Updated: Jul 24
One of my favourite images of eighteenth-century sociability is William Hogarth’s infamous depiction of punch drinking, in A Midnight Modern Conversation. First produced in 1732, it is a scene of revelry and debauchery. We see politicians, parsons, lawyers, and doctors all whittling away the small hours with copious amounts of liquor and tobacco. These are the “middling sorts:” respectable, working professionals trying to stay afloat in a period of rapid commercial change. At the centre of the print, we see an enormous, almost overbearing punch bowl. It’s filled to the brim with a swirling concoction of brandy, fruit, sugar and spices. The hour might be late, but this party’s only just getting started.
The print itself, and the men it so vigorously satirises, have already received considerable historical attention. With regards to punch, Karen Harvey has already demonstrated the liquor’s intimate connection to notions of raucous masculine sociability and its subsequent assimilation into more refined and domestic environments: a space where social norms could be licked into shape.
But something’s missing from the image. The men are drinking in the private room of a tavern or a coffeehouse. Where is the owner of this establishment?
It was this question of the missing publican that kickstarted my foray into the history of alcohol and intoxication in early modern England back in the pre-COVID days of 2019. I was particularly drawn to punch and wanted to learn more about the individuals who sold it and why they opted to do so.
Originally, punch was seen as a wholly curious, “exotic”, and largely unpleasant drink. In 1673, John Ogilby described punch as ‘very hurtful to European Bodies, if drank excessively, for it occasions Looseness.’ Primarily consumed abroad, especially by English and Dutch sailors in the Indian Ocean, the publican Ned Ward was one of the first proponents of this ‘infallible Cordial’ in England, penning a poem ‘in praise of punch’ his iconic London Spy.
By the 1720s, punch was all the rage. The Swiss travel writer César de Saussure provided a succinct illustration of punch’s character remarking that ‘punch is popular and always made according to tastes’. ‘A stranger who has not tasted it before’, Saussure continued, ‘will find it so good and sweet that he will drink of it without a thought that it might inconvenience him, but he will not fail to find out its hidden strength.’ There were delights and dangers lurking at the bottom of a punch bowl. These beverages were, after all, made with distilled spirits.
By the 1730s, a small number of punch-houses had mushroomed throughout London. These were establishments dedicated to the sale of this novel and increasingly popular commodity. Chief among them was James Ashley’s London Punch House on Ludgate Hill, which Ashley ran from 1731 until his death in 1776. Who was James Ashley? And why was his punch-house perceived as the premier location for drinking punch? I wanted to know more.
Fortunately, James Ashley was a prolific advertiser. His advertisements, which frequently appeared in the daily and weekly newspapers, reveal a man with acute business acumen. As witnessed by his trade card, Ashley positioned himself as a polite and respectable tradesman, retailing punch at affordable prices at an establishment suitable for the kind of middling professionals satirised by Hogarth.
Constructing this image was no mean feat. First, Ashley’s punch-house came to prominence at the height of the so-called “Gin Craze” — selling liquor on the cheap was highly contentious amongst certain members of the populace and punch-houses provided yet another source of liquor for a thirsty public. In a parliamentary debate from 1736, Sir Joseph Jekyll complained “how considerably the number of our punch-houses have increased within these few years.” Punch drinking, he lamented, had become “too excessive” amongst “persons of all degrees.” Ashely’s enterprise was in the firing line, and the 1736 Gin Act had an undeniable influence on his business.
James Ashley’s Trade Card (c. 1740) © The Trustees of the British Museum
Second, publicans had long been portrayed in popular print as dishonest charlatans swindling “good fellows” of their “full measure.” Even Ned Ward, a publican himself, concluded in The London Spy that victuallers were either snivelling swindlers or arrogant snobs, declaring in the final verse of his poem:
Thus is the Baseness of their Nature shown,
No sooner prosp’rous, but imperious grown:
By Wealth made saucy, by Misfortune cow’d;
When poor, too humble; and when rich, too proud.
Fortunately for Ashley, attitudes towards publicans thawed as the eighteenth century progressed, with historian Peter Clark going so far as to say publicans had “all the makings of a fully-fledged, respectable trade” by the beginning of the century. Similarly, Ashley employed a unique marketing technique through his motto ‘pro bono publico’ — tying the success of his enterprise to the commercial success of the nation. Such a provocative statement caught the attention of his contemporaries. The theatre manager and playwright David Garrick even referenced Ashley in the prologue of his play, The Jubilee in 1769.
Ashley’s motto might have made an impression on contemporaries, but it was his pricing strategy that caught the attention of his competitors. His model of selling punch, in smaller portions and at a lower price, was quickly copied by others, all of whom gave credit to Ashley for introducing the change, likely to piggyback off his success. Others tried to outdo him, with one Mr Ewen of the Star Punch House on Ludgate Hill (a mere four doors down from Ashley’s London Punch House) boasting in an advertisement from 1736 that “the inimitable” had been “outdone.” Ashley is not named, but it wouldn’t have been the first time the two publicans had targeted one another in print. By setting a retailing standard through his advertisements, Ashley was able to change the way in which punch was sold, in London and beyond.
We should always be way of giving historical actors more credit than they are due. Ashley might have been the most prolific punch-house-keeper in London, but he was part of a larger, more complex social world. Nevertheless, by reconstructing what it meant to sell punch in eighteenth century London, and — more importantly — how one went about it, we can begin to see the influence of supposedly “ordinary” people in shaping the drinking habits and social trends of our past, present and future.