Few more remarkable changes have taken place in comparatively recent years than in the attitude of the nation towards punch. That a drink so pleasant to the palate, and so edged about with traditions, should have practically ceased to exist is indeed strange. During the whole of the eighteenth century and for a considerable portion of the nineteenth the cult of the punch-bowl was universal. The statesmen, generals, and admirals of King William the Third, whether Dutch or English, revelled in punch. The wits and essayists of Anne’s age mingled spirit with water, and added sugar, lemon, and spice, and praised the mixture as the choicest of liquors. It had even a kind of political prestige, as being the favourite beverage of the dominant Whig party, the Tories at first regarding it with some aversion as a foreign interloper coming in about the same time as an alien usurper. Even they, however, soon altered their opinion with regard to the new beverage.

In these circumstances it may be wondered how it came about that punch lost its hold of the English people. Two reasons may be stated. In the first place, in spite of the songs that proclaimed its virtues and extolled it as a panacea for all diseases, punch was undoubtedly one of the most unhealthy of liquors. It was good, but it was not wholesome. Even a moderate use of the bowl would lead to a headache, while the man who exceeded passed the subsequent day (or days, according to the strength of his head) in torments. In answer to one Dr. Short, who wrote in 1750 that punch was “an admirable liquor, the best liquor in the world,” and that the universe could not afford a better beverage for students, Dr. Cheyne stated—with an outspokenness that must have seemed at the time almost heretical—that punch was most injurious. He termed it a “heathenish liquor,” and stigmatised it as being “nearest arsenic in its deleterious and poisonous qualities,” adding that, except for the water, there was not one salutary ingredient in it. And—though they took nearly a century in doing it—the nation came round to his view. Another point, perhaps not so important as the first, was that punch was, in the words of one old lady, “the nastiest, sloppiest sluster” ever placed on a dining-room table. A continual filling of glasses from flowing bowls, with continually increasing unsteadiness of hands, soon made a swimming table and a drenched carpet. Punch-stains, too, were in some materials ineradicable, especially in black cloth, in which it burned holes as if it had been some strong acid. The death-blow to punch was perhaps delivered by the advance of ideas on the subject of teetotalism. Concerning which, there are gentlemen of the old school who assert that, since punch gave place to claret and champagne, gout has been rampant in the west country.

The derivation of the word, “punch,” is interesting. According to Fryer’s Travels, published in 1672, the liquor has an Indian origin, being much in request on the Coromandel coast, and deriving its name from the Hindustani word, “paunch,” which signifies five—the number of ingredients required to form the mixture. Subsequently these five ingredients were reduced to four.

Of punch-bowls much might be written. Even when they were new, romance clung to them. Every house had its punch-bowl, and in nearly every case it was a present. When a young couple were married, a bowl was always presented to them by a near relative. In Dissenters’ families, the punch-bowl even acquired a kind of semi-sacred character, and, says a writer on the subject, the head of a household felt a solemn, benignant pride in dispensing hospitality from the vessel in which his father, himself, and his children had been christened. Nor did the High Churchman less esteem the bowl. Punch, as the clergy admitted, was a thoroughly orthodox liquor, for though excess in wine was reprobated by the Scriptures, there was not, from the first chapter of Genesis to the last in Revelations one word said against punch. It is a curious proof of the change that has taken place in the attitude of society towards drinking usages that in the old days a punch bowl was considered a very suitable present from a merchant or banker to a trusty clerk or book-keeper, or from a shipowner to one of his skippers. It is hard to imagine the manager of a modern bank presenting one of his employés with a tantalus spirit-stand. In the days when punch was the universal beverage, bowls used to be specially made for testimonial purposes, and painted with suitable inscriptions or devices. The first successful whaling voyage from Liverpool is commemorated by a bowl of this description. On it a ship in full sail is depicted.

Perhaps the most remarkable of all punch-bowls was that which figured in the banquet given by Admiral Edward Russell, then commanding the Mediterranean Fleet, at Alicante, on the 25th October, 1694. The tables were laid under the shade of orange trees, meeting in a common centre, a marble fountain. And this fountain had for the occasion been converted into a gigantic punch-bowl. The list of the ingredients required for this colossal brewage have been recorded. They consisted of four hogsheads of brandy, one pipe of malaga wine, twenty gallons of lime juice, twenty-five hundred lemons, thirteen hundredweight of fine white sugar, five pounds of grated nutmegs, three hundred toasted biscuits, and eight hogsheads of water. An elegant canopy was placed over the liquor, to prevent waste by evaporation or dilution by rain. While in a boat a shipboy rowed round the fountain, to assist in filling the cups of the six thousand guests. Whether this last convenience enhanced the value of the punch as an article of consumption is not mentioned. History is silent on the point.


Unsigned article in the Globe; title entered by Wodehouse in his
Money Received for Literary Work notebook for October 1902.


Transcriber’s note:
Wodehouse claimed that he “dug these [turnovers] out of reference books” and we can verify that in this instance; most of the column is adapted from an article of the same name in The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers and published by W. and R. Chambers in 1864. Wodehouse does get in his own comment in the last two sentences.

Neil Midkiff