As I was sharing some information with colleagues I mentioned that in 1701 a malt tax was introduced which raised the price of beer and forced the poor to drink water increasing Cholera and other water born diseases across the country. This reminded me of our continual struggle in museums to correct so many commonly held myths about the past and Sandwell’s historic buildings: secret passages, priest holes, visits by Guy Fawkes, William Shakespeare, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Richard III, ghostly nuns, haunted wardrobes, smells of tobacco etc.
One of the most pervading (don’t get me started on thresholds, pot-luck and ‘raining cats and dogs’!) is that in olden times everyone drank beer because the fresh water was foul, polluted and tasted bad and was known to spread illness and disease. Beer for breakfast, dinner and supper – for refreshment, for celebration and just for passing the time. This just isn’t true. Fresh water supplies were highly valued and if you had a fresh clean water supply you would certainly drink the water. There are references to people drinking water throughout history although for obvious reasons there are more references to enjoying wine or ale.
“Let us make use of a healthy, natural drink which will sometimes be of benefit to both body and soul – if it is drawn not from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook.” ~ Lupus Servatus, Abbot of Ferrieres (9th century)
“Ale if I have any, or water, if I have no ale’ ~ Ælfric’s Colloquy (10th century)
When Renaissance artist Michelangelo was suffering from kidney stones, a doctor advised him to drink waters from a spring outside of Rome. Later the artist wrote to his physician stating “I am much better than I have been. Morning and evening I have been drinking the water from a spring about forty miles from Rome, which breaks up the stone…I have had to lay in a supply at home and cannot drink or cook with anything else.”
Most of Sandwell is particularly well favoured with clean water springs, as a consequence of the underlying geology. There are great deposits of glacial sand, which filters and cleans the water and clay, forming underground reservoirs. West Bromwich still has the Sand Well in Sandwell Valley and the Lyne Purl on Stoney Lane, near the hospital. The Lyne Purl was the main water supply for West Brom until it was condemned in 1848. In 1606 the manorial court had forbidden washing filthie clothes and beastes bellies in or near it.
In 2014 during the restoration works at the Oak House barns we uncovered a well lined with 17th century brick, although it is likely that the well itself is considerably older. You can see the spot marked with a semi-circle of bricks in the courtyard if you visit the site today. Also as any competent home brewer will tell you – bad water makes bad beer. Where towns didn’t have a good clean water supply, or sufficient fresh water, significant expenditure went on providing pipes and conduits from further afield. In Lichfield, where I live not-withstanding the pools in the town centre, from the 14th century water was piped into the city centre from the appropriately named Pipe Hill, and the medieval culverts and pipes of Exeter still survive; the medieval engineers placed the lead pipes in tunnels running beneath the streets so that when a water main burst there was no need to dig the entire street up. Perhaps something our own utility companies could take a look at! Beer cost money whereas water was free (try suggesting that to the water companies today!) and in the absence of licensing legislation anyone could buy grain, make a brew and sell it to their neighbours.
The West Bromwich court appointed two ale tasters annually who were empowered to sample beer being sold in the parish and fine the brewers of (and ultimately destroy) beer of poor quality. It is clear that the common preference was for beer over water: Andrew Boorde, in his 1542 Dyetary of Health, wrote: “water is nat holsome . . . for an Englysshe man, . . . water is colde, slowe, and slake of digestyon. The beste water is rayne water so be it that it be clene and purely taken Next to it is rōnynge water, ye whiche doth swyftly rōne from the Eest into the west vpon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed is ryuer or broke water, the which is clere rōnynge on pybles & grauayl. Standynge waters the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng is cōmendable, but standyng waters, and well waters, to the which the sōne hath no reflexciō, although they be lyghter thē other rōnyng waters be, yet they be nat so cōmendable. And let euery man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be purryfyed with froth, duckemeat, and mod, for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingendre many infyrmytes”. And the Italian physician Michele Savonarola had this advice for pregnant women: . . .”beware of drinking cold water. It is not good for the fetus and it causes the generation of girls. So keep drinking wine”. Advice an expectant friend of mine, living in Montpellier, Southern France, received almost verbatim from her doctor in the 1990s (except for the bit about generating girls!)
Frank – Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage