Death of Thomas Thetcher, 1764

To members of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) the name Thomas Thetcher, a grenadier in the North Regiment of the Hants Militia, is synonymous with the foundation of their organisation. But the curious link between Thetcher’s grave in the churchyard of Winchester Cathedral and AA is less well known to the wider public.
Thetcher died aged 26 on May 12, 1764 after drinking contaminated ‘small’ beer. He was buried in Winchester Cathedral churchyard with the following inscription on his tombstone:

In Memory of
Thomas Thetcher
a Grenadier in the North Regt. 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 expense, 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 AD 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.
And again replaced by The Royal Hampshire Regiment 1966.

In 1918, a young American soldier named Bill Wilson, who was encamped near Winchester with his US Army unit while en route to the Western Front, visited the city’s cathedral and chanced upon Thomas Thetcher’s grave. Wilson was struck by the inscription and also by the similarity between Thetcher’s name and that of a boyhood friend, Ebby Thacher. After the war, Wilson became a successful businessman, but heavy drinking marred his career and he was eventually told that he would either die from his alcoholism or have to be locked up permanently.

Remarkably, however, Wilson and a handful of fellow alcoholics – including Ebby Thacher – discovered a way to achieve sobriety. He became a founding member of Alcoholics Anonymous and wrote a book about his battle with drink in the hope of inspiring other alcoholics. In it he recalled his visit to Winchester Cathedral and how the gravestone had caught his eye, describing it as an ‘ominous warning which I failed to heed’. Clearly, he had forgotten the part of the inscription which read: ‘When ye’re hot drink Strong or not at all’…

There is no evidence that Thomas Thetcher was an alcoholic. In the mid-18th Century most people drank small beer – a weak brew – rather than water which carried cholera, typhoid and other diseases. It is likely that the ‘violent fever’ which killed Thetcher was caused by one of these diseases which had not been killed off in the making of that particular batch of beer. Ironically, had Thetcher drunk ‘strong’ beer, which had a higher alcohol content, he would probably have survived.

The book in which Wilson tells of his visit to Winchester Cathedral – AA’s famous ‘Big Book’ – has sold around 30 million copies. In 2011, Time magazine listed it among the 100 most influential books written in English since 1923. A year later the Library of Congress designated it as one of 88 ‘Books that Shaped America’.

The tombstone that Bill Wilson saw in 1918 was the copy of the 1764 original erected in 1802. In 1966 it was moved for safekeeping to the Royal Hampshire Regimental Museum at Serle’s House in Winchester where visitors can still see it. It was replaced in the cathedral grounds by the present updated copy, which is also based on the 1764 original.

Death of Thomas Thetcher, 1764