Food and drink in 17th and 18th century inns and alehouses

Janet Ford takes a light-hearted look at inns and alehouses in 17th and 18th century Britain by reviewing the diaries of three travellers who experienced them.

Inns and alehouses were and are one of the most important buildings in towns and villages, as they are places to socialize, have a meal, discuss various matters of the day, and – for some people – to get drunk. Two important elements of the inn are food and drink. I am going to be looking at the food and drink that was sold in 17th and 18th century inns and what travellers, who used inns, thought of them. To do this I am going to be looking at travel diaries, notably the diaries of Celia Fiennes, who travelled around England in the 1690s, John Byng, who travelled around England and Wales between 1781 and 1794 and Karl Moritz, who was German, and travelled in 1782.

Food in Inns

In terms of what they had to eat, all three travellers had, bread, mutton and cheese. Celia Fiennes also had salmon, trout, eggs, bacon and West Country tarts. John Byng wrote that he ate veal, fruit tart, chicken, cake, beef streak, sage cheese, pigeon, cabbage, cucumbers, salad with cheese, cold meats, rice pudding, gooseberry pie, beef, pig, fowls, partridge and scotched collops. Finally, Karl Moritz also ate roast meats, salad, pickled salmon, Cheshire cheese, fowl and cold meats.

These lists of food show a variety of aspects about the food in inns. It shows that inns offered a variety of food, as the list includes meats, fish, dairy products, vegetables and desserts. The type of food on offer also indicates that the most common foods in inns were bread, cheese, fish and meats, as they were written about the most. It also illustrates that food in inns between the late 17th and late 18th century did not change that much, as all three travellers wrote about similar foods.

 The Quality of the Food

The travellers also commented on the quality of the food and what they thought of it. Of course opinions are different between people, as people have different tastes, but their opinions still give us an idea of what the food was like. It seems that all three travellers had good and enjoyable meals with good quality food as well as some not so nice meals. An example of a good meal is shown with Celia Fiennes at an inn in Lancashire: “At the Kings arms, one Mrs. Rowlandson, she does pot up the Charr fish the best of any in the Country”. (1)

An example of a poor meal can be seen with John Byng in an inn in Silsoe, Bedfordshire: “The chops at last burnt up and our bad dinner came in”. (2) Another example of a poor meal is illustrated with Karl Moritz at an in inn Cheshire: “Cheshire cheese roasted and half melted at the fire. This, in England it seems, is reckoned good eating, but, unfortunately for me, I could not touch a bit of it”. (3)  A possible reason why the German Karl Moritz did not enjoy some of his meals could have been down to his lack of experience and knowledge of English food.

These views suggest that food was of a mixed quality in inns; some inns took food seriously as they produced good food, while other inns cooked poorly and food was not at the center or seen as important.

Drinks in inns

The drinks sold in inns included beer, ale, wine, brandy, port and other sprits. Alehouses sold beer, ale and – in the 18th century, spirits – The difference between ale and beer is hops, as ale was made from just malted barley and beer was made from malted barley and hops. Hops made beer a lighter drink compared to ale. In terms of what the travellers drank, Celia Fiennes experienced wine, beer and ale, John Byng drank ale, beer, brandy, port and wine, and Karl Moritz drank ale. It seems that it was not until the 18th century that sprits became popular in inns, as Celia Fiennes, who travelled in the 17th century, did not write about them at all.

The Quality of the Drinks

The quality of the drinks for the English travellers was mixed; there were both good quality drinks and poor quality drinks. An example of a good drink can be seen with Celia in an inn in Nottingham: “Att ye Crown Inn is a Cellar of 60 stepps down, all in ye Rock Like arch worke over your head: in ye Cellar I dranke good ale”. (4) An example of a poor drink is shown with John Byng at an inn in Dover: “not-drinkable wine!” (5)

The view of the drinks from Karl Moritz was quite different from the two other travellers. He had not tried English ale before and had evidently not got used to the taste of it. He wrote of a Derby inn, the “strong ale of England did not at all agree with me”. (3)

The two natives show that the quality of the drinks was mixed, as many inns had good drinks, while there were a few with bad drinks. Interestingly, even though drinks were at the heart of many inns, some inns still produced or sold poor quality drinks. And the fact that the German traveller found the ale too strong indicates that a person had to get used to English ale before they could truly enjoy it.

These travellers tell us a great deal about food and drink. They first show the variety of food and drink on offer. They secondly show that, much like today, the quality of the food and drink was slightly mixed. Finally, even though some inns had poor food and drink, most inns were of good quality and were enjoyed by most travellers.