Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Beer Shop

Today the media headlines are all about binge drinking and the apparently low cost of alcohol. Citizens are concerned. Governments are concerned. Something must be done!
It was ever thus.
In 1830 Parliament passed the Beer Act. There were serious concerns in those days about the consumption of cheap gin, then a fairly recent invention. The act was designed to promote beer as a more healthy beverage than gin and enable any rate-payer to apply for a 2 guinea license from the excise authorities to brew and sell beer from their home. The Beer Shop was born. They were distinct from taverns and alehouses, usually larger operations, which were still required to get their license from the Justices of the Peace. So in the context of Wolverton the proprietors of the Radcliffe Arms and later the Royal Engineer would need to make application for their licenses to the local bench, whereas George Spinks, the owner of the Locomotive Beer Shop needed only to pay his two guineas to the Excise and set up his own brewing pails to remain in business. Later in the century successive acts of 1869 and 1872 brought all establishments selling or dispensing alcohol under much tighter control.
Wolverton only ever had one beer shop. It was located at the very north end of Bury Street beside the canal. It probably opened in 1840, as soon as it had been built, and operated as an Eating House and Beer Shop until it was pulled down in the later part of the 1850s to make way for workshop expansion.

The shop was operated by George Spinks and his wife Eleanor. Spinks was born in Spalding in Lincolnshire and somehow fetched up in Caernarvonshire where he met and married his wife and where their first child was born. By some means or other he heard of Wolverton and moved there in 1840 to set up his Eating House. Given the fact that the new population was largely male and single at that time I imagine they did a good business.  While in Wolverton they ran a busy household. In 1841 they had four lodgers and a servant and in 1851 five children and a servant. Given that the front room was taken up by shop activities there was very little living space for the family.

Hugh Stowell Brown, who worked in Wolverton as a young man from 1840 to 1843 and later had a career as an eminent Baptist preacher in Liverpool offers us this little vignette: 
At the station close to the canal bank there was a small temperance coffee-house, kept by a man named Spinks. A few of us thought that we might hold a Sunday School there. We obtained the use of the room, and started the Sunday School, and I taught there on Sunday forenoon and afternoon for some time. That was the first and for more than a year the only religious service of any kind in Wolverton.
I suppose that his description of the establishment as a "temperance coffee-house" reflects the prevailing view of the day that beer was not essentially a harmful drink. 

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