All the decent people in Lichfield got drunk every night and were not the worse thought of
Sir Murrough O’Brien, Marquess of Thomond, was riding through Grosvenor Square one February morning in 1808 when his fell from his horse, smashed his head on the pavement, was run over by a cart and died the same day. He was not a fashionable member of the bon ton, but was important enough to have an obituary. What could be said about him? He was a six bottle man, said the newspapers- a celebrated six bottle man. Alcohol did not cut short his life however; he was 82.
What was a six bottle man? You may well be guessing that they were people, who drank six bottles of alcohol a day, and on one level you are correct, but there is a lot of ambiguity in that statement. What would have been in the bottle? The answer is best expressed in the negative; not beer or gin (‘Hollands’), as they were drinks of the poor, but possibly port, sherry, brandy or wine- claret or hock.
The six bottle men – and they were men- were the top of the tree, and there was no such thing as a seven or one bottle man. Indeed there was no such thing as a two bottle man, as they would have represented below average consumption for a gentlemen’s convivial evening. The Duke of Queensbury was a two bottle man, said the Morning Advertiser in 1810. He had just died and Lord Yarmouth inherited his wine cellar, most of which, the newspaper implied, had not been used up by this moderate drinker and therefore Yarmouth was a lucky man. The entry level was the three bottle man- that is three bottles in one sitting- but there were thousands and thousands of these.
William Pitt and Charles James Fox had little in common, but one habit they shared was addressing the House of Commons under the influence of alcohol; mostly port once again. Pitt picked up the port habit in 1773- at the age of 14- when he suffered an attack of gout, and Dr. Anthony Addington (father of PM Henry Addington) prescribed a bottle of port a day to cure an inflammatory disease that was actually exacerbated by port. Henry Addington commented ‘Mr. Pitt liked a glass of port very well and a bottle better’, but would not have ever thought of blaming his own father. The Morning Chronicle ( 28 September 1803) noted the French, when noting that Pitt was a volunteer at the Cinq Port Volunteers, meant that he was a Five Bottle Man.
Sheridan, actor and friend of Pitt, was five bottle men, suggested the Evening Post in 1803. His choice was port in oversize glasses, and crammed into the evening only, drinking small beer at other times. Drink made him stupid.
Sheridan when he was dining at Somerset House and they were all in high feather, in rushed the servant and said Sir the house is on fire! Bring another bottle of claret said Sheridan, it is not my house
R. Brinsley Sheridan. Richard Porson. Rev. Sydney Smith. Theodore Hook. James and Horace Smith by John Timbs 1872
Lord Eldon was a five bottle man. A bottle of wine would proceed his afternoon in court. When out of town, he and the landlord of his favourite pub would drink seven bottles of ‘Carbonell’s Fine Old Blackstrap Newcastle Military Port’, except on Saturday, when they drank 8 to fortify themselves for going to church. He did not damage his career- his was Lord Chancellor of England from 1807 to 1827, or his health. He died at 87.
John ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton was a six bottle a day man, but he started at breakfast, and drank steadily While at Trinity College, Cambridge he brought 2000 bottles of port with him-not in bottle form but three pipes( ‘pipa’ is the portuguese for barrel) and would have provided his own bottles. Three pipe would be 3024 pints of wine. He never took a degree, unsurprisingly perhaps. This was not the most remarkable thing about him; he owned a bear, which he would ride when drunk, owned 3000 shirts yet would rip off all his clothes in the middle of an exciting hunt. He owned 2,000 dogs; his favourite pets would eat steak and drink champagne. He died of liver disease in a bankrupt’s prison, aged 37.
How could these people operate with such alcoholic intake? By bottle we ( in the UK) think of the 750 millilitre wine bottle but almost all spirit and wine bottles would have been smaller than that. A pint of wine (568ml) is not even two thirds of a modern bottle and Pitt may have drunk from a bottle of between 460 and 350 ml. He may have been just less than a four bottle a day man by our standards. Bottles tended to be smaller, squat and with a low centre of gravity (so they would not fall over very easily). Glasses tended to be smaller, and at dinner the social conventions would mean that the alcohol would only pass to you at certain times. Brandy could be diluted with water, and most spirits were not as strongly fortified as today. Port was not strengthened in the way we know it today until the 1870s. It was about 16% alcohol rather than 20%.
Some historians have disagreed about this; eighteenth century bottles often look rather larger than ours, so it is hard to tell. The very rich would bulk buy in barrels and use their own bottles of different capacities. However, being a bottle man was acceptable, expected and respectable for the whole of the Regency. It took another fifty years for the definition of a gentlemen to change to exclude people who got roaring drunk and pissed in the fireplace in the name of hospitality.
Here are my three Georgian/ Early Victorian Books. Click on title for more information.