141 leather-jugs

Treasure Tales – Drink Up!

June 12, 2020 | Holkhome | 2 minute read

141 leather-jugs

Three leather jugs in the Old Kitchen have a curious history interwoven with Holkham’s brewing heritage.

In the Old Kitchen, tucked in an alcove are three old ‘Blackjacks’, large 18th century leather jugs. These unassuming jugs would have been in almost daily use in the early history of the hall. The name is derived from their manufacture; sewn from a single piece of leather with an additional circular leather base, they are shaped whilst wet and air-dried. This leather is known as ‘jack leather’. The leather is then waterproofed with brewer’s pitch, which is a black colour. The smallest jug is 48cm, the largest 54cm.

The jugs are included in the first inventory made in 1759 following the death of Thomas, 1st Earl of Leicester. At that point they were kept and used in the Servants’ Hall, the dining room for the lower servants and tenants. The blackjacks would have been filled with ‘small beer’, a much-weakened beer that provided nutritional benefits and would have been safer than drinking water. Various strengths and flavours of beer would have been made in the new brewhouse, next to the octagonal engine house. Malt was made by grinding barley grown on the estate as it continues to do so today. The brewed beers would then be piped along lead pipes to the ale cellars in the hall. Beer continued to be brewed on site through to the late 19th century.

The servant who filled the tankards and glasses was known as the ‘bottler’ which eventually corrupted into ‘butler’. John Birt was first engaged as a footman and, by 1754, was the butler for the family when at Holkham and London. It is likely that he was responsible for ensuring the beer was flowing when entertaining, as well as ordering the brewer to make specific types of beer for the different tables.


John Birt must have been very strong as when the largest jug is filled it weighs in excess of 20kgs. Pouring the beer precisely into the tankards and beakers would have been quite a challenge!

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