Literally scraping the barrel in a Fetter Lane boozer


The Swan & Sugar Loaf pub in Holborn, c.1919

Joseph Howitt, the landlord of the Swan and Sugarloaf pub in Fetter Lane found himself in front of an unforgiving magistrate at Bow Street in December 1878. Howitt was accused, by  officers from the Inland Revenue, of adulterating his beer with cheap sugar.

The officers had taken a sample of Howitt’s beer and tasted it from the tap. They had also searched his cellar and found plenty of incriminating evidence. They had had their suspicions verified by ‘an analytics chemist’, Mr G. N. Stoker.

What Howitt had done was to add ‘put’ sugar to his beer in the cask. This was a ‘coarse brown sugar, the refuse or scraping of barrels, which was sold at cheap rate’. Officials found several bags of the sugar and 43 empty ones.

The sugar made beer seem stronger than it was and imparted a different (and not unpleasant) taste. One of the IR officers said that it gave the beer a ‘crispness’ that ‘a finer sugar, sometimes used by brewers, failed to accomplish’. It was also said to give the beer a ‘fictitious strength’, which again may have made it more appealing to Howitt’s customers.

Perhaps because it was no threat to health and may even have improved the drinking the officer had told Howitt that while he intended to bring a prosecution it was not a very serious offence and he should appeal any fine.

Unfortunately for the publican the justice, Sir  James Ingram, was either in a bad mood that day or held publicans in low esteem. He said he was of the belief that the defendant had been attempting to fortify his beer (which was a more serious offence, carrying a maximum fine of £200). Howitt escaped the maximum fine but still received a hefty fine of £50, hardly welcome a week before Christmas.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, December 20, 1878]

NB: The Swan & Sugar Loaf in Holborn is listed as early at 1800 and survived until 1941 when it was destroyed by the luftwaffe.  Sir James Ingram (1847-1924) trained at the bar and went on to be a Liberal MP. He was managing director of the Illustrated London News, taking over when his father and brother died in 1860 and serving until 1900.

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