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By now, dear readers, you would all know how I like to question historical myths and anecdotes. In this post, I’m going to take issue with two: the first being that ‘in the olden days’ people drank alcohol instead of water to avoid getting sick; and the second, that colonial beer was bad because it was watered down.


Image: Hongreddotbrewhouse, via wikimedia commons.

Did people stick to drinking alcohol as a ‘safe’ alternative to drinking dirty water? And what else did they drink?

One of the most persistent ideas I’ve heard that grates on me as a historian is that people ‘in the olden days’ only drank alcohol, because it was safer than drinking water; or at least they were encouraged to do so. This idea is framed as conventional wisdom, but take a moment to think about it: this would have meant that almost everyone was constantly either drunk or tipsy (even children!); and quite clearly, they weren’t. Alcohol is also a diuretic, which means that it isn’t especially thirst quenching. Anyone who’s spent even a night drinking alcohol and nothing else with tell you about ‘the dry horrors’ the next day. For purely practical reasons, people couldn’t have drunk alcohol continuously.

So what else is wrong with the supposition that everyone drank alcohol instead of water? To begin with, prior to the 1880s, people had no idea that disease was transmitted by microbes and that these microbes could be water-borne. However, people did make a correlation between a lower incidence of illness and the availability of clear running water. William Murdoch, the attendant and tent-keeper to Assistant Commissioner Clow, said as much at the Spring Creek Commissioner’s camp on 20 November, 1852:

I think this is a very unhealthsome place — everyone has had a sort of influenza accompanied with dysentery — I have had a good touch but I think I have got the better of it yet the water is good here and plenty of it. The creek at the side of our camp is very fast and runs very deep but I daresay butcher’s meat is a great cause of it. Flesh must be eaten two hours after butchering or else it is crawling with large maggots. As soon as the fly blows them they seem to live and grow almost as you eat a meal — the piece will be alive before you stop eating. [1]

However, from this statement, you also can see his confusion: Murdoch was happy to be drinking the water from Spring Creek because it looked clear (even though it was almost undoubtedly polluted with the excrement of the gold diggers), and he attributed the illness on the diggings to another cause entirely: the maggoty meat.

When an outbreak of an unknown illness, dubbed ‘low’ or ‘colonial fever,’ killed numerous people on the Buckland diggings in the summer of 1853-4, William Howitt attributed the disease to bad flour and bad air, rather than the falling water levels in the heavily polluted Buckland River.

29th January 1854

Partly, I suspect, from the bad flour sent thither, but still more from causes connected with the situation, there is a great deal of sickness here. Though the diggings are but of a few weeks old, there is a considerable burying ground already, where you see numbers of fresh graves surrounded by a rude paling, and on the post at each corner placed a square of turf, the digger’s monument!

These deep valleys, inclosed between steep, wooded mountains, are intensely hot, and rarely traversed by any wind. There are vast jungles here and there where the valleys opens out into flats, and everywhere the soil is of a light porous quality, which absorbs the rain like a sponge, and in the heat exhales malaria. You may smell the dry-rot of decaying roots of trees as you walk over the surface. A species of low fever prevails, and has attacked, more or less, almost every tent. [2]

Despite the tendency to blame bad food and bad air for illness on the diggings, let’s assume for a moment that people did actually blame dirty water, and therefore seek substitutes for clean water when none was available. Clearly the substitute wasn’t solely alcohol. Instead, it seems that the most common drink on gold diggings was in fact tea.

While staying at Bontharambo (near Wangaratta), in 1854, Mary Spencer observed that ‘far less wine appears to be taken by the gentlemen in Australia than in England. Tea is the chief beverage. I have never seen such tea drinkers.’ [3] Spencer may or may not have been referring specifically to upper classes when she referred to ‘gentlemen’, however, there is little to indicate that the entire digging population weren’t hardened tea drinkers. Tea could disguise the taste of dirty water, and although the health benefits of boiling the water were not clearly understood, putting the camp kettle or billy on was a ritual for virtually every gold digger. (As an aside, on the basis of advertisements from The Argus, it would seem that the tea on the goldfields in 1852-3 was mainly Chinese in origin, and that people drank both black and green teas.)

However, it still doesn’t appear that people actually avoided unboiled water: Edward Ridpath, a digger who was an early arrival on the Spring and Reid’s Creek diggings, reported that ‘during the summer refreshment tents were numerous over the diggings, where ginger beer, lemonade, raspberry vinegar, and spruce beer were sold.’ [4] While the spruce beer and ginger beer were brewed, and therefore boiled; the syrup-based drinks probably used unboiled water.

I don’t doubt that a lot of hard-drinking was done on the diggings during the gold rush. A browse of the newspaper advertisements of the period will tell you that anyone with access to the Melbourne markets could buy brandy, Scottish whiskey, Jamaican rum, gin (and the Dutch gin-like spirit genever), wine (French: Médoc claret [i.e.: Bordeaux], Margaux [i.e.: cabernet sauvignon], Sauternes and Champagne), Portuguese sherry, bottled beer, stout, porter and cider. However, no matter how much alcohol was consumed, there is no evidence that people did so for reasons of health. Everyone also drank a lot of tea, and yet there is still also no evidence that people did so to prevent illness. And in any case, virtually everyone on the diggings still experienced some form of water-borne illness.


Eugene von Guerard, the inside of a digger’s tent in 1853. The kettle, ready for making tea, is a stand-alone item.

Bad Ale at the Honeysuckle Inn

Almost everyone coming from Melbourne to the Ovens diggings during late 1852 and throughout 1853, stopped at certain pubs along the way. One of the most remarked upon was the Honeysuckle Inn, at what became Violet Town. The thing that has always intrigued me about the Honeysuckle Inn during the gold rush is the comments about the beer being awful. Here’s what Thomas Woolner had to say in November 1852: ‘We camped today at Honeysuckle Creek: there is a large tavern where enormous prices are charged, 1/6 for a glass of bad ale, 3/6lb for common cheese.’ [1] And here’s what William Howitt (who was travelling with his son 22-year-old son Alfred and his friends), had to say in December: ‘We found everything now monstrously dear on the roads, the nearer we got to the diggings. My youngsters, at an inn called The Honeysuckle, would insist on my, having a pint of beer. It was 3s., and most disgustingly vapid…’ [2]

It’s easy to explain the complaints about the expense. We can get a sense of the cost firstly by the fact that it was one shilling and sixpence in November, and then by December — by which time thousands of gold seekers were heading up the Sydney Road — a whole three shillings (i.e.: double the price). Secondly, we can compare these prices to a pot of ‘Billson’s Best Ale’, which was being made in Beechworth and was available on draught at local pubs for sixpence (half a shilling), five years later. [3]

Aside from the cost, for years it’s intrigued me as to how and why was the beer so ‘disgusting’ as to be remarked upon. But how does a historian manage to work out why the beer tasted ‘vapid’ (i.e.: bland), more than 150 years after that beer was drunk? The common assumption is that the beer was watered down. However, other more meaningful answers to this question came to me late last week, while I was working on the history of Billson’s Brewery in Beechworth (which started as Billson’s Ovens Brewery in 1867, was renamed Murray Breweries in 1914 [4], and has recently been switched back to ‘Billson’s’ by new owner Nathan Cowan). Working on the history of Billson’s compelled me to think deeply about beer.

The key constituents of good beer — other than water — are yeast, malted Barley grains and hops. At the time of the Victorian gold rushes, most malt and hops were imported. In Britain, malt had been subject to a tax, which was major source of public revenue in the 18th century — a tax which was still in effect by the time of the gold rushes (the tax wasn’t repealed until 1880) [5]. In Australia, the expense of imported malt, to which freight and tax had been already added, drove many brewers to replace it in the ferment either in part or sometimes wholly with sugar (which, incidentally, came from the cane plantations of Mauritius). Moreover, beer brewed with sugar had the advantage of turning ‘bright’ in only a few days, as opposed to malted brews, which required far longer periods of maturation. And beers which had to be matured over a period of weeks or months, had to be stored in cellars — which, at the time, were also in relatively short supply.

The use of sugar in the brew is probably one factor that made the beer seem ‘vapid’ to many British gold seekers, who were used to beers brewed only with malt. In Britain, it had been illegal to make beer with sugar in the ferment until 1847 [6]; so even by 1852, British tastes probably still ran to traditional pure malt beers: hence William Howitt’s and Thomas Woolner’s distaste for the colonial brew.

The other factor that might have made the beer taste disgusting was that it might have gone bad in the heat. In the days before refrigeration, beer-brewed in the warmer months often deteriorated, and for this reason, some brewers only brewed over winter [7]. This certainly seems to have been the case for many decades at Billson’s Brewery in Beechworth, which advertised the release of its beers in September and October, also making capital of Beechworth’s cooler climate, and their cool cellars. [8] Conversely, the ale at the Honeysuckle Inn may well have been brewed cheaply and hastily with sugar to cater to the sudden influx of gold seekers, and then had been exposed to hot temperatures when Howitt and Woolner drank it in the summer of late 1852. It might also have been contaminated with microorganisms like Lactobacilli.

So what of the legacy of colonial ‘sugar beers’? Despite various moves in the industry throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to end its use, the propensity of Australian brewers to use sugar in their ferments has remained. Beechworth’s Alfred Billson was one of the purists, who wanted to ‘compel brewers to use only malt and hops in the manufacture of beer.’ However, these visions of enforcing beer purity laws never came to fruition, and even Billson had to admit, the public had grown used to its sugar beers, and now preferred the taste. [9] We still brew plenty of beer in Australia using sugar today.

As for the Honeysuckle Inn, it is now owned by my dear friends, Annette Walton and Andy Guerin, who have opened an art gallery in its front room. They assure me that they still serve ‘bad ale’ and ‘common cheese’.


Did people stick to drinking alcohol as a safe alternative to drinking dirty water?

[1] William Murdoch, A Journey to Australia in 1852 and Peregrinations in that Land of Dirt and Gold, unpublished diary manuscript (digital form), held by the Robert O-Hara Burke Memorial Museum. This is from an entry dated: 20 November, 1852.
[2] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volumes 1 & 2, Sydney University Press, 1972 [first edn: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, London, 1855]; Volume 2, pp.153-4.
[3] Mary Spencer, Aunt Spencer’s Diary (1854): A Visit to Bontharambo and the North-east Victorian Goldfields, Neptune Press, Newtown, 1981, p.46.
[4] Edward Ridpath, Journal, transcription of letters to his father, possibly in his own hand, 1850-53? [manuscript MS 8759], State Library of Victoria, Box 1012/4 [Box also includes his gold license from 3 August 1853, p.32.

Bad Ale at the Honeysuckle Inn

[1] Thomas Woolner, Diary of Thomas Woolner,  National Library of Australia, MS 2939, 12 November 1852.
[2] William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, or Two Years in Victoria, Volumes 1 & 2, Lowden Publishing Company, Kilmore, 1972 [first edn: Longman, Brown, Green and Longman, London, 1855]; Volume 1, p.81.
[3] Numerous advertisements in the Ovens and Murray Advertiser for the Temple Bar (e.g.: 28 November, 1867) in Ford Street show this price. The beer was being made by Billson’s Ovens Brewery in Loch Street.
[4] Confirmed by the Minutes of the Board of Directors of Murray Breweries, still held at the brewery in Last Street, Beechworth, today; and reported in Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 21 November 1914, p.2.
[5] Raymond A. Anderson, ‘The History of The Maltsters Association of Great Britain.’
[6] Dr Brett J. Stubbs, ‘Brewing with Sugar’ Brew News, September 5, 2011; Keith Farrer, To Feed a Nation, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria, 2005, p.86.
[7] ibid.
[8] An example would be an article from the Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Saturday, 2 June 1900, p.12, which states: ‘The specialty [of the brewery]… is the high-class character of the bottled ale turned out under the well-known brand, “Anglo-Australian Ale.” This high-class bottled ale is brewed only during the cold months of the year, and is made from a special malt suited to the production of such an article. … the demand for this ale exists all over the colony, and is even sent into the heart of New South Wales, …. the climate and water supply [of Beechworth are suited] for the brewing of high-class ale…’
[9] Corowa Free Press, 16 July 1901, p.3; Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, 19 July, 1901, p.31.