As we contemplate the further lifting of Covid restrictions on hospitality venues, Dr Patrick Little of our Commons 1640-1660 project looks at the pleasures and pitfalls of drinking a native beverage in the seventeenth century, and the science behind its production…
Cider has been produced in England since Norman times, if not before, with different traditions emerging in the east (notably East Anglia and Kent) and in the west country. The latter was particularly strong in Somerset, in the area south and west of Bridgwater town. In the mid-seventeenth century, however, the focus was on Herefordshire. There, thanks to the efforts of Viscount Scudamore (Sir John Scudamore), orchardmen were beginning to specialise in bitter apples, full of the tannins that made the finest cider – the most famous variety becoming known from its colouring as ‘red streak’. Cider made from such apples was highly prized. According to one story, when Charles I visited Hereford after his defeat at Naseby in 1645, ‘the gentry presented him with the best sort of red streak, which was … hugely admired’ by the king and his attendant courtiers [Sheffield University Library, Hartlib Papers 52/23A-B].
Cider-making soon benefited from scientific advances. The Cromwellian period is famous for the growth of Baconian scientific experimentation, with the likes of Robert Boyle and Samuel Hartlib becoming leading lights in what was known as ‘the Great Instauration’. Among Hartlib’s friends was John Beale, whose book promoting the industry, Herefordshire Orchards, a Pattern for England, was published in 1658. Beale’s collaborators included the MP for Hereford in 1659, Dr Roger Bosworth. Bosworth’s proper job was as a physician to the Scudamore family, but by the late 1650s he had become an acknowledged expert in cider-making, and judge of the local tasting competition. As Beale told Hartlib, ‘he that hopes for victory sends his sampler into Hereford to Dr Bosworth’, who would judge between them ‘touching gust and wholesomeness’ and restore perfect harmony among local producers [Hartlib Papers 52/23A-B]. To win Bosworth’s approval was not merely a matter of personal pride. There were hopes that the best quality cider would replace imported wine on the tables of the rich, with wider economic benefits for an area unsuited for growing brewing barley.
Yet being a cider drinker was not without its risks. In May 1658 Beale recounted an incident that suggests that Bosworth’s own home-made scrumpy could be a little on the rough side. By accident, Bosworth
dropped his knife into a vessel of cider … When the vessel was emptied he looked for his knife, but the knife, steel and iron, and all the blade and all that was within the haft was totally consumed, the ivory haft remaining whole and perfect. [Hartlib Papers 52/101b]
Beale was quick to reassure his friend – ‘that this story may not affright you’ – of ‘the long lives of cider-drinkers’ and the well-known beneficial effects of the beverage as a ‘preserver of the balsam of life’ [idem]. Such rural myths held considerable sway, even among the scientific community. In the face of the evidence, Bosworth did not give up drinking scrumpy, and there were no surprises when he became seriously ill during the parliamentary session in March 1659. He apparently recovered sufficiently to sit in the Convention Parliament in 1660, but died in the autumn of that year, some weeks short of his 53rd birthday.
Another casualty of cider-drinking was Captain John Herring, MP for Herefordshire in the Nominated Assembly of 1653, who died in 1657. Again, Beale’s correspondence with Hartlib tells the story. Advised that cider ‘was a special remedy against the stone, and being grievously tormented’ by the obstruction in his kidney, Herring ‘drank freely of the cider for a remedy’. Far from soothing all his troubles away, he found that ‘the cider wrought so violently upon the stone that it hastened the captain’s death’, leading Beale to ‘caution against violent operators’ when treating similar medical cases [Hartlib Papers 52/144A-B]. Herring’s age at death is not known, but he was probably in his late 40s – a few years younger than Dr Bosworth – when he too was buried in the shade of a cider-apple tree.
Charles Webster, The Great Instauration: science, medicine and reform, 1626-1660 (1975)
Sheffield University Library, Hartlib Papers are available online (www.dhi.ac.uk/hartlib/).
A further biography of Roger Bosworth and a biography of John Herring are being prepared for publication by the Commons 1640-1660 project.