the effect it produces if drunk in excess, is the same as that of wine; this porter costs 3d the pot. In London there are a number of houses where nothing but this sort of beer is sold.”

One wrinkle to the porter story is the commonly repeated assertion that first public house to sell the new beer, was the ironically-named Last (a last in this case being a shoemaker's wooden pattern) in Curtain Road, Shoreditch, not too far from Harwood's brewery. (The pub is better known now under the name and address it has had since its rebuilding in 1876, the Old Blue Last, Great Eastern Street.). It is not clear that Harwood either owned or supplied the Last, though the pub was certainly owned by a set of later lessees of Harwood's Shoreditch High Street brewery, the Pryors, who took it with them when they merged their business with Truman, Hanbury & Buxton of the Brick Lane brewery, which is why it sports Truman's insignia today.

However, the early porters, as Poundage states, were comparatively raw, and it took some time before the discovery that porter needed a very long maturation period before it was "brought … to perfection”. This discovery probably did not take place until just before 1735, though certainly no later than 1745. During that time the maturation period for porter rose from four or five months to over a year, which would have helped with clearing the drink as well as improving the flavour. The London and Country Brewer said it took nine to 12 months for beer made from wood-dried malt to lose the smoky tang. Tying up capital in beer and casks for a year or more without any cashflow (or with negative cashflow) until the matured porter went out to the pubs must have badly hurt the pockets of the first brewer to experiment with longer maturing. If it was James Harwood who perfected the making of porter, and if it meant the Shoreditch brewery suffered a cashflow crash while the first “long maturation” butts of porter were slumbering in cellars, perhaps this explains why the Harwoods went bankrupt in 1747.

Once the successful techniques for porter brewing and maturing were understood, brewers took over publicans' cellars and also hired “every vault and cellar that could be appropriated”, filling them with butts containing young beer and leaving them for at least 12 months, paying rent to the cellar owners at the rate of one shilling per butt per annum. The supervision of the maturing porter was undertaken by a brewery official known as the “abroad cooper” or “broad cooper”. He was “abroad” a lot – in the late 1740s Whitbread's brewery, for example, was hiring cellars in 54 different locations around London for its porter butts to mature in.

The abroad cooper's job could be dangerous: in 1758 it was recorded that the cooper employed by Mrs Hucks's brewery in London (one of the biggest at the time) had died when he went down into a cellar in Pall Mall filled with 40 butts of unstoppered beer. Contemporary reports blamed the “steam” off the beer, but the cooper, and the sedan chair man who went down after him, and who also died, were undoubtedly suffocated by the carbon dioxide being given off by the beer as it underwent secondary fermentation in the butts.

The rent for all those cellars was costing Whitbread around £100 a year. The capital tied up in casks was also considerable: Thrale's Anchor brewery in Southwark, one of the biggest porter brewers, had almost 19,000 butts in 1748, worth more than £8,500, or around 11 per cent of the brewery's total capital.

By now had already been discovered that maturing porter in vats on the brewery site was not only cheaper and more convenient – and less dangerous for those who had to venture into the cellars – but produced better-tasting, brighter beer. Alderman Humphrey Parsons of the Red Lion brewhouse at St Katharine's in Lower East Smithfield, just to the east of the Tower of London, was apparently the innovator, building vats at his brewery in 1736 that would hold 1,500 barrels each, (54,000 gallons, equal to 500 butts) for £536 a vat. His beer was fine enough to earn the description “Parsons' Black Champagne” from the poet Oliver Goldsmith, and the Red Lion brewery survived, under the name Hoare & Co, until its takeover by Charrington in 1933.

The lease of Harwood's old brewery, meanwhile, passed from Thomas Proctor to Thomas Marlborough Pryor and his brother Robert some time before 1803. They were members of a Quaker family which ran a brewery in Baldock, in Hertfordshire and their uncle, Vickris Pryor, was a malt supplier to Truman Hanbury & Buxton's brewery in Brick Lane, a short distance from Shoreditch. The Pryor's lease on the Shoreditch brewery ran out in 1816, and they apparently could not get it renewed. However, Sampson Hanbury, the head partner in the Brick Lane brewery, and himself a Quaker, was looking for new sources of capital, and invited the Pryors to join the Truman partnership.

The Pryor brothers brought to Truman's their trade, worth 20,000 barrels a year, their capital, £47,350 (giving them three shares each in the Brick Lane brewery) and their own pubs, including the Blue Last. Sampson Hanbury thought it was an excellent deal, telling the Villebois brothers, descendants of Sir Benjamin Truman, whose agreement was needed to extend the partnership: “Our good friends and neighbours, Messrs Pryor … only wish to have as much profit of our trade, or a trifle more, as they can bring trade with them … they will add capital, more than equivalent which with truth I can say seems very advisable, if not necessary … We want capital and managers, I question if the whole trade could produce two persons who would unite so much of what we want – knowledge of the brewery in every part, economical habits, industry and respectability with money. Could you manage to come to town next week?” The agreement was made, and for the next 138 years the brewery in Brick Lane was to be run exclusively by members of the Hanbury, Buxton and Pryor families.

The Shoreditch brewery, meanwhile, looks to have closed when the Pryors departed, ending more than 160 years of brewing on the site – and leaving behind the mystery of its exact role in the creation of London's most famous beer.

This has been adapted from Beer: The Story of the Pint by Martyn Cornell, published in August 2003 and available from the Brewery History Society bookshop.

Copyright © 2004 the Brewery History Society