Alehouse Characters #3: The Wastrel Husband

Mark Hailwood

This is the third in a series of posts written to mark the publication of my book, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, which is now available in paperback. Monster readers can take advantage of a special offer to get 25% off (getting the book for just £13.49) by using the promotion code ‘BB125’ when ordering here. Each post in this series focuses on a character that features in the book, and uses them to highlight some of my key themes and arguments.

As we saw in the previous post, the rising popularity of alehouses and good fellowship in seventeenth-century England met with considerable opposition from Church and State. But concerns over developments in England’s drinking culture did not just emanate from hostile ruling elites—from the ‘top down’—they were also voiced within popular culture. This can be seen most clearly in contemporary anxieties that ‘good fellowship’ spawned ‘wastrel husbands’. One such example is the central character of this post: John Jarret.

John Jarret

John Jarret

Jarret, like Roaring Dick of Dover, is the central character of a broadside ballad, and whilst both men are keen partakers of alehouse good fellowship, John Jarret’s drinking is portrayed in rather more problematic terms than Roaring Dick’s. Rather than being a celebration of good fellowship, the ballad featuring Jarret—narrated by his long suffering wife—is a warning about its dire consequences.[1]

Of which there are, Mrs Jarret points out, many. Whilst her husband should be in his shop ‘plying’ his work, instead ‘in some scurvy blinde Alehouse you all day doe lurk’. During these visits he occupies himself by playing endless games of ‘shuffle-board’ (the pub game of the seventeenth century), and ‘wasting his money away’ by gambling on them.

Shovel-board (an ancestor of shove ha’penny) was all the rage in 17th century alehouses – despite being illegal.

Worse, John Jarret is accused of committing adultery with a Billingsgate wench – ‘Black Kate’ – and with a married woman, and even of fathering a bastard child, who he has to maintain, serving as another drain on his finances. Ultimately, Mrs Jarret warns, all of this ‘riotous drinking’ and ‘wasting of means’ will cause her husband to end up like all who follow such paths of prodigality: with bankruptcy and scratching around for food to eat. She pleads with him to spare a thought for how this pattern of behaviour is impacting on his family: ‘You into ill company daily doe roam, Whilst I and your children sit sighing at home’.

We saw in our previous post on the drunken constable John Lufkin that engaging in bouts of riotous drinking was seen by many men in the seventeenth century as a way of asserting their masculinity: the more drink you could hold, the more manly you could claim to be. But here is a counter-argument being made by Mrs Jarret. As is well known, this was a deeply patriarchal society, but what that meant was not simply that all men had power over all women: what patriarchy specifically meant was a society ruled by fathers. As such, the highest ideal of manliness in this society, the one that conferred the greatest status and authority upon a man, was to be a patriarch: a husband, father and head of a household.

The Patriarch, at the head of his household

The Patriarch, at the head of his household

As Mrs Jarret was pointing out, spending too much time and money in the alehouse was not necessarily compatible with being an effective head of household: rather than ensuring the well-being of his wife and children, and overseeing a secure and prosperous family economy, Jarret was neglecting his work, his vows of fidelity, and spurning family resources. Indeed, his indulgence in good fellowship undermined the fulfilment of Jarret’s patriarchal responsibilities to such an extent that Mrs Jarret was able to suggest it also undermined his patriarchal authority as the supreme ruler within his household. She argues, as many similar ballads did, that any man who spends more time in the alehouse than at home should submit to ‘Be rul’d by your wife’. There was nothing manly about that in the seventeenth-century mindset.

A wastrel husband was encouraged to follow his wife's counsel

A wastrel husband was encouraged to follow his wife’s counsel

We might reasonably wonder whether this was the sort of argument that fell on deaf ears in this profoundly unequal society, the type of complaint that men were able to simply dismiss because it was voiced only by women and was thus considered to carry little weight. But it is worth remembering that this ballad, like the vast majority printed in the period, would most likely have been written by a man, despite adopting a female narrative voice. And other similar ballads were written from a male perspective, often recounting an individual’s conversion from a former life of prodigal good fellowship to one of more serious commitment to the patriarchal ideal. Such ballads often concurred with Mrs Jarret that a wastrel husband should submit to his wife’s rule: at least until he had reformed his behaviour in line with patriarchal demands.

There was, therefore, a widespread recognition that for all its appeal alehouse good fellowship was not easily compatible with being a good patriarchal man in seventeenth-century England. So, one of the themes of the book is an exploration of the relationship between drinking culture and masculine ideals in this period, a relationship that, as the Jarrets reveal to us, was not as straightforward as we might at first think. Moreover, the relationship between good fellowship and ideals of female behaviour was not a simple one either, as we will see in the final post of the series…


[1] The suitability of this ballad as a representative example is reinforced by the fact that it appears to have been particularly well-known: the famous ‘water-poet’ John Taylor was certainly aware of it, and his reference to it in his own published work suggests that he thought his readers would be familiar with it too: see Bernard Capp, The World of John Taylor (1994), p.182, esp. note 129.

5 thoughts on “Alehouse Characters #3: The Wastrel Husband

  1. I look forward to reading more about drinking and masculinities. I am really interested in how men selected/navigated the different models of masculinity available.

    • Thanks Joanne. In a nutshell my argument is that many men tried to have the best of both worlds, and insisted that good fellowship and being a good patriarch could be compatible. This is to some extent a departure from existing work on this period (Alex Shepard, of course) which suggests that younger/poorer men tended to opt for the ‘good fellow’ model and married/middling sorts for the patriarchal – lots of married and middling sort men were reluctant to abandon the supposedly more youthful masculinity associated with alehouse-going.

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