The following is an extract from Chapter 7 (‘The plain an gwarry’) of my The Real World of Poldark: Cornwall 1783-1820.
Drink and the public house were accepted as central to popular culture in the eighteenth century. The involvement of publicans in the national sport of wrestling has already been noted. Many pubs would also have a skittles or kayle alley built on to attract extra custom. Moreover, pubs were unlicensed at this time and could open whenever they liked. They would range from the up-market inns with stables and facilities for the gentlemanly traveller to the two-roomed cottage, locally termed a kiddlywink, selling beer, as did widow Tregothnan’s kiddly at Sawle.
In proportion to the population there would also have been a lot more pubs than now, although of course they did not suffer competition from supermarkets and other outlets. Celebrations involving drinking were not limited to special occasions, feast days and holidays. On first pay days or promotion there were various ‘treating’ customs and paying for a drink for workmates was expected, if not demanded. Funerals were also occasions for heavy drinking. Richard Polwhele in 1822 criticised Cornish funerals as resembling the Irish, with ‘such excess of drinking’ and ‘such howling at the graves of the deceased’. Concerns about levels of alcohol consumption had reached the point where in 1805 the first temperance organisation in Cornwall – the Society for the Suppression of Drunkenness – was formed, significantly at Redruth in the heart of the mining country.
The growing concerns being raised about the demon drink had not only to overcome the customs of the poor but contend with the culture of the rich. Of the 1790s it was written that ‘no one thought … intoxication unbecoming, but rather the mark of a gentleman, as indicator of high breeding: the higher classes, clergy, as well as laity, seemed more frequently inebriated than the lower, their means of indulgence being more ample’. There was a strong element of hypocrisy when condemnations of the drinking habits of the poor emanated from magistrates and clergy with well-stocked wine cellars.
James Boswell’s account of his journey to Cornwall in 1792 reads more like a drinking tour of the great houses of the gentry. At dinner with Sir Francis Basset and his family at Tehidy, there was burgundy, champagne, Bordeaux wine, two kinds of madeira fortified wine, sherry, port, claret and liqueurs. While at Tregothnan Boswell sank three bottles with George Boscawen, the third Viscount Falmouth. They both got very drunk and next morning Boswell ‘rose considerably disturbed’. At Port Eliot Boswell sampled more madeira, hock (a German white wine), a 27-year old sherry, port, claret and champagne, with ‘excellent cider and admirable beer’. Nonetheless, he was still ‘displeased that neither my lord nor his son … encouraged a brisk circulation of the bottle, which in many houses is recognised as a test of hospitable reception’. In fact, he felt it was a ‘strange mode of Cornwall, where I could say I had never been asked to drink a little more’. Not that he seems to have needed much encouragement.