Much Ado About Tippling

Alan Greening

Dramatis personae:

Elizabeth King, widow, the appropriately-named landlady of The King’s Arms, Hertford

Robert Stevens, woolcomber

George Thorowgood, his apprentice

Nicholas Onyon & Edward Smyth, his servants

Edward Bradford, an itinerant fiddler

Michael Larkyn, servant of Thomas Smyth, wheeler Thomas Barlegges, “of Ducketts”

Henry Wren, a persistent tippler

Henry Cranmore, apprentice to Edward Hopkyns (trade unknown)

Thomas Grover, not otherwise identified

“Wailers eldest ‘prentice, not otherwise identified.

William Waller was a tailor.

Every age has its behavioural problems and preoccupations, but one that is sure always to crop up is excessive drinking. On Wednesday, 16 May 1638, the Mayor of Hertford, Edward Lawrence, and the Steward, John Kelynge junior, sat as Justices of the Peace to take statements from some of the above-named concerning the events of the previous three days at the King’s Arms. No constabulary evidence survives, although one or more parish constables must have been involved, but the man who evidently started the ball rolling was Robert Stevens.

Stevens was prosperous enough to employ at least two servants, Nicholas Onyon and Edward Smyth, who “lived in”. One has to conclude that discipline was not his strong suit, since on the evening of Sunday the 13th he had to go looking both for them and his apprentice, George Thorowgood. He seems to have had a pretty good idea where to look: the King’s Arms. He found Thorowgood all right, but the tapster told him the other two weren’t there. Stevens was suspicious, but had to content himself with hauling his ‘prentice back home, no doubt with appropriate remonstrances.

Whether young George told him anything about the whereabouts of the other two we don’t know, but in fact they didn’t come home until around nine o’clock on Monday evening, and Stevens believed they had been at the King’s Arms throughout.

Onyon’s evidence has not survived, but Edward Smyth’s confirms that the pair were in the inn, somewhere, when Stevens called. Moreover, they spent Sunday night there, going to bed “about nine or ten of the clocke”. He says they spent sixpence apiece for bread, beer and tobacco, although in fact the bread (plus cheese) seems to have been for free. They also spent twopence for “one paper of tobacco”. and had drunk half a dozen flagons of beer (capacity unspecified) “for 2d apiece”. The arithmetic is confused, but unimportant.

Smyth says they left the King’s Arms about 8 o’clock on Monday morning and “went into the fields”, returning about 10 or 11 and remaining there all day “going and coming”. They found four people there in the afternoon playing shovelboard. He confirms that they stayed until about nine o’clock, “dranke of the Gam[e]sters beere”, and that Edward the fiddler was there.

Came Tuesday. Michael Larkyn, servant of Thomas Smyth, wheeler (i.e., wheelwright) also seems to have had time on his hands with little work to fill it. He says he went to the King’s Arms about two o’clock in the afternoon and was there with Thomas Barlegges, Henry Wren and – you’ve guessed it! – Edward Smyth and Nicholas Onyon. He played shovelboard with Barlegges, Smyth and Wren and they drank “three or four flagons of beer”. About nine o’clock his wife came “to bid him come home” (what a lovely little picture that conjures up!) but nevertheless stayed for supper with him, Barlegges and Smyth, and they spent “about 6d or 8d apiece” before going home about ten. Nicholas Onyon deigned to go home to his master about the same time, but the insouciant Smyth stayed all night.

About eight o’clock the apprentice Henry Cranmore turned up. He gave evidence that Edward the fiddler was there as well as the two who are marginal to this story, since their evidence does not survive, Thomas Grover and Waller’s apprentice. Grover, he says, went away about nine o’clock, but he and the rest were there all night drinking and tippling in a little back room away from the street – no doubt the room that had hidden Onyon and Smyth on Sunday. He, Barlegges, Larkyn, Grover, Edward the fiddler, Wren and Waller’s apprentice all played shovelboard.

Edward Bradford was damned in his interlocutors’ minds before he even opened his mouth: a masterless man and a wanderer. When he did so, he could only damn himself still further. He says he left Odell in Bedfordshire, his father’s home, “the next Tuesday after St Luke’s day last” (18 October) and since “has had no bydinge place….[but] hath wrought at diverse places and as a barber a fydler and a taylor”, He came to Hertford on Saturday, 12 May, and until Tuesday stayed at Henry Butler’s (The Globe Inn). At two o’clock on Tuesday afternoon he went to the King’s Arms and stayed all night. He agrees that the Larkyns went away “about ten or eleven”, that Grover left about the same time, as did Nicholas Onyon. Henry Wren “went away when it was dark” (sic), and Waller’s apprentice between eleven and twelve. He agrees that shovelboard was played for an hour or two, and says they had “three sowsed trouts and butter and cheese to Supper, but knoweth not what was spent and did fyddle and singe a songe there”.

Widow King plainly had some explaining to do. She stated in her evidence that Smyth and Onyon came to her house about four o’clock on Sunday afternoon and drank two flagons of beer, then went out and came in again about eight or nine at night and lay there all night. This does not, of course, tally with Smyth’s evidence, nor does she mention the presence of Thorowgood, but she does say that they were “afterwards” at her house and spent a shilling on beer. On Tuesday afternoon Thomas Barlegges, Michael Larkyn and Henry Wren came and played at shovelboard. “They were there till eleven of the clock in the night and not longer”. Either Elizabeth King did not know what was going on in her own pub, or she was being economical with the truth.

She was in trouble for allowing “evil rule” in her house, permitting tippling and illegal gameing and harbouring a suspected vagrant. It is easy to regard such authoritarian preoccupations as “Puritan”, but while it is true that Hertford’s governors at this period were mainly of the Independent persuasion, in fact all strains of religious belief were at one in this, if in little else: they wanted godly and disciplined communities, and legislated accordingly. The common people, those most likely to feel the firm smack of discipline, were not consulted.

Both tippling and gameing were indictable offences. But what was “tippling”? Much confusion arises from calling any alehouse a “tippling house”, and the promiscuous use of the noun “tippler” to mean both the drinker and the supplier of the drink. Legally, tippling was drinking in an inn or alehouse for more than an hour at a stretch, the possible moral objections to which, particularly as regards the poor, are fairly obvious.

One keeps coming up against an apparent nine o’clock “watershed”. This was not a fixed closing time, although the justices could, if they so chose, put such a restriction on any house, but seems generally to have been regarded as the hour by which all respectable folk ought to be at home and even abed. Those abroad later might be challenged by the Watch as suspected “common night walkers” and thus up to no good. It seems terribly early to us, but in an era when men perforce rose at dawn or even earlier, nine o’clock was not really so unreasonable.

Sunday and Monday were the busiest drinking days. Sunday was, for most, the only free day of the week, and provided men attended divine service (which was compulsory anyway) only the most extreme Puritans seem to have objected to restrained use of inn or alehouse. There were, nonetheless, common complaints from all over the country that serving men and apprentices neglected their masters’ business in favour of the alehouse, and the behaviour of Smyth and Onyon is corroboration enough of this in Hertford. What is astonishing is that they could stay away for two days at a stretch, then go back for a third session and one stay away for yet another night! Monday, of course, was “Saint Monday”, that unofficial extra holiday which, despite official disapproval, was a long time a-dying.

The evidence is incomplete: no statements survive from Nicholas Onyon, Henry Wren, Thomas Grover or Waller’s apprentice. Thomas Barlegges may never have made one. Ducketts was – and is – well down what is now Mangrove Lane and, although in St John’s parish, was well outside the 1638 borough boundary. All he had to do was go home and stay there until all the fuss blew over!

Penalties are only listed against Smyth and Larkyn: 6s 8d for two hours tippling for the former, 3s 4d for tippling and 6s 8d for unlawful games against Larkyn, which suggests that this was not his first offence. There must have been other fines: the least Elizabeth King could hope for was ten shillings for keeping a disorderly house. As for poor Bradford, who comes across as a rather likeable character, no doubt he was put firmly back on the road to Odell and warned never to come back.

The researcher into seventeenth century history has to cope with the often irritating fact that, unless they were dedicated Puritans who ransacked the Old Testament for wildly unsuitable names to inflict upon their unfortunate offspring, or worse, committed atrocities like “Affliction” or “Humiliation” upon them, by and large contemporary parents were singularly unimaginative in their choice of first names for their children. It comes as no surprise to find that their were two Michael Larkyns. This one, whom we have met before (see “A Miscellany of Misbehaviour” in Newsletter 27, reprinted in the HWLHS 25 Anniversary booklet) was the father, still Thomas Smyth’s servant fourteen years later and still, seemingly, ready for mischief. Nevertheless, he managed to get his son apprenticed to Smyth, and Michael junior was duly made free as a wheeler in 1631. A freeman was always known by his trade or profession, and young Michael would never have been referred to as “servant to Thomas Smyth” even if, as might well have been the case, he was still employed by him.

We do not know what action Robert Stevens may have taken against his servant out of court. It may or may not be significant that three years later a Nicholas Onyon was charged before the County Justices with keeping an illegal alehouse in Bengeo.


HCR Vol. 17: 259, 260 & 262 in HALS.

Hertford County Sessions Books, Vol. V, p 300.

This page was added on 10/01/2022.

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