In celebration of Christmas, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick has curated an exhibition of two of the central elements of the Christmas season besides friends and family—That is food and drink.
The ‘Eat, Drink and Be Merry!’ exhibition includes several pieces of archival documents related to eating and drinking in 20th century Britain.
The foods we eat and the way we drink is not ‘age old’ or resistant to transformations in our society. Instead, as the archival materials displayed in this exhibition shows, the food and drink we consume often reflects a changing society and culture. For instance, you are unlikely to find ‘invalid custard’, ‘ox heart’ or the equally ‘digestible and nourishing’ ‘tripe and cheese’ in any recipe books on the shelves of Waterstones today. The recipe books in the exhibition span the 1920s through to the 1960s and become, in a way, a testament to the social and cultural upheavals that have marked the twentieth century.
Beyond food, including an exhibition cabinet dedicated to ‘Tea and Biscuits’, the exhibition also pays homage to alcohol, or more specifically, beer. Most of the materials on display in this exhibition comes from the extensive Brewery Society collection. The Brewers’ Society was formed in 1904 as a result of the amalgamation of the Country Brewers’ Society, the London Brewers’ Society and the Burton Brewers’ Society. Its aim was to promote the interests of the brewing trade. The materials in this collection range from the rather dry, but historically important, annual reports and correspondence, to the more interesting documents such as reports on Red Biddy, a cheap wine that was ‘mechanically processed’ opposed to fermented. Also known as ‘Lisbon wine’ or ‘Lizzie’, Red Biddy was the cause for grave concern amongst members of the Brewery society because of the competition it posed to the sale of beer, but also because of its potential toxicity. According to the several reports on Red Biddy found within the Brewery Society Collection, on its own Red Biddy was harmless as it contained a relatively low alcohol content. However, some pubs around the London area began selling a fortified version of the wine that included additional spirits, including methylated or surgical spirts, thereby making it one of the strongest but cheapest drinks on the market (2/6d per quart compared to 4-5d/per quart for other wines in 1935). The 1935 report contains several anecdotes, including one about a man made ‘cantankerous, especially towards his wife’ by the wine and another about the many ‘female customers’ consuming this dangerous brew in the middle of the afternoon!
The exhibition also includes several documents and leaflets opposing the implementation of American-style prohibition in Britain. The leaflets warn the working-class men and women not to let ‘deluded men’ ‘rob you of your beer’. For those interested in advertisements, the exhibition includes original drawings and illustrations from as early as the 1930s, including works by the famous political cartoonist Bert Thomas.
If you are interested in the history of food and drink, especially beer, in Britain, than this is an exhibition you do not want to miss.
For more information on the ‘Eat, Drink and Be Merry!’ exhibition, visit: https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/mrc/news
Exhibition is free and on display until 15 January.
 In 1994 the Brewers’ Society was renamed the Brewers’ and Licensed Retailers’ Association (BLRA). Seven years later in 2001 the BLRA was renamed again to the British Beer and Pub Association.