From safe source to public menace: The transformation of Beer in Victorian England

By Jimmy Gilligan (MA ’20), Department of English, Kansas State University

A group of English curates sit around a table. Some are drinking flat ale and all are gorging themselves on a variety of foods. The topic of their discussion is equally undivine as their gluttony. 

No, it’s not a Monty Python skit; it’s the opening scene of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley(1849). 

Witnessing such a scene in a contemporary American home, or in one of the thousands of taprooms across the country might be met with amusement – or perhaps social media outrage. 

But – while one must not overlook the strong critique of The Church of England occurring in the opening chapter of Shirley – a beer-drinking  scene like this wouldn’t be regarded as blasphemous or out of the ordinary if an unexpected visitor were to stumble into it during the first half of the nineteenth century. 

A key part of ale’s popularity in the period is that, like tea, it was safer to drink than unfiltered water [1]. As Daniel Pool notes in What Jane Austin Drank and Charles Dickens Knew (1994)“alcohol was generally safer than un-treated water, which, at least in urban areas, gave rise to the cholera epidemics of the century” (Pool 210), a fact that Bronte indirectly refers to throughout the novel, as she’s writing during a major cholera outbreak. Tea was also much more expensive due to the fact that it had to be imported first from China, then from India (Pool 210). On the other hand, the main ingredients for beer – oats and barley – were grown in England, making it much cheaper for consumers than tea, which contributed to the beverage being associated with a lower socioeconomic status.

During the first part of the nineteenth century, beer production and the popularity of beer – especially among the working classes – expanded concurrently. As Randy Mosher writes in Tasting Beer, “new technologies such as steam, instrumentation and cast iron, scale increased to dizzying levels … London Porter breweries brewed 1,200,00 barrels in 1810” (Mosher 18). Not only was beer more plentiful, it was also becoming more popular. 

The House the Jack Built by George Cruikshank (1853)

Tangentially related to the increase in beer production was the fact that after the Beerhouse Act of 1830, the number of Beerhouses (public houses that served exclusively beer) in the country for the lower classes grew exponentially; in fact, according to Nicholas Mason, the appeal was so great for those who drank the beer and those who made the beer that “within six months of the Beer Act’s taking effect, over 24,000 beer houses had sprung up throughout England and Wales” (Mason 109). As Pool notes, this law was established to allow virtually anyone to sell beer, because of “the government concern about the rising consumption of spirits among the lower orders” (Pool 211). This law was especially intended to benefit the factory-owning upper classes, because working-class employees who drank beer as opposed to gin were more productive and reliable.  

Beer itself – especially when consumed in public urban centers – was a marker of low class: “Coffee and tea were replacing small beer for all but the poorest folk, and gin roared into popularity with such force as to upset the social fabric because of high levels of consumption” (Mosher 231).

As odd as it may seem today, Beerhouses were a logical solution for alcohol abuse, because beer wasn’t lumped in with spirits such as gin and rum as a dangerous stimulant or a threat to the social order. This distinction is related to their relative alcohol contents, as well as the fact that beer was a cheap and safe drinking source. In short, beer was not the controlled substance then that it is today. Interestingly enough, however, most beer had what we would regard as a relatively high alcohol content. Mosher notes that at the midcentury mark, beers were between five and 13.8 percent alcohol, with most of them in the five to seven percent range (Mosher 234). 

The initial Temperance Movement in England, which developed as a reaction to liquor consumption, even allowed for the consumption of beer and wine in moderation, according to Lillian Shirman (180). However, as Shirman notes, starting in the 1830s full abstinence was earning support through the work of many working-class teetotalers “who were imbued with a single purpose fanaticism which condemned anything less than total abstinence from alcoholic beverages, distilled for fermented” (Shirman 180). 

The House the Jack Built by George Cruikshank (1853)

Despite this pressure for total abstinence from alcohol, it took decades of public pressure until the Church of England Temperance Society was established in 1861, the first official support of the movement by the church (Shirman 182). 

Applying this brief exploration into the role of beer in Victorian culture to Shirley’s opening scene, it would seem that in the context of the setting for this scene (1811-1812 Yorkshire) beer-drinking are clergymen largely acceptable. Especially given the fact that this is a private setting, rather than a public one. 

However, in the context of the novel’s composition (1849), the opening scene would be much less acceptable to the general public: a shift that’s indicative of a growing distrust of the Church of England among the masses.

As J. Russell Perkin notes, “If the state of the English church were to be extrapolated from the behavior of the three curates in the first chapter, the need for church reform would be very clear” (61).

While the present-day reaction to this scene would undoubtedly be mixed, scene such as our beer-drinking curates would be viewed as far more irreligious at the end of the nineteenth century, as compared to the beginning of it. 

Works Cited

Brontë, Charlotte. Shirley. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Mason, Nicholas. “The Sovereign People Are in a Beastly State: The Beer Act of 1830 and Victorian Discourse on Working-Class Drunkenness” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol.29, no.1, 2001, pp.109-127.

Mosher, Randy. Tasting Beer, 2nd Edition: An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink. Storey Publishing, 2009. 

Pool, Daniel. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Perkin, J. Russell. Theology and the Victorian Novel. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.

Shiman, Lilian L. “The Church of England Temperance Society In the Nineteenth Century.” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, vol. 41, no. 2, 1972, pp. 179–195. JSTOR,

[1] While today ale is one of the branches of beer-types, in Victorian England ale and beer were for the most part interchangeable terms. Until the late nineteenth century, all beer brewed in England was produced using top-fermenting ale yeast, and thus, all were ales. Lagers, made with cold-fermenting yeast originated in the Bavarian region of Germany didn’t reach nations such as England until the second half of the nineteenth century (Mosher  254), and took a while to catch on.

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