Sucking The Monkey

Did you know that it used to be quite common for people to die from the effects of “Sucking The Monkey”?

Indeed, the newspapers of the latter half of the 19th century contain numerous reports of such deaths, and if the accounts of it are accurate, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant way to go.

The various reported cases illustrate one important aspect of the East End of London in the Victorian era – and on into the 20th century, for that matter – that drinking alcohol was a huge part of everyday life, and, as a consequence, drunkenness was a massive problem, that could sometimes have fatal consequences for the unwise, or over-enthusiastic, imbiber.

A group of people drinking outside a pub.
Victorian Drinkers Outside A Beer Shop on Whitechapel Road.


The Cheltenham Chronicle featured a case of someone who survived the practice in its edition of October 4th 1870:-

“Walter Burke was charged at Thames Police Court on the 26th, with illegally drinking wine from a cask in the London Docks.

The prisoner was detected by a cooper named William Etheridge, knocking the bung out of a cask of wine on the dock quay.

The prisoner removed the bung with a hammer and then commenced sucking the wine out with his mouth, just like a dog lapping; holding his head up to allow the wine to run down his throat.

Etheridge seized the prisoner before he had finished swallowing the first mouthful, and delivered him over to an inspector of the dock company’s police.

Mr. Paget sentenced the prisoner to a month’s imprisonment and hard labour.”


However, there were some who indulged in the practice who paid a much heavier price than a prison sentence with  hard labour, as is evidenced from the following report, that appeared in The Edinburgh Evening News on Wednesday August 18th 1875:-

“On Monday evening Mr Humphreys held an inquest at the London Hospital relative to the death of Thomas Collins, aged 29, a labourer employed in the spirit vaults of the London Docks, and living at 12 Flower and Dean Street, Spitalfields.

On Friday morning, the deceased left home in good health to go to his work as usual.

At a quarter to eight the same night he was brought home insensible, having been found by a fellow-workman lying on the pavement opposite the Princess Alice, Commercial Street.

He smelt dreadfully of spirits, and never becoming conscious was removed at two o’clock the following Saturday morning to the hospital, where the doctor pronounced life extinct.

Deceased’s wife stated that she had heard her husband speak about sucking the monkey; she knew he used a bone for that purpose.

The coroner said this was not the first case by many that had come under his notice.

No doubt most of the jury knew the meaning of  “sucking the monkey.”

A mutton bone was inserted in the bung of the barrel, which enabled the men to draw up the raw spirit into their mouths.

Deceased had contributed to his death, and no one was to blame but himself.

Dr. Hughes, assistant medical officer, having stated death to be due to congestion of the brain consequent on drinking strong spirits, a verdict to that effect was recorded.”


The Grantham Journal, on October 28th 1876, carried a report of a similar case, that ended with less tragic consequences:-

“At the Thames Police Court, London, on Monday, George Rodgers, a powerfully-built, elderly man, was charged with stealing brandy from a cask in the London Dock.

James Mann, a constable in the service of the dock, said that on Saturday afternoon he was on duty on the brandy quay, when he saw the prisoner lying between two casks in a speechless state of intoxication.

He sent for a barrow, placed the defendant on it, and drove him to the station in the dock.

On searching him he found a large tube wet with brandy.

A surgeon was called in to attend to the prisoner, and on his regaining his senses and being told the charge he made no reply.

The witness said that on the 25th of July last the defendant was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour for stealing wine from a cask through a gutta-percha tube, commonly termed among the dock employees “sucking the monkey”, and was also sentenced to a further term of one month with hard labour for assaulting a dock constable.

The Magistrate now sentenced the prisoner to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.”

A police officer wheeling a drunk man on a barrow.
A Policeman Wheels A Drunk Man Through The Streets Of The East End.


The Evening Telegraph, on Monday January 16th, 1888, reported on another fatal case:-

“Among the prisoners charged on Saturday morning at the Thames Police Court was James Donovan, aged 40, a labourer, who was charged with being found drunk and incapable.

The Magistrate was informed that, after the unfortunate man was arrested, he died.

About half-past-four, on Friday afternoon, a constable found Donovan lying on the pavement in High Street, Shadwell, in an insensible condition.

He was conveyed to the Shadwell Police Station, when the inspector sent for the Divisional Surgeon.

On the latter examining the man, he found him to be suffering from the effects of drink.

By the doctor’s advice, Donovan was removed to the London Hospital, where he died about three hours afterwards, from the effects of alcoholic poisoning.

From inquiries made, it appears that the deceased man had been “sucking the monkey” from a cask of rum at Colonial Wharf, and so brought about the condition in which he was found.

Some months ago, the same constable found Donovan in a similar condition as he was on Friday afternoon. On that occasion he had been “sucking the monkey” from a wine cask.

Mr Lushington marked the sheet, “Died in Hospital.”

An exterior view of the London Hospital.
The London Hospital.


The Evening Telegraph And Star featured a similar report on Thursday June 7th 1894:-

“A sad case of what is known in the dock warehouse as “sucking the monkey” was yesterday brought under the notice of  Mr Haden Corser, the magistrate, at the Thames Police Court.

Among the charges was one against Richard Barry, 29, a dock labourer, of Hungerford Street, Commercial Road, for having in his possession a tube for obtaining wine from casks at the London Docks.

Inspector Newman informed the magistrate that the unfortunate man had since died.

When charged at Leman Street Police Station, Barry appeared to be all right, but afterwards showed signs of illness.

Dr Clarke, assistant Divisional Surgeon, was immediately summoned, and although every effort was made to restore the man to consciousness, it was not successful.

Barry had been consuming sherry, and there was no doubt the excessive drinking of that brought about his sad end.

Mr Haden Corser marked the sheet accordingly.”


The practice was also responsible for the death of William Ryan, as reported by The Illustrated Police News on the 15th of December 1894:-

“FRIDAY afternoon, at the London Hospital, Mr. Wynne E. Baxter, coroner for East London, held an inquiry respecting the death of William Ryan, aged thirty-six years; a dock labourer, late of 110, Coventry Street, Bethnal Green, who died in the hospital on Tuesday from the effects of drinking stolen spirits in the London Docks.

Walter Lilley, a detective employed by the London and India Docks Joint Committee, deposed that, on Wednesday last, he was asked to get the ambulance and take it to the tobacco warehouse.

He went there and found the deceased lying on a box partly unconscious, and witness took him to the hospital.

Witness believed the deceased had been stealing spirits, and asked him if it was so.

He said, “I met ‘C’ man in the docks, and he asked me if I  wanted a drink, “and the man took him to a cask of wine, and having removed the bung, they both had a drink out of the bunghole, and he remembered nothing more.

The cask was found to contain brandy, which had been put in a port wine cask.

James Warden, one of the dock constables, deposed that the deceased was brought to him on a man’s back about five o’clock in the afternoon, and witness saw he was ill and went for the last witness.

Robert Hailing, of 21, Bandon Road, Victoria Park, deposed that he was the deceased’s foreman that day.

He saw nothing of any man talking to the deceased.

Dr. Cook, house surgeon, deposed that the deceased was unconscious when admitted, and remained so for ten hours.

Death was due to bronchitis, following alcoholic poisoning.

The jury returned a verdict to that effect.”


The practice – and resultant fatalities – most certainly continued into the 20th century, as the following case, reported in The Farringdon Advertiser, on Saturday May 17th 1919, demonstrates:-

“At an inquiry into the death of a dock labourer, Joseph Hyams, at the London Hospital, a Port of London Authority constable told the coroner that the accused lost his life through the practice known as “riding the pony,” or “sucking the monkey.”

This means that a man, after making a hole through the bung of a cask of liquor, got astride the cask and sucked the contents by means of tubing or glass, or even paper.

The evidence showed that death was due to asphyxiation consequent upon acute alcoholism.

Hyams was found lying unconscious by the side of a sixty-gallon cask of brandy at the London Docks, and it was found that three casks of over-proof brandy had been tampered with.”