Friday, December 16, 2016

Victorian Army Drinking Customs

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 Dr.  John H. Watson, late of Her Majesty’s Army Medical Department and chief chronicler of the dramatic career of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, was not unfamiliar with drink.

In 1881 Dr. Watson was recuperating from wounds incurred during the Second Afghan War.  Watson had gone out to India in 1878, attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon ( A STUDY IN SCARLET).  For an officer, army life revolved around the regimental mess.  It was much like a private club and was often the center of an officer’s social activities.  Captain R.W. Campbell observed, “the mess is the school for courage, honour, and truth.  In the British officer’s anteroom you will find the foundations of that splendid chivalry which has given us fame.”

Watson would have quickly learned the customs of the mess, particularly the drinking customs.  These customs were extremely important, since wine drinking at table was not simply an accompaniment to the food, but part of the ceremony of dining. 

In most regiments, the first toast of the evening after dinner was the sovereign’s health (e.g. “Gentlemen, The Queen”.)  This toast, the so-called “loyal toast”, was an invention of the Hanoverian dynasty.  The toast to the sovereign’s health began with an order from King George II in 1745, after the suppression of the Stuart uprising led by “Bonnie Prince Charlie”.  The toast was meant as a pledge of an officer’s loyalty to the Hanoverian dynasty.  Those loyal to the Stuarts circumvented the pledge by passing their glasses over their finger bowels, the toast becoming for them:  “To the king across the water” (i.e. the exiled Stuart claimant).

In every regiment there was what was called the “Regent’s allowance.”  This allowance consisted of two bottles of wine, usually one of Port and one of Madeira, one of which was served each night through the generosity of the sovereign.  The custom began when the Prince Regent (later King George IV) noticed that a few officers did not drink the loyal toast (the threat of the Stuarts now being a distant memory, the loyalty of these officers was not  in question).  When told that the unfortunate officers could not afford wine, the Prince thought this such a shame that he pledged himself to provide each regiment’s mess with two bottles to be used in drinking the King’s health.  Every sovereign after George IV continued the custom.  By 1900, however, the bottles had been converted into a cash equivalent and added to the general mess fund.

After the obligatory toasts to Royalty, many regiments followed the routine laid down by the Duke of Wellington:
Monday, “Our Men”; Tuesday, “Our Women”; Wednesday, “Our Swords”; Thursday, “Ourselves”; Friday, “Our religion”; Saturday, “To Sweethearts and Wives” (waggish Colonels followed with, “May they never meet”); Sunday, “To absent friends”.

Dr. Watson would also have learned something of whisky while in India.  The “whisky-peg” (SIGN OF FOUR) was most popular.  This was Anglo-Indian slang for whisky with soda.  The usual explanation for the name is that the whisky was so bad, that each drink you took was a peg in your coffin.

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