How the new beer houses of the 1830s kept dales folk off the gin

In a commercial directory of the North Riding of Yorkshire published in 1840, the entries for the five townships of upper Swaledale and Arkengarthdale list between them 23 inns and 15 beer houses. The difference between the two types of drinking establishment reveals something about attitudes to alcohol at the time.

Beer houses sold only beer and cider. They were a new type of hostelry introduced by the Beerhouse Act of 1830, which sought to address concerns about widespread public drunkenness. The chief culprit was the so-called gin craze. It had started in London in the 1700s, spawning the opening of unregulated gin houses. By the early 1800s they were spreading to towns and cities throughout Britain. The government wanted to encourage a switch from gin to beer drinking, which was seen as harmless, by allowing the establishment of properly regulated beer houses.

While local magistrates continued to control licences for traditional inns and taverns, the new beer-house licences were issued by the government, for a one-off payment of two guineas. Any householder who paid local rates could turn their home into a beer house. Drinking took place on the premises, usually in the front parlour. Typically there would be a barrel in the corner of the room, where the beer would be drawn off into jugs. Most beer houses were known simply by the name of the host, some of whom took to brewing their own beer.

Beer houses were instantly profitable and so quickly became popular, especially in towns and cities where it is said that by 1840 they outnumbered the traditional inns and taverns. That wasn’t quite the case in upper Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, but nonetheless the opening of 15 new drinking premises in 10 years was a significant social change in such a sparsely populated area. No doubt they were popular in slaking the thirsts of the resident lead miners, especially come pay day.

The 1840 North Riding directory listed the licensees of traditional inns and taverns among a special group comprising the social elite and people of generally high-status trades and professions, whereas the beer-house keepers were listed among the general traders, such as joiners, stonemasons and shopkeepers. Subsequent directories didn’t list the beer-house keepers at all, which probably indicated a decline in their reputations as bona fide traders.

Such was the growth of beer houses that the government had to bring the scheme to a halt. The Wine and Beerhouse Act of 1869 stopped the issue of any new beer-house licences. Existing premises were put under local licensing control, in line with the inns and taverns. Thereafter beer houses could convert to full public-house licences, with the right to sell wines and spirits. Many that did so adopted the name King William IV in honour of the monarch who had given royal assent to the Beerhouse Act of 1830. Until the spate of pub closures of recent years it was quite common in towns and cities to find small pubs called William IV in the middle of terrace rows of houses or shops, indicating their probable origin as a private home that became a beer house.

The beer houses of upper Swaledale and Arkengarthdale did not enjoy such longevity. The collapse of the lead-mining industry in the 1890s probably signalled the closure of all of them. A continuing general decline in prosperity into the 1900s also forced a significant decrease in the number of the traditional inns, from 23 to the present 10, although in modern times the burgeoning visitor trade has generated the creation of new hotels to supplement the old inns.

The locations of the defunct inns are probably all well known, but it would be interesting to hear from anyone who might know the location of any of the old beer houses. Clues might be sparse and hard to find.

For more on beer-house keepers and life in general in upper Swaledale and Arkengarthdale, as described in the North Riding directory of 1840, go to Life in the 1840s.


About Will Swales

Amateur historian with a special interest in Swaledale, Yorkshire.
This entry was posted in Swaledale history and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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