To have been in the sun, according to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era, was to be drunk, as both drink and exposure to the sun produce a red face, a good example, he asserts, of direct satire by indirect means. Sun over the fore-yard was a naval expression denoting that someone was dead drunk, perhaps the result of swallering a sailor, drinking and getting drunk on rum. A sailor, though, who had swallered the anchor was one who comes home, loafs, and shows no sign of going back to sea again.
A colourful phrase with an interesting history is sworn at Highgate, an oath by which the swearer asserts that they will never accept anything offered while they can get something better. It owed its origin to a coloured cartoon published by Laurie and Whittle of 53, Fleet Street on September 12, 1792. In Ware’s time the best example of the cartoon was to be found at the Old Gate House at the top of Highgate Hill, the only place where the oath can be properly administered.
“The oath-taker is accompanied by a herald”, he writes, “who holds aloof the significant horns which are produced in letter form at the front of the tavern before which the operation is completed. The maid pins meanwhile a ragged clout to coat tail, while the mistress waits with a foaming pot of beer or rather a gallon measure, for the garnishing of everybody after the oath is complete”.
The declaration runs “pray sir – lay your right hand on this book and attend to the Oath – you swear by the Rules of Sound Judgement that you will not eat Brown Bread when you can have White, except you like the Brown the better; that you will not drink Small Beer when you can get Strong, except you like the Small Beer better – but you will kiss the Maid in preference to the Mistress, if you like the Maid better – so help you, Billy Bodkin. Turn round and fulfil your oath”.
The exceptions show that the oath was not an oath and for amusement regulars of the pubs in the vicinity would convince newcomers to swear the oath. Certain privileges were endowed upon the oath-swearer. As well as getting to kiss the prettiest girl in the establishment, if they needed a rest in Highgate, they could kick a pig out of a ditch and take its place. If there were three pigs in the ditch, he could only remove the middle one and had to rest between the other two. Arriving without any money would entitle him to free drinks but if money was then found on his person, he had to stand a round for everyone in the pub.