An old gravestone in the grounds of Winchester Cathedral has an unusual place in history as the inspiration behind the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. Thomas Thetcher, also known as the Hampshire Grenadier, died in 1764 after drinking a small beer, and would have remained entirely forgotten if he had not become the inspiration for the early sobriety movement.
Winchester in Hampshire is a beautiful and ancient city; once one of the most important cities in England, both pre and post Roman era. It retains many of its old buildings including The Great Hall, home to an Arthurian round table which has been there for 700 years, Wolvesey Castle where the important Bishops of Winchester lived for centuries and of course Winchester Cathedral. The cathedral is the focal point of this now very upmarket town, and features on every visitor's itinerary.
Most visitors walk past the few remaining graves in the the grounds of Winchester Cathedral. There are not many gravestones left outside, and most people will head inside to find the far more recognisable graves of Jane Austen or the early Saxon Kings, ignoring the tall, loquacious gravestone sitting quietly under a tree.
The lengthy inscription reads:
"In Memory of Thomas Thetcher a Grenadier in the North Reg. of Hants Militia, who died of a violent Fever contracted by drinking Small Beer when hot the 12th of May 1764. Aged 26 Years. In grateful remembrance of whose universal good will towards his Comrades, this Stone is placed here at their expence, as a small testimony of their regard and concern. 'Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall, And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all'.
This memorial being decay'd was restor'd by the Officers of the Garrison A.D. 1781. 'An Honest Soldier never is forgot, Whether he die by Musket or by Pot'.
The Stone was replaced by the North Hants Militia when disembodied at Winchester, on 26 April 1802, in consequence of the original Stone being destroyed.
It was again replaced by The Royal Hampshire Regiment 1966."
So how did this inspire the AA movement? An American soldier serving in World War I was stationed near Winchester while waiting to be sent to the Western Front. Bill Wilson had had a troubled start in life and had recently discovered the joys of alcohol, finding it helped him with his social unease and lack of confidence. He saw the grave when visiting the cathedral and was struck by the similarity of the name Thomas Thetcher with that of a childhood friend of his, Ebby Thacher.
It was soon forgotten when he returned to the States and became a businessman, whose career was often marred by his extreme drinking. After several stints in rehab, he finally managed to quit with the help of Ebby Thacher and a church group. He later published his famous book, Alchoholics Anonymous, about how to overcome alcohol addiction, writing about his visit to Winchester Cathedral and how the gravestone had caught his eye, describing it as an ‘ominous warning which I failed to heed".
Ironically, the gravestone is warning not of excessive alcohol consumption but rather the reverse. At a time when drinking water was rife with all manner of disgusting effluent, people drank beer instead. It was unknown at the time, but the water was full of diseases such as typhoid and cholera, so drinking beer protected them from this as the alcohol content killed off the germs. Poor Thomas Thetcher had drunk a weak beer, too weak for the alcohol to kill off the germs, and had died as a result: "And when ye're hot drink Strong or none at all"
The grave has become something of a memorial for those who have been afflicted by the same illness as Bill, and you will often see the odd flower or token in front of the gravestone. Otherwise, Thomas Thetcher goes unnoticed.
You can find the grave at w3w: shaves.keys.microchip