Looking for one thing, we found another: an essay by H.V. Morton entitled ‘Pub Crawlers’, published in The Nights of London in 1926.
In this context, the crawlers are not drinkers as in modern usage but hawkers relying on ‘human nature in its most expansive moments’, (i.e. pissed, in the pub) to earn a few pennies selling boot laces, matches, or performance art:
Most remarkable of all the bar visitors is the Young Man with the Paper Shapes… He slips into a bar silently, and he stands by the door. Somehow the people become aware of him. Mrs Jones, with her veil on her nose, pauses in mild alarm, with her second glass of stout poised above her ample bosom, as she says, sotto voce:
‘Oo-er; look at ‘im! What’s he after?’
They see a pale young man gazing round the bar from beneath the brim of an old felt hat. He is fumbling with wads of folded newspapers contents bills, with which his clothes are padded. Quickly, he makes little tearing movement, he pinches ovals and oblongs and stripes from the folded bill, he teases it and pulls it, and then opens it, displaying four perfectly modelled filigreed figures cut in the paper.
A delighted murmum rises from the bar! Isn’t it clever? How does he do it? He ought to be on the halls!
For his next trick, the Young Man extends a paper ladder to the ceiling — perhaps learned from Harry Houdini’s 1922 book Paper Magic?
When Morton talks to him he discovers that he is well-educated and well-spoken but has been working at this trade for fifteen years. He’s evidently down on his luck, though his ‘wife’s people’ are paying for his son to attend a top public school.
It’s not quite clear how much of this is truth and how much fiction, and Morton does not seem to have been a nice bloke, but, still, it’s a lovely vignette. If we ever get to compile that anthology of writing about beer and pubs we sometimes dream about, this piece will be a shoo-in.
Main image: detail from ‘Posters in the Strand’ by Yoshio Markino from The Colour of London, 1907.