The Brewers’ Book of William Porlond

Exactly 600 years ago, in 1418, a man named William Porlond began writing a book, here at Brewers’ Hall, more or less on the same site as our present Hall today. Porlond was the new Clerk to the Brewers of London, and stayed in office until he died, 22 years later, in 1440. By that time the Brewers had gravitated from being a craft or fraternity, to being a fully-fledged Livery Company (with all the legal security which that brought with it). This transition occurred in 1438 when a Royal Charter was obtained from Henry VI – a document which the Brewers still own, though it is deposited for safekeeping at Guildhall Library.

Also at Guildhall Library is the original book which Porlond wrote – a huge, 120,000 word volume, dense with his writing, and recording a whole range of business – most of it to do with running the Brewers’ Company, maintaining its property, and controlling the brewing trade in London.

This volume has enormous importance because inside is such a wealth of information about London life in the Middle Ages, and brewers in particular. Porlond records everything that mattered to him – from events of national importance, such as the death and funeral of Henry V, down to the humdrum, such as payments to workmen for repairs to the Hall, or to the harpist who played during dinner. The book is full of names – about 10,000 people are named in it. Interestingly, the names of those engaged in the brewing trade in London show that a good proportion were women. About a third of those paying quarterage to belong to the Brewers’ Company were female – single women, widows, and married women too.

The Hall was let out to others as a way to raise income – just like it is today. Porlond’s book includes several long lists of other crafts and fraternities who used the Hall. One famous entry records that “ye Footballpleyers” hired the Hall twice in 1422-23. This extraordinarily early reference to the game of football and a ‘fraternity’ devoted to it has been cited as the earliest evidence for any kind of ‘football club’ (and also for the long association of football players with beer drinking!). Of course, we don’t know what sort of football was being played, or under what circumstances … but thanks to Porlond, this tantalising reference shows that football featured, in some way or other, in the London life of that time.

There are numerous references in Porlond’s book to Richard Whittington, the famous medieval Mayor. He is generally remembered, in popular literature and pantomime, in a very positive way, overcoming poverty and adversity to achieve fame and fortune and do good works for his fellow-citizens. Porlond presents another picture – someone at perpetual loggerheads with the City’s brewers, wrangling with them over supplies of malt and the price of beer in London’s taverns. There is even a reference suggesting Whittington was unhappy that the Brewers had served up ‘fat swans’ at their feast – perhaps upstaging his own banquets! Porlond tells us a lot of interesting detail about food and what it cost. Not only swans but plovers, pheasants, larks, sirloin of beef, pike, eels, brawn with mustard … all featured on the menu at Brewers’ Hall in the 1420s and 1430s.

Like all well-educated men of his time, Porlond was at home in three languages: English, Latin, and French. But he wrote his book at a key turning point when the relative importance of these languages was shifting. In a famous passage – which, ironically, he wrote in Latin – he explains that because so many brewers could no longer understand Latin or French, he is going to write predominantly in English. His book represents one of the earliest examples of extensive account-keeping in the English language, and can thus be seen, in a symbolic way, as representing the beginning of the rise of English in what was to become in time the global language of commerce, with the City of London at its very centre.

William Porlond was married and his wife, Dionysia [a name which equates to Denise today] is mentioned a number of times in the book, as is their domestic servant, Rose. Porlond’s Will still survives, in which he bequeathed all his books to the Brewers’ Company, for ever. We are very fortunate that this particular book has survived, through six centuries, down to the present day – a wonderful manuscript treasure, which the Brewers are proud to own.

In recognition of the importance of this unique book, it has been proposed for inscription, as an item of special national and cultural heritage, on the prestigious UNESCO Memory of the World UK Register. We shall hear in the summer whether our proposal has been successful. If so, there will be some kind of celebration at Brewers’ Hall – although not, perhaps, involving larks, eels or swans!


Image: The text, even in English, is hard for the modern reader to decipher, but Porlond’s little doodle can still raise a smile, six centuries later.