Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Beat Up His Quarters

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 5, 2011

While the British tend to make greater use of the expression “beat up his quarters” it’s an interesting phrase that means the speaker has either hunted down where someone lives or who has decided to visit without notice, thereby taking the person to be visited by surprise.  It has also been used colloquially by some in the military to mean an unexpected attack on the enemy in his camp.

In 1855, Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796 – 1865) published a book entitled, “Nature and Human Nature.”  In Chapter 6 entitled, “The Wounds of the Heart” the following exchange between characters is found:

“‘Well,” said he, ‘Peter, I suppose we musn’t let the man perish after all; but I wish he hadn’t sent for me, especially just now, for I want to have a long talk with Mr Slick.’

“And he and father set off immediately through the woods.”

“Suppose we beat up his quarters,” said I, “Jessie. I should like to see his house and collection, amazingly.”

“Oh,” said she, “so should I, above all things; but I wouldn’t ask him for the world. He’ll do it for you, I know he will; for he says you are a man after his own heart. You study nature so; and I don’t know what all, he said of you.”

The expression was indeed part of everyday English as it appeared in a letter to Thomas Carlyle on March 14, 1855 according to “The Collected Letters, Volume 29” wherein the following paragraph is found:

He has got Books &c around him; got the little Sailor Boy1 home; and appears to take to his quarters. He is little more than a mile2 from me: very often, in my last walk (whh is an evening or rather a night one), about 10 o’clock, I beat up his quarters; and smoke a pipe with him. He is as quiet, and [words missing] meant or ought. Get Isabella or young Jamie to write me, as soon as possible, the Account I want;—and add some other “account,” namely, of what you are doing at Scotsbrig, how you all are &c &c: of which I seldom hear enough in late times. Jamie, I suppose, is gone back to Glasgow? Make my kind regards to Isabella; I hope (and indeed believe) the Spring weather will prove beneficial to her; and to the rest of us that have too thin a skin!

In 1836, James Kirke Paulding (1778-1860) published a book entitled, “The Book Of Saint Nicholas.”  The following passage is found in the book:

It was a rude, romantic spot, distant from the high road, which, however, could be seen winding up the hill about three miles off.  His nearest neighbours were at the same distance, and he seldom saw company except at night, when the fox and the weasel sometimes beat up his quarters, and caused a horrible cackling among the poultry.

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker” by Tobias Smollett (1721 – 1771) was published in 1771.  One of the letters included in the book was an exchange of letters between Dr. Richard Lewis and Matt Ramble wherein Matt has this to say about Sir Thomas Bullford whom he had met while in Italy:

He is very good-humoured, talks much, and laughs without ceasing. I am told that all the use he makes of his understanding at present, is to excite mirth, by exhibiting his guests in ludicrous attitudes. I know not how far we may furnish him with entertainment of this kind, but I am resolved to beat up his quarters, partly with a view to laugh with the knight himself, and partly to pay my respects to his lady, a good-natured sensible woman, with whom he lives upon very easy terms, although she has not had the good fortune to bring him an heir to his estate.

And the “Whole Works of Walter Moyle, esq.” published in 1727 contains this interesting tidbit in poem form:

Meanwhile the foe beat up his quarters,
And storm’d the outworks of his fortress ;
And, as another of the fame Degree and party.

The phrase seems to have had its heyday in the 1700s and 1800s and then fell off in popularity although it can be found very occasionally in newspaper stories in the early half of the 1900s and in some social circles — usually military — from time to time.

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