Ontario: Did The Beer Stay In Town In The 1830s?

I am thinking I may have a theory or at least a bit of half an idea. I was in the library yesterday waiting for the kids swim lessons next door at the Y to end and came across a copy of a book from 1913, a History of the County of Lennox and Addington by W.S. Herrington from which I found this passage from an interview of a man then in his nineties:

I remember the first election I ever witnessed. It was over seventy-five years ago, about the year 1836. John Solomon Cartwright and George H. Detlor, the Tory candidates, were running against Peter Perry and Marshall Spring Bidwell. They ran in pairs; Perry and Bidwell were called the rebels by the other side. There was only one polling place and that was in Bath. It was a little booth at the edge of the village. I was quite a young man at the time and didn’t know much about the issues; but I could understand that the people were greatly excited. The taverns of Bath were crowded with men wrangling about the votes. Whiskey was flowing freely, and there were plenty of drunken men and brawls in the streets. There were plenty of taverns all over the county. There was Charter’s tavern near the head of Hay Bay; John Davy’s over near Sandhurst, and Griffith’s in the second concession about four miles west of Charter’s. Ernesttown must have had a dozen at least.

I like these sorts of old guy interviews. Like the one from 1899 with the recollections of a ninety year old guy of his pre-Victorian youth including Albany Ale. In this recollection above, the guy being interviewed is from a farm outside the village beyond the smaller town to the west of the military, mercantile and brewing centre of Kingston. He grew up in a log cabin. The degrees of distance from the big centre, the layers of the hinterland, describe distribution. See, Ontario – or rather Upper Canada – at this time was still a tenuous proposition given the continuing uncertainty of the Republic’s intentions. It was also one run on a combination of an imperial demand economy tied to local sustainable farming. Before the 1840s repeal of the Corn Laws, crops from here were shipped to Britain and manufactured supplies were shipped back. We were part of the great Georgian hive.

It seems to me that the references to whiskey in the book are what they are – not a euphemism for drinks so much as confirmation of the drink that’s on offer. The same man quoted above stated all the crops were wheat and corn. He did’t see barley until he was in his twenties – right about the time of the repeal of the corn laws in the 1840s and the end of guaranteed supply to the empire. Elsewhere in the book a country store ledger is described. Plenty of spirit references and a few wine sales but no mention of beer. I had in my mind for a while that all the references to whiskey may have meant they were brewing their beer at home but if there’s no barley being grown that’s unlikely.

So, where was the beer going in the 1830s? Likely it stayed in town, was sold to the military or was moved by sailing ship in multi-cask loads to other centres along the shore of the big lake like York, later named Toronto. It maybe takes the railroads in the coming decades for beer to get more deeply distributed. In a world of coastal sail and carts on questionable roads, a cask of the hard stuff is probably the safer bet, the better investment for the families operating the taverns and the country stores.

One thought on “Ontario: Did The Beer Stay In Town In The 1830s?”

  1. [Original comments…]

    Laurel Dempsey – September 30, 2013 9:16 PM
    Well, at least we know where John Soloman Cartwright lived

    Steve Gates – October 1, 2013 12:53 AM
    I think you have it right Alan, beer was primarily brewed for local consumption and the only beer leaving the town of Kingston was purchased by the Imperial Forces and sent to where it was decided it was needed and the likely destination at that time was York. The popularity of whiskey vice beer did not seem to wane until about the latter half of the 1840’s, I have seen a letter to the editor proclaiming this observation in Kingston dated 1849. All quite interesting for sure.

    Alan – October 1, 2013 8:01 AM
    Ooh, where is that letter, Steve. Don’t keep all the good stuff for your books! 😉

    Steve Gates – October 1, 2013 12:08 PM
    As you know Alan, I am cryptically fastidious when it comes to operational security [OPSEC] but I am slowly coming around to a more free reign style of information sharing. Please bear with me while I make the transition. It is interesting to see how the old “originals” hung onto the love of whiskey, these fellas were the Col By era former military types that prevailed and thrived during the first three decades of the 1800’s but as they died off due to their love of the wee dram the beverage of choice for their successors was definitely beer.

    Alan – October 1, 2013 1:15 PM
    We think of advances too often by decade rather than generation. Generations overlap and lives span three of four of them with luck. So we have these recollections. I wish I had more of them and earlier ones, anecdotal recollections of life’s pleasures of 1765 from the perspective of 1835.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *