13.9. Beer Drinking and Beer Houses

Another factor which affected the labouring people in late 1830 was beer. The Beer Act was passed in 1830, and came into effect on 10th October. This allowed any rate-paying person to open a beer-shop on the payment of 2 guineas annually. This was in addition to the existing public houses, which needed a licence from a magistrate. Further, the tax on beer was reduced, such that the effective price of beer to the client was reduced by 20 %. 

24,000 beer-shops were opened in England and Wales in the following six months, and we know that many were established in the following days in the principal areas of the Swing Riots, as there are many references to the plots hatched in them. The consumption of beer in the country – measured by the malt tax received by the Government – increased by 40 % from 1829 to 1831. 

The effects on the “disturbances” were various:

  • much of the conspiration was carried out in them;
  • many labourers were convinced to join in the riots, while they were under the influence of drink;
  • the men in the violent mobs going from town to town were often intoxicated (but, in general, not the groups who were negotiating wage increases with the farmers);
  • the men spent more on drinking than in the previous months, and thus required more income.

It is clear that men who are spending their evenings drinking, are not starving.

“A mob of 180 persons collected at his house, demanding “bread or blood.” The greater part of them were intoxicated, but they said, that they and their children were starving. The larger part of that mob consisted, not of agricultural labourers, but of smugglers from the small villages upon the coats of Sussex, whom the vigilance of the Government prevented from carrying-on their trade.”

(Mr. J. Smith, M.P. for East Sussex; Hansard, Special Commissions – Amnesty, House of Commons, 08 February 1831, p. 252)

“I have Reason to know that during the Agricultural Riots the Persons so excited were acted on in those Beer Houses, and that the Delegates who travelled and who preceded the Mob met them at the Beer Houses, and there met with them in a State of Excitement and Inflammation of Mind.”

(Select Committee of the House of Lords on Charges to County Rates in England and Wales, 1834, Evidence of Rev. Harry Farr Yeahman, Magistrate in Dorset and Somerset, p. 318)

“… I should state likewise, that the men who suffered the extreme penalty of the law, for setting fire to places in Hampshire, the whole of it came under my own investigation; I sat six weeks every day till I had sufficient evidence to convict; I had before committed them to prison, but finding the evidence not satisfactory to my own mind, I let them out on bail, and it was not till a twelvemonth afterwards that I procured sufficient evidence, by my own exertions, and by a little police I established, to carry the law into effect; these men I saw continually, and from the time of their committal till the day before their death, they entreated me to use every exertion I had in my power to put a stop to the beer-houses, for they said that those beer-houses brought them to their disgraceful end;  I am likewise the chairman of the visiting magistrates, in the absence of Sir Thomas Baring, and I have had a good deal of conversation with the characters committed at the special assize for punishment; I think we had 97, and I do not think out of the 97 there were twenty that did not date their misery to arise from those beer-houses.”

“How many were sentenced to death that you alluded to just now?” “Four were sentenced to death; one to transportation for life. I think I had 120 witnesses before me.” 


“Were either of those men who were under sentence of death or transportation, keepers of beer-houses?” “No, they were not; it is very remarkable, that all the leaders and agitators in that riot were petty tradesmen, such as journeymen blacksmiths, journeyman carpenters; not labourers, but men that really did not want; it arose from a love of mischief with them.”


“During the time you have acted as a magistrate for the county, have you seen any alteration in the habits and morals of the lower classes, since the law was passed enabling the beer-houses to be set up?” “Not a week passes without having five or six women attending and complaining of the money which their husbands spend in the beer-houses, which is not brought home to their houses.”

……..             “You said that those persons that were convicted, two of whom were sentenced to death and one to transportation, admitted that the origin of their crimes arose at those beer-houses?” “I constantly attended them, and they begged me to warn every person that came before me, that they owed their untimely end to nothing but the company they met with in those beer-houses, and being enticed to do what they did.”


“Have not the riots occurred during the last two years?” “They were in December 1830.” 

“Did not those arise from other circumstances besides the beer-houses; was there not great distress at the time?” “I think they arose more from people being led away by false views of things, and having placards placed in those houses, which were regularly sent round.”


“You have stated that crimes have been concocted at the beer-shops; in you opinion did any incendiary fires take place previous to the passing of the Beer Act?” “None.”

“Have any incendiary fires taken place since the passing of the Beer Act?” “Yes; all the fires that have happened, have been since the passing of the Beer Act; I suppose 20 or 30 fires in the county.”

“Have any of the offenders that have been detected been traced upon the night when the fire happened to beer-shops?” “All of them to beer-shops that very evening.”

(Cobbett, Political Register, Vol. 81, 3rd August 1833, pp. 286-310, reporting on evidence from The Rev. Robert Wright, magistrate of the county of Hampshire, resident in Winchester)

“Do you attribute any thing to the better Economy pursued by the Poor themselves?” “No, I cannot say that I do. I think that there is a great deal more Money spent by the Poor in Beer now then there was some Years ago.”

“In consequence of the greater Cheapness of Beer?” “Yes.”

“And perhaps to the greater Facilities of buying it at the new Beer Shops?” “Yes; I am sorry to say that is very much so indeed.” 

“Have you found any sensible Diminution in the Sums of Money lodged in the Savings Bank the last Year?” “No, I have not; they are generally contributed by those Persons who are regular, and do not frequent the Beer Shops; but I hear very great Complaints from the Wives of poor Men at present, that their Husbands are tempted daily to go to those Beer Shops; and asking me whether there is any Remedy for their remaining in the Shops from Morning ‘till Night.”

“What Answer did you give to that Question?” “That I was not aware there was any Remedy.”

(Minutes of Evidence, 1830-1, p. 353)

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