Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/John Barleycorn




The introduction of the hop plant into this country provoked the indignation of many sturdy Britons, who were entirely satisfied with honest malt liquor, such as their forefathers had oft-times made merry upon. Had they not rejoiced at harvest-home, and gladdened their hearts at Christmas with the good old English beverage? They refused to believe that it could be improved by the infusion of an additional ingredient, and many years after the hop had been successfully grown in Kent and Sussex, the prejudice against it remained deep and general. It was a delicate and fragile plant, requiring to be petted and nursed like a sickly child, ill adapted to thrive on our English soil, and liable to diseases which had no power over barley.

But, notwithstanding prejudice and obstinacy, increasing attention was paid, year after year, to the culture of hops. It is certain that the plant was not brought into England until 1524 or 1525, but in the course of the following half century, the principles of its growth had been reduced to a science. The earliest “hand-book” on the subject is Reynold Scot’s “Perfite Platforme of a Hoppe Garden.” The only merit which Mr. Scot claimed for himself was that of giving his advice in a lucid form, “not bumbasting the same with the figures and flowers of eloquence, to the glorye of my pen, or to the obscuring of this misterie.” He was careful to premise that his book was not intended for those who were unwilling to labour, “which sort of people are greedy to test of the marrow of gaines, and loth to breake the bone of labour,” and who “in the ende buye a great kyte insteade of a little larke.”

Many futile attempts were made at this early period to cultivate hops in England. Mr. Scot, while acknowledging that the best plants could be obtained from Flanders, censures the Flemings for “dazeling us with the discommendation of our soyle,” and asserts that we need not go abroad for that which we can find at home. This was a little ungrateful. The hop, it is true, grows wild in England, but it has never been brought to complete perfection. The conclusion arrived at by a Parliamentary Committee in 1857, after listening to a great deal of evidence, was, that “the best hops in Europe are grown in Bavaria and Bohemia.” Those grown at Farnham are considered the best produced in England. Next in quality are the hops of Sussex and Kent. Latterly, the crop has failed to a very large extent, and the growers must be well-nigh disheartened by their many losses. In the debate which took place on the Hop Duties in the Session of 1861, a member, who had for some years cultivated hops on his own land, stated that he had occasionally been in doubt whether the hops on his poles were worth picking,—so poor were they in quality, and so unduly severe was the pressure of the duty; for it is a strange anomaly that the same duty is charged on hops of the worst quality as on hops of the best. The uniform rate is 17s. 7½d. per cwt., while hops of foreign growth are taxed 2l. 5s. per cwt.

The only mention made by Mr. Scot of the great object of dread to the hop-grower is in the following passage:

The hoppe that lykes not his entertaynement, namely, his seate, his grounde, his keeper * * * * commeth up greene and small in stalke, thicke and rough in leaves, very like unto a nettle. [It] will be commonly devoured or much bitten with a little blacke flie, who also will doe harme unto good hoppes, where the garden standeth bleake, or the hoppe springeth rath; but be not discomforted herewith, for the heate of the summer will reforme this matter.

Either Mr. Scot was unusually fortunate in his own plantation, or the ravages of the fly have become more deadly in our own time. In a single night irremediable mischief is sometimes occasioned by the fly, or “louse,” and the hops hang black, fetid, and rotten on the poles. The cost of cultivating an acre of hops is estimated to be, under the most favourable circumstances, from 22l. to 30l., and the grower asserts that arable land may be brought under cultivation at a sixth of the expense.[1]

Long before excise duties were laid on hops, beer and ale were laid under contribution to the revenue, greatly to the dissatisfaction of the consumer. “Is this an age,” asked one, in 1635, “to be in a man’s right wits, when the lawful use of the throat is so much neglected, and strong drinke lies sicke on his death bed? ’Tis above the patience of a malt horse to see the contempt of barly, and not run mad upon’t.”

Presently the indignant writer waxes merry, having probably paid his respects to the despised beverage, and he breaks forth into a spirited catch:

We care not for money, riches, or wealth,
Old sack is our money, old sack is our wealth,
Then let’s flock hither,
Like birds of a feather,
To drinke, to fling,
To laugh and sing,
Conferring our notes together.[2]

A vigorous denunciation of those who imposed duties on ale was made in 1649, in a pamphlet entitled “A Curse against Parliament Ale, with a Blessing to the Juncto, a Thanksgiving to the Council of State, and a Psalm to Oliver.” It was imprinted “Noll-Noll, 1649,” and this allusion to Cromwell was followed by very strong language:

Base miscreants, rebells, could ye not invent
Some other plage in your damned parliament,
To vex good fellows, but you must put down
Strong ale, the chief upholder of the crown?

Now against winter, too, in snow and frost,
Basely to rob us of our pot and tost!
The ancient drink of England to forbid,
The cursed’st act the juncto ever did!

Nor was the writer content with this expression of his opinion. He aimed a few personal strokes at those who had countenanced a tax of eight shillings a barrel on “strong beer and ale,” and one shilling a barrel on cyder and perry:

How you doe thrive by theft and live by murder,
Goe on in fraud till you can goe no further;
And when on top of all your haughty pride,
Make yourselves saints by acting regicide.

He wishes, in rhyming prose, that the food of the “juncto” may be “hopps and grayns;” and Cromwell is anathematised by him in no complimentary terms.

Strong ale was at this period the popular drink in England. No merry-making could progress satisfactorily without it: in the houses of the humbler classes “nut brown ale” was deemed indispensable as at a marriage or christening feast, or at any rural festival. In the ballad which recounts the “Pedigree, Education, and Marriage of Robin Hood,” we are shown how important a part was played by the March brew on a certain interesting occasion:—

The morrow, when mass had been said in the chapel,
Six tables were cover’d in the hall,
And in comes the squire and makes a short speech,
It was, “Neighbours, you’re welcome all;
But not a man here shall taste my March beer,
Till a Christmas carol he does sing.”
Then all clap’t their hands, and they shouted and sung,
Till the hall and the parlour did ring.


When dinner was ended his chaplain said grace,
And “Be merry, my friends,” said the squire:
It rains and it blows, but call for more ale,
And lay some more wood on the fire.”

Nor has this pride in home-brewed ale yet departed from the families of all our English squires. There are houses where the host still thinks his stout October superior to the oldest wines in his cellars, and delights in seeing the field take a deep, long draught before starting off in the wake of the hounds. Very potent, too, is this country-house ale, and seductive in the influence it exerts. Woe to the inexperienced youth who attempts to rival his hosts’ achievements, and to empty the horn or tankard! In Robin Hood’s days men could drink anything, as we may learn from another old ballad describing a great feast given by Little John:—

They all with a shout made the elements ring,
With a hey down, downe, and a downe,
So soon as the office was o’er,
To feasting they went with true merriment,
And tippled strong liquore gillore.

We live here like squires or lords of renown,
Without e’re a foot of free land,
We feast on good cheer, with wine, ale, and beer,
And ev’ry thing at our command.

Jolly fellows were these! Even the ladies were not proof against the attractions of ale. Here is “an old woman’s wish:”—

With a sermon on Sundays and a Bible of good print,
With a pot on the fire, and good victuals in’t,
With ale, beer, and brandy, both winter and summer,
To drink to my gossip and be pledg’d by my commer.

In “Times Alteration,” another of these long-forgotten ditties, the bard laments modern changes, but does not deny to wine its proper tribute of praise:—

A man might then behold,
At Christmas, in each hall,
Good fires to curb the cold,
And meat for great and small;
The neighbours were freely bidden,
And all had welcome true,
The poor from the gate were not chidden,
When this old cap was new.

Blackjacks to every man
Were filled with wine and beer,
No pewter pot nor can
In those days did appear;
Good cheer in a nobleman’s house
Was counted a goodly show,
We wanted no brawn nor souse,
When this old cap was new.

If the statements of our old ballads are to be accepted as historical facts, his Majesty King Henry II. once revelled with his subjects over some ale:—

Then to their supper were they set orderly,
With a hot bag-pudding and good apple-pies.
Nappy ale, good and stale, in a brown bowl,
Which did about the board merrily rowl.
And the king then drank to the knight,
Here’s to you,” he said, “in wine, ale, and beer,
Thanking you all for your county cheer.”
Quoth Sir John Cockle, “I’ll pledge you a pottle,
With the best ale in Nottinghamshire.”[3]

The author of the “high and mightie commendation of the vertue of a pot of good ale,” before quoted, was perhaps the most earnest in his admiration, and his verses were republished under numerous different titles. His remedy for all accidents in life was a quart of October:—

When heavinesse the mind doth oppresse,
And sorrow and griefe the heart doth assail,
No remedy quicker, but take up your liquour,
And wash away care with a pot of good ale.

The priest and the clerk, whose sights are dark,
And the print of the letter doth seeme so small,
They will con every letter, and read service better,
If they glaze but their eyes with a pot of good ale.

The poet divine that cannot reach wine,
Because that his money doth oftentimes faile,
Will hit on the veine and reech the high straine,
If he be but inspir’d with a pot of good ale.

Although, perhaps, there are few such enthusiasts left as this writer must have been, yet the national beverage has not been entirely superseded, even by French wines at 12s. 6d. a dozen. John Barleycorn still has his ardent admirers, and our neighbours across the Channel may try in vain to wean our allegiance from him, and transfer it to their milder potations.

L. J. Jennings.


  1. See Evidence before the Parliamentary Committee, 1857.
  2. Aristippus; or, the Jovial Philosopher, 1635.
  3. A pleasant ballad of King Henry II. and the Miller of Mansfield.