Duff Beer and Dodgy Dealings

A couple of weeks ago, when we were talking about the views from the Greenwich Wheel, I suddenly noticed a strange wonky building, just behind the curvy colonnade by the Pepys Building. It seemed all wrong in a world of straight lines and classical proportions and I mused about what it could be.
Well, Rod has done a little sleuthing (once again someone’s burning shoeleather on my behalf, for which I am humbly grateful…) and – get this – it was, most appropriately, for a building on the squiff, part of the original brewery. Presumably the navvies were testing the goods even as they were constructing the building.
They must have been desperate. My New Best Friend, The Reverend L’Estrange, has been telling me about the crappo food and ever crappier beer that the pensioners would have ‘enjoyed.’ It might have flowed freely (two quarts each a day,) but that probably had more to do with the fact that nobody would have wanted to drink it.
But I’m jumping ahead here. We need go back to the mid 18th Century and two characters. The dastardly Clerk of the Works of Greenwich Hospital, Mr Ibbetson (boo, hiss) and the saintly Lieutenant General, Mr Baillie, who blew the whistle on the evil misdoings of the wig-twirling Ibbetson.
Actually, there’s also a third character, Lord Sandwich, Lord High Admiral, the only person who bowled up to the Court of the Commissioners, an admirable thing until you realise it was so he could lay his hands on both the property and as much political power as possible. According to my NBF, he treated the hospital “as though it were his private property.”
One of the first misuses of power was over who was admitted to the hospital. Gradually, landsmen were allowed in whilst genuine veterans with certificates of service were allowed to die in poverty. The governor didn’t care – instead of attending his job once a week, he often didn’t make it once per year.
The grumbles began. A series of unsuitable stewards brought in regimens that gradually eroded what few rights and comforts the pensioners had. All manner of abuses from successive bigwigs – from purloining cash to giving out jobs for the boys, thrashing pensioners with canes to bringing in of Admirals’ fancy-women to take jobs that had been intended for naval widows (not only that, these ladies also enjoyed somewhat better conditions than the naval widows would have done – luxury apartments, medical attendance and drugs – even to courses of donkey-milk and luxury spa waters, all on the hospital.)
But Mr Ibbetson took things to a whole new level. Ibbetson called himself a veteran because he had had the job of purser to a line-of-battle ship. He neglected to mention that he had performed his duties by proxy and had never actually been to sea in his life.
At 5.00am one morning in April 1778, the pensioners in the George and Victory wards (the posh ones – the ‘model’ cabins shown to visiting gentry and given to pensioners of particularly long service) were turfed out of their beds, while a bunch of workmen pulled down the cabins to make rooms for Mr Ibbetson’s footmen. The only reason that they didn’t use the Royal Sovereign Ward was because it had already been turned into luxury apartments for the secretary’s family.
The pensioners complained loudly enough to get this stopped, so Ibbetson commandeered a public passage, turning it into a magnificent private gallery. The only way the pensioners (often peg-legged octogenarians) could now get to their rooms was up a rickety back stairway, down which they often fell, sometimes being killed.
Things got worse. The pensioners’ dead mates were dug up and their bones “irreverently thrown about” as the graveyard was ploughed up to make avenues and walkways. Ibbetson made sure that he also took part of the grounds to keep his personal nursery and cows.
Then it all started to go pear-shaped. The 18th Century-equivalent of an investigative reporter, Captain Baillie started poking around. He didn’t have to look too far to find abuse.
The boys’ ward stank so badly that “its odour acted like an emetic upon those strangers whose curiosity led them to visit it.” The pensioners’ shirts were becoming narrower and shorter. Their stockings had holes in them the moment they were put on. The soles of their shoes were made of brown paper. Their plates were beaten flat so that they couldn’t put much broth on them. The bread was inferior – when asked, the baker always said that it must be a bad batch. The meat was usually light, and often went missing entirely.
But oh, the beer.
Like most things at the hospital, things had started out well. The beer was tasty. It wasn’t so hard to make from hops and malt, and the brewer was paid ten pounds a year. But as the Reverend L’Estrange darkly says,to make it without those two basic ingredients – presumably too expensive for the likes of the pensioners – “required special knowledge – it became a mysterious, if not a diabolic art.”
Baillie, the Roger Cook of our day, noticed that the salary of the master brewer had quietly gone from ten to sixty pounds a year, as the hideous mix of chemicals, dodgy ingredients and god-knows-what became a feat of alchemy.
The mess now being piped underground was thick, sour and odorous and gave the men “convulsive gripes.” Rod tells me that that would mean the (wooden) fermenting vessels (and/or barrels) were infected to create such a vile concoction, though to be honest just diluting it with the rancid liquid that passed for water in those days would have been enough to kill some of the older tars. The “sour, crabbed and watery” drink sometimes actually was just water.
L’Estrange tells of a time when the pipes had been running water longer than usual and the butler went to ask why.
“Don’t you know it?” demanded the brewer.
“No, I do not” said the butler.
“Then,” replied the other, with a sneer, “you never will know.”
Rod and I have been discussing the new brewery on the ORNC, though we are both more convinced that it will be a different brewery area on the site – a later (and nicer, one hopes) version (I’d appreciate being set right on that) which is in or next to the Pepys building. Rod, who describes himself as “a humble brewer” says of the eagerly-anticipated Meantime brew “I would like to think that we can brew some better beer there than that…”
Yup. In this particular case, I won’t be at all upset if Meantime choose to be really rather inauthentic. Bring on those nice shiny metal vats and squeaky-clean pans…
Incidentally, when Baillie brought his findings before the Court of Commissioners, presided over by Lord Sandwich, “a most discreditable scene ensued.” He was treated “with ignominy,” labelled “a liar” and dismissed. Plus ca change…

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