Many years ago a member of the Pub History Society asked “What is the origin of the phrase ‘four-ale bar’?
I had always believed its origins lay in 4d (four old, pre-decimal pence) being the cost of a quart of cheap ale in pubs at the turn of the last century and that, by extension of the word ‘cheap’ it came to be an additional term for a public bar or vault.
This was partly borne out by reference to The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1978) where ‘four-ale’ is defined as ‘ale sold at fourpence a quart’; there being no reference within of a ‘four-ale bar’.
Reference to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1992) produces the following definition:
Four. Four-ale. Small ALE or cheap ale, originally sold at fourpence per quart. Hence four-ale bar as a name in a public house or inn for a public bar, where the prices are lowest.
That set me thinking that for the expression ‘four ale’ to come into general usage the price of fourpence per quart of ale must (surely) have held steady for some time. But I digress…
In 1986 Peter McCall wrote in his Brewer’s Dictionary (published under the banner of Amateur Winemaker) that ‘four ale’ was ‘[a] popular ale during the last century. It used to cost fourpence – hence its name – and was a beer similar to Porter’. No mention of ‘per quart’ here but McCall was generally thinking along similar lines to others.
Then that I turned to Maurice Gorham and his post-war classic Back to the Local (1949) itself a revised and updated edition of his pre-war work The Local many copies of which were destroyed during the war with the burning of the publisher Cassell’s premises in Belle Sauvage Yard.
In the Glossary featured in Back to the Local Gorham defines a ‘Four-Ale Bar’ as ‘The Public Bar. The old-fashioned term ‘four-ale’ is still used occasionally for mild ale.’ He then goes on to complicate things a little by offering us the fact that ‘‘Six-ale’ for the better quality is sometimes used in the country, but I have not heard it in London.’
Architectural historian Mark Girouard then adds to the mix which, in my view, is probably the definitive definition. In his book Victorian Pubs (1975) he wrote:
‘The various bars had their characteristic drinks. Mild ale had replaced porter (a milder form of stout, known as ‘entire’) as the favourite drink in the public bars; it was known as four-ale because, like porter, it sold at 4d a quart, and public bars were often called four-ale bars as a result.’
Before leaving this subject I examined one more volume, Denis Dalrymple’s Pub Talk published in 1975. I discovered that the want of a definition for ‘four-ale bar’ was the inspiration behind Dalrymple writing his book. I quote from his introduction:
‘Some months ago I went into a Pub which I use from time to time and called for a pint of beer. Having served me the Landlord asked if I knew which four beers are referred to in the old title of the public bar, the “four ale bar”. He and his regulars had been debating the matter all evening and could not agree.
Having given him the right answer and pointed out that there was also a “six ale” everyone was most intrigued with the derivation. It was suggested that there was a need for a glossary of idioms, phrases and names used in “The Trade”…’
Pub Talk was the result and this was Dalrymple’s entry under ‘Four Ale’:
‘Beer sold at fourpence per quart, hence the four ale bar, which was an alternative name for the Public Bar where Four Ale was sold. It was a heavily hopped brown ale similar to porter, and was available up to the early years of the century.’
I would suggest that this is not as succinct or as accurate a definition as, for example, Girouard’s but at least Dalrymple’s work does supply us with a second (and third) mention of ‘six ale’ which in Pub Talk he defines as ‘Ale or beer sold at sixpence per quart.’
So hopefully that clarifies ‘four ale’ and ‘four ale bars’. But what of ‘six-ale’? Up until I read Gorham’s book I had never heard of ‘six-ale’ and then, over a quarter of a century after the publication of Back to the Local,Dalrymple mentions it too. Gorham had never heard the phrase used in London so perhaps the ‘country’ meant Oxfordshire, which was where Dalrymple lived and had noted it’s use.
My view is that ‘six ale’ might well have replaced ‘four ale’ when the price eventually went up.
© 2012 Patrick Chaplin (Revised 2020)
(Note: To join the Pub History Society go to www.pubhistorysociety.co.uk.)
Dalrymple, Denis. Pub Talk (Henley-on-Thames: The Gothard House Group of Companies Limited, 1975)
Onions, C. T. (ed.) The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), page 798
Evans. Ivor H. (ed.) Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (London: Cassell, 1992. Fourteenth Edition. Originally published 1870)
Girouard, Mark. Victorian Pubs (London: Studio Vista, 1975)
Gorham, Maurice. Back to the Local (London: Percival Marshall and Company, 1949)
McCall, Peter. Brewer’s Dictionary (London: Argus Books, 1986)