Sunday, 20 February 2011

Chop houses and Pale Ale

It's social history time again. Today we'll be learning something about London chop houses, through the medium of a review in a satirical magazine.


By an Habitué of all of them.


A critic on Dining Places soon discovers that his capability of forming a right opinion on any one of them depends much upon external—by which, after all, we mean internal — circumstances. For instance, at the Albion one can dine either with or without an appetite; at the French restaurants such a thing is a decided disadvantage, unless intended to be retained forever; but at the chop-houses, not only a gigantic appetite, but positive, or rather superlative hunger, is requisite in order to come up to the scratch in a proper manner, provided always the visitor be not a city clerk or a reporter on the Sun newspaper.

The class of chop-houses of which we are treating does not include coffee-houses where chops can be obtained, but such places as the "Cock," and, above all, the "Cheshire Cheese," which are chiefly characterized by a substitution on the floor of sawdust for carpet, and on the tables of steel forks for silver ones. Moreover, the waiters obstinately refuse to allow potatoes to be peeled previously to being served up, and altogether a regime is in force which would not be tolerated for one instant west of Temple Bar. When the writer of the present article comes forward as a candidate at the next general election, his cry will be "Reform for our chop-houses;" instead of "Repeal the Union," he will adopt for his motto, "Peel our potatoes;" and the Government, instead of being called upon to "redress our grievances," shall be invited to "dress our salads."

Of the "Cock "we shall say but little, as, although it is always crowing about its stout, which for the rest is very good, it has not yet attained a sufficient degree of civilization to admit pale ale on the premises. If the reader wishes to see a waiter horrified, let him go to the "Cock" and ask for a glass of pale ale. It would produce less effect were he to call for a bowl of prussic acid.

After a contest of some years, Mr. Dollamore, the worthy proprietor of the Cheshire Cheese, yielded to the popular clamour for bitter beer. One concession begets another, and the importation of sherry-cobblers was soon afterwards demanded and obtained. Encouraged by these successes, we have already commenced an agitation which shall not cease until the steel-forks are abolished; and we have made a solemn vow to "die on the floor of the house" unless the sawdust which covers it, to say nothing of other abuses, be speedily swept away."
"The Puppet-show, vol. 1" 1868, page 188.

It's easy to imagine that everywhere kept up with fashion in the past. But it clearly wasn't true. I still find it surprising that in the 1860's a pub would refuse to stock Pale Ale, like the Cock did. It must have been the equivalent of the type of pubs I used to like hanging around in. Deeply unfashionable establishments. The less impact they betrayed of the modern age, the more I liked them.

The Cheshire Cheese is, of course, still going strong. And still as reluctant as in the 19th century to keep pace with the times. I find something deeply satisfying about that.

The lesson? Pale Ale didn't immediately - or even after a couple of decades - conquer everyone's heart.


Anonymous said...

It's worth noting that the steel forks he complains about wouldn't be the stainless steel ones we know now. I'm not sure I'd fancy eating chops with rusty cutlery either.

Matt said...

Any idea what the Sun newspaper referred to was? The only one I can see that preceded the current one was published from the late 18th to early 19th century.

Martyn Cornell said...

Matt, there was an evening newspaper called the Sun (possibly the Evening Sun) published in London in the mid-19th century.

Anti-bitter beers commentary pops up in several places around the start of the 1850s: I've come across it in both the Times and Punch.

Barm said...

Reminds me of some of the eccentric little pubs you still see today that make a point of not selling lager.

Ron Pattinson said...

Barm, very good analogy.

Anonymous said...

Which of the three Cheshire Cheeses that can be found in downtown London were you thinking about, Ron? Cheers, S.