Samuel Pepys’s diary, 7th June 1665: ‘The hottest day that ever I felt in my life, This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us,” writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw’.
This is a very odd time to be starting a project about Londoners’ relationship to drinking. When I put up my first post, all of three weeks ago, I was hoping that this site might encourage people to go out and visit London’s bars in a spirit of bibulous curiosity; I think I can be forgiven for being wrongfooted by a sudden attack of ‘events’. At a stroke, the notion of going into a bar to meet a friend for a drink has become impossibly exotic, a lost custom of a lush epoch. However, our current predicament is an obvious opportunity to take a look at the most celebrated pandemic to have hit this or any other city. Pepys is our man on the ground here, and his account of seeing quarantined plague houses in Drury Lane is significant; Drury Lane is, of course, in the parish of St Giles, and this doomed locality was ground zero for the epidemic. Plague had been quietly festering here since early in the year, and a parish official later admitted to Pepys that he was only recording a portion of plague fatalities as having actually died from the illness. With brutal directness, the authorities tried to stop the spread by locking up infected houses and imprisoning anyone left inside for forty days, marking the doomed premises with a red cross on the door. In April the first house was shut up but neighbours took pity on the inmates, overpowered the guards and released the afflicted into the streets.
Other parishes viewed St Giles with horror and more strenuous attempts at quarantine were made, but it was too late. The disease crept into Holborn, down Chancery Lane to the Strand, and eventually into the City itself. The churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields contained so many hastily-interred corpses that the church’s foundations were undermined, leading to its demolition and re-building in the 18th century. (This seems entirely appropriate for St Giles, one of those London spots that seems permanently blighted. After all, the phrase ‘one for the road’ is a local coinage, deriving from the custom of condemned convicts receiving a last drink outside the church, half-way point on the journey from Newgate to Tyburn.)
On 13th of July Pepys writes: ‘Above 700 died of the plague this week’. A week later Pepys was in Deptford, seeing off friends who were leaving the city for the country, and one them gave him a bottle of ‘plague water’ as a prophylactic against the disease. Plague water was an interesting concoction, produced by macerating handfuls of leaves and roots in white wine and brandy. (An adventurous distillery in Minnesota has recently launched its own version of the beverage, using a 17th century recipe sourced from a pamphlet called ‘The London Distiller’ of 1667.) I suppose that any alcohol would have better than drinking straight London water, which remained a hazard to life well into the 19th century.
The plague peaked in September, after which a cold autumn shrivelled the contagion. The king finally returned to London on 1st February 1666. All told, somewhere between 68,000 and 100,000 Londoners had died: roughly a quarter of the capital’s population. If I was writing this in more normal times I would now be suggesting that curious topers should investigate the pubs of St. Giles. There’s The White Hart, a neat Edwardian pub occupying a spot that has been associated with drinking for 700 years; or The Angel, a pub next to St.Giles-in-the-Fields, and which is associated with the ‘one for the road’ custom. Both are welcoming and interesting and God knows when you or I will be able to drink in them again. However, it is worth mentioning that the period after the Great Plague saw a boom in the growth of taverns and hostelries, so perhaps there is hope for a 21st century revival for London’s pubs; they have, as we all know, been closing at a distressing rate over the past few years.
As of today, Tuesday 24 March 2020, all of Britain has, along with most of the western world, been placed under lockdown. Hard to know what’s going to happen next but, if supermarkets are any guide, many familiar brands of alcohol will be in short supply. But consider this: if Prohibition gave us the Gin Rickey, the Southside, and other sticky concoctions designed to mask the taste of raw ethanol, then maybe our own grim times will find expression in a new generation of ‘artisan’ cocktails. For example, the ‘Quarantini’ could consist of any remaining dregs of booze you’ve got left in the house after two weeks’ isolation (e.g. a mouthful of grappa, a half-drunk bottle of Nigerian Guinness, an in-flight Beefeater miniature, an ex’s Tia Maria gift set), mixed and chilled as appropriate, and gently imbibed in front of re-runs of Porridge, Poirot, Bargain Hunt, etc. Happy Hour can be whenever you like: I’m synchronising mine with Star Trek – The Original Series, but I wouldn’t judge if you opted for the breakfast showing of Minder.