Alcohol has been an invaluable antiseptic for centuries – and it’s still being used to this day. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was also commonly consumed by patients in hospitals as part of their daily diet. The absence of modern sewage and water treatment systems meant that clean drinking water was not readily available, and the risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera and typhoid were high. In fact there were two cholera outbreaks in Britain in this period, in 1832 which was the first reported case killing 8,595 by August 1832, and then again in 1848, killing approximately 1,595 by January 1st 1849.
Patients at Essex County Hospital (both male and female) were rationed one pint a day of beer or porter (stout). Initially this was purchased by the hospital through a local brewery. But so many patients complained about the quality of the beer that the hospital committee intervened. In November 1822, the decision was made for the hospital to brew its own beer.
The hospital hired its own brewer and produced roughly 3 butts (a butt being approximately 2500-3000 pints) in one batch, the cost of this being £8. 4. 2 every 2-3 months. Brewing most likely took place in the cellar (shown in map above of 1876). Although the hospital was producing its own alcohol, the matron at the time also noted in one year the additional purchasing of “200 Gallons of Porter, 4 dozen bottles of port wine. 2-4 gallons of gin, 2 gallons of brandy, 2 dozen bottles of sherry”.
John B. Penfold, historian of the hospital, noted that most of this was likely used by the Board as cordials. In the 1830s, alcohol made up an astonishing 10 per cent of the hospital budget.
The acidic taste of the beer was a recurring theme, however. In 1831, doctors recommended adding alkali – responsibility for implementing this improvement then fell to the hospital’s apothecary. A change in the cleaning methods of the equipment also brought a welcome break from complaints for a period.
But in 1859 and 1862 patient complaints on the quality of the beer became more severe. The hospital was forced to sell the stale beer it was producing and buy a decent brew from local suppliers to give to the patients and staff. The economic strain on the committee meant brewing finally ceased in August 1864, around 40 years after it had begun.
To find out more, see John B. Penfold, The History of the Essex County Hospital, Colchester Previously the Essex & Colchester Hospital 1820-1948, (Sudbury; 1984).