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Did beer help win the Battle?

A letter at Brewers’ Hall, written in 1759 by a famous Admiral, is a vivid reminder of the special importance of beer to the British navy. We don’t know how it came to be in our archives, but it hints at the part which beer may, perhaps, have played in a naval victory.

The letter was written by Sir Edward Hawke while out at sea on the ship Ramilies during the Seven Years’ War with France. He writes, in beautiful copperplate, to the ‘Commissioners of the Victualling’ responsible for supplying all the navy’s food and drink.

At this period beer was the single most important source of calories for the British seaman, who was allocated a gallon a day. However, the quality was often abysmal, with contemporary reports of it “stinking” or being “vilely bad” after days or weeks at sea.

Admiral Hawke’s main concern was fighting the French. But he was so disgusted by the beer sent to his ship from Plymouth (‘excessively bad’, along with bread ‘full of weevils and maggots’) that he ordered more beer from Portsmouth (and Dover and London). He wanted to find out which brewing method produced beer able to survive the sea voyage.

Here he writes that ‘as the Beer on which the experiment is to be made has been brewed at Portsmouth, where by experience we find they put a sufficient quantity of Malt and hops, I make not the least doubt, but both the racked and unracked will be found in very good condition on the survey, which I shall order as soon as they arrive’.

Three months after writing this letter, Admiral Hawke won a decisive sea battle over the French at Quiberon Bay, which prevented the threatened invasion of Britain. It is interesting to speculate to what extent the better beer from Portsmouth may have boosted naval morale – and helped win the battle!