Heritage: How people tackled their thirst in days gone by

Romford Brewery c1890. Picture: Havering Local Studies Library

Romford Brewery c1890. Picture: Havering Local Studies Library - Credit: Archant

In the days when water wasn’t safe to drink, even children drank beer, as Prof Ged Martin explains

It wasn’t always safe to drink water from wells and streams. The first mains supply reached Romford in 1863 but it was forty years before most of Hornchurch and Upminster could turn on a tap.

Even in the 1920s, suburban development in Cranham was hampered by water supply problems.

So everybody drank beer – processed, purified water. Even children were given a low-alcohol version, small beer.

In the 16th century, most local pubs brewed their own. Although its population was under a thousand, Romford town had at least fourteen brewers around 1570.

Farms and mansions also made beer. When Hare Hall, now Royal Liberty School, was built in 1768, the architect designed a brewhouse in one wing.

Gradually, one local producer became dominant. Edward Ind began brewing in High Street Romford in 1799. Major investment by the Coope brothers in 1845 created an industrial operation, linked to Romford station by its own sidings.

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Its last local rival was the Old Hornchurch Brewery, established in 1789 near St Andrew’s church. In 1925, it was bought out by a chain, which asset-stripped its pubs and closed it down.

At a celebration for Ind Coope employees in 1856, a “jovial drayman” recited this ditty:

“Ind and Coope’s strong beer your hearts will cheer / And put you in good condition;

And the man that will but drink his fill / Has no need of a physician.

‘Twill fill his veins, exalt his brains, / And drive out melancholy;

Thus a man with pence, and common sense, / May soon get fat and jolly.”

In 1787, a Romford pub claimed to have sold 4,000 pints over nine days of Christmas. In 1848, when the area of modern Havering contained 12,000 people, there were eighty licensed premises – one pub for every 150 people (and half of those children).

Romford inns were selling wine by the 16th century, perhaps to upmarket travellers.

Good vintages required specialist handling. “Matthew ffrancis, drawer of ye wine at ye Sun in Rumford” died in 1685. (There’s a modern hostelry on the same London Road site.)

The 18th century saw an insane craze for bingeing on gin. The human havoc this caused was lampooned by the artist Hogarth.

In 1764, Gabriel Cole, a Brentwood bricklayer, embarked on a boozing marathon, knocking back gin in eighth of a pint measures (about 60 millilitres a time). He consumed eleven (almost a pint and a half) in under an hour, “but attempting to drink a 12th expired”.

Another man died from excessive gin drinking at the Thurrock village of Stifford in 1767.

Coffee was slower to catch on. By 1835, Romford’s White Hart Inn had a coffee lounge. A “gentleman” from Thurrock (I use the term loosely) horse-whipped another customer for allegedly insulting his sister.

By 1886, there were two coffee houses in Romford High Street, and a third in Victoria Road.

In Hornchurch, you could get a cup of coffee at Mrs Manning’s bakery.

Coffee drinking was a genteel pastime.

However, Havering-atte-Bower had a Coffee and Reading Room, paid for by local gentry to keep villagers sober. With three pubs for fewer than 500 residents, this was a challenge.

Of course, our area was loyal to Britain’s favourite, a cup of tea. Into the twentieth century, grocers mixed their own blends.

John Drury’s lively history of Upminster quotes the advert for Joseph Wenn’s Broadway grocery shop.

“A cup of Wenn’s Tea / Is acknowledged to be / A famous restorer in sadness.

It quickens life’s flame / And enlivens the frame / And diffuses a spirit of gladness.

When acquaintances meet / By way of a treat / In fellowship social and hearty,

A cup of Wenn’s tea / Increases the glee / And greatly enlivens the party.”

Reading about Havering history can be thirsty work. Time to put the kettle on!