Beer Versus Water
A curious contest settles the debate; PLUS special guest Ed Needham on Strong Words
During the warm summer of 1883, in the green and pleasant lands of South West England, a large crowd gathered in a farmer’s field to watch an extraordinary contest designed to settle a long-running debate: Which is better, beer or water?
At seven o’clock yesterday morning, on the farm of Mr. George Melsome, Beacon-hill, near Amesbury, in Wiltshire, commenced a singular match for £5, lasting all day in broiling hot weather, during which the corn in the district around was being rapidly cut down. The contest, which was under the auspices of the Church of England Temperance Society, was the result of a public meeting at Salisbury, and was between Mr. Terrill, a Wiltshire farmer, who challenged his opponent first, and Mr. Abbey, a lecturer for the society. The issue was who would do the most work in the harvest field, the former drinking beer and the latter water only.
From the very start in the contest, Mr. Terrill assumed the lead. At four o’clock, he had cleared 15a. 3r. 16p. [acres, roods, and perches], and Mr. Abbey had cleared 14a. 3r. 0p. Therefore at that time Mr. Terrill was about one acre ahead. A short cessation of work took place. Mr Terrill, it was stated, was “annointed” by his friends, the “ointment” consisting of whisky. But this is denied. However, he worked well after the pause.
After four o’clock, Mr. Abbey gained steadily, continuing to so so to the finish, when he was only 3r. 21p. behind, having gained something like an acre in about three hours and a quarter. The quantity pitched by Mr Terrill was 29a. 2r. 7p., and that of Mr. Abbey 19a. 2r. 26p. It is stated that a man who clears 12 or 13 acres in a day is considered have done a good day’s work. After the contest, Mr. Terrill and Mr. Abbey shook hands in a most cordial manner, and each proposed cheers for the other.
Mr. J. Abbey provided more details of the contest in a letter to a newspaper. He had not done a day’s work in the harvest fields for 22 years, and he had not sought the contest, but had been unable to refuse Mr. W. F. Terrill’s challenge. Abbey wanted the contest to last a week, and requested to be allowed an oatmeal drink rather than plain water, but Terrill refused.
On the day of the contest, Abbey got up at 3 AM to travel to the field. The contest began just after 7 AM. “At ten o’clock my hands were blistered, several blisters had broken, and my wrists were severely sprained,” he wrote. By 12, during a lunch break, Abbey had lost his appetite and was unable to eat. At 4, he felt slightly better and ate “cold boiled egg, slice of bread, and butter and a bun”. This sustenance allowed him to gain considerable ground, although not enough for victory. The contest ended at 8 PM.
Abbey pointed out that, between them, he and Terrill had cleared more than 40 acres in 11 hours (excluding breaks). He did not think many men from non-labouring professions could have achieved that. Although he lost the contest, Abbey wrote that he had the satisfaction of knowing he had done a day’s work that he “had no need to be ashamed of”. And finally, he pointed out, he had never made a bet. He and Terrill had agreed that the loser would make a donation of £5 to the Salisbury Infirmary: “I am prepared to give my health, strength and life, if need be, for the cause of temperance, but nothing could induce me to make a bet in the ordinary sense of the word.”
As for the victorious Terrill, friends presented him with “a gold medal and a purse of gold”. There was little sympathy for the vanquished Abbey. “Mr. Abbey forgot that a lecturing life softens the muscles whilst strengthening the brain, and unfits a man for common farm labour,” commented one newspaper. “He forgot also that, however little nourishment there is in beer, there is no more in water.” ⬧
Now the Recommended section with special guest Ed Needham:
Strong Words magazine
Strong Words is a magazine about books. An actual paper magazine, pushing against the “death of print” narrative. It’s the brainchild of seasoned glossy mag editor Ed Needham, who single-handedly writes and publishes Strong Words nine times a year. (Ed says he reads the equivalent of War and Peace every week and writes the equivalent of The Great Gatsby for each issue.) Strong Words takes a breezy and enthusiastic approach towards books, rather than the snooty “I know more than the author” approach that often slips into newspaper review sections.
It’s a terrific read. Alongside reviews and author interviews, regular features include the “How To Write…” section, which breaks down the writing process behind blockbuster reads. (There’s also an accompanying “Five Rules of Writing” podcast.) The mag’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s likely to encourage you to spend a small fortune on new books. You can subscribe via the Strong Words website.
Ed Needham was kind enough to answer a couple of questions:
Paul: You read scores of books for every issue of Strong Words. What are the main attributes that make a particularly strong book stand out from the pile?
Ed: Everything comes back to my journalistic mantra: tell me something I didn’t know and make it interesting. Everybody knows intuitively what works for them, the hard part of Strong Words is making sure I don’t just write about what I like, but try and cover a wide arc of new and interesting material.
Paul: Can you recommend something our readers might enjoy and tell us why you enjoyed it?
Ed: My favourite book so far this year is called The Disappearing Act, by French journalist Florence de Changy. It’s about Malaysia Airlines MH370, which disappeared off the radar in 2014 and has never been found. She conducts a forensic analysis of what is known about its disappearance and how countries typically respond to missing aircraft, to suggest a hypothesis very different to the official narrative. It’s a brilliant piece of journalism about an event that makes little sense.
You can subscribe to Strong Words magazine and order back issues via the Strong Words website. It’s a UK magazine with worldwide delivery options.
In the previous newsletter, I previewed my Narratively article about the American gangsters who attempted one of Britain’s first armed bank robberies, with disastrous results. You can read (or listen to) the full story on the Narratively website.
I mentioned that there were some interesting extra tangents to the Duffy brothers’ story that I couldn’t squeeze into the article, including the fact that their older brother was a famous athlete who won the Boston Marathon in 1914 then was killed in action at Ypres in 1915. His name was Jimmy Duffy, and you can read his story in this thread on my Twitter feed:
Next time: Loved a Royal Freak
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Main sources: North Wilts Herald, 7 September 1883, Alliance News, 1 September 1883.