Fred Pearce wrote a series of paperback pub guides in the 1970s including this 52 page run around the pubs of Bristol.
We first heard of it when we were researching Brew Britannia and Robin Allender (@robinallender) kindly sent us a scan of the section referring to the Royal Navy Volunteer. Then, in January, Garvan Hickey, one of the landlords of our local, The Draper’s Arms, kindly let us borrow his copy.
We’ve now scanned it and took the PDF out for a test drive around Redcliffe last Friday night. It was great to be able to look up the pubs we were in and see how, if at all, they might have changed.
English village pubs are mythologised, romanticised and eulogised, but what are they actually like in the 21st century?
We’ve been tinkering with a version of this post for months but were prompted to finish and post it by this Tweet from an academic conference on drink and drinking:
@culturalclare taking us through key changes to rural drinking cultures in Lincolnshire since 1950s: fewer village pubs, more food & family-oriented pubs, & much less central to leisure activities of village residents #DSN2018
The talk (as far as we can glean from Tweets) went on to mention the decreased centrality of the inn in village life even as its absolute centrality to the idea of the perfect village persists in popular culture. Hopefully we’ll get to read the finished study at some point but, for now, we thought we’d share a few observations of our own.
In the 1960s and 70s German-style beer cellars were all the rage in Britain popping up everywhere from Blackpool to central London, and Liverpool did not miss out on the trend.
We’ve touched on this subject a few times including in an article on theme pubs for CAMRA last year and in 20th Century Pub. Just recently we wrote a substantial article, also for CAMRA, which we expect to appear in the next issue of BEER magazine. This post, however, zooms in one one one example via an article in the in-house magazine of the Tetley Walker brewery group for autumn 1969.
Rigby’s on Dale Street is a famous Liverpool pub now run by Okell’s of the Isle of Man. In 1968, however, it was part of the Allied Breweries empire managed under as part of the Walker Cain sub-group. Just before Christmas that year Rigby’s newest feature, a Bierkeller, was unveiled in the low-beamed cellar:
Much of the character of the keller was already there, for the old cellars of Rigby’s still have their ancient flagstone floors, original cast iron stanchions and stone block walls… To this existing setting were added girls in traditional Bavarian costume to serve the drinks, long beech tables and benches — four tons of timber went into their making — German poster on the walls and two doors marked Damen and Herren.
It’s sometimes hard to tell how seriously breweries took this kind of thing. Sometimes it seemed to be a sincere effort to evoke a German atmosphere — don’t forget, many British drinkers at this point had actually been to Germany thanks to the war and the subsequent cold war — while others were… less so. Rigby’s was certainly an example of the former perhaps because Liverpool in particular had strong German connections (think of the Beatles in Hamburg) and a fairly substantial reverse traffic with enough Germans in Liverpool to warrant their own church from 1960. There was also a permanent German consulate and it was the commercial attache, H.C. von Herwarth, who opened Rigby’s Bierkeller and “drew the first stein of lager”.
But Rigby’s German-flavoured venture had another advantage: the licensee was one John Burchardt:
Mr Burchardt came to England as a prisoner of war in 1946. He worked on farms in this country and he liked living here so much that when he was released and was given the option of returning to his country…. he decided to come back and take a civilian job…. He married an English girl and Mr and Mrs Burchardt have a family of four boys.
For once, we have been able to gather a bit more biographical information about the nameless spouse: Mrs Burchardt was called Edith and was born in Wales in 1932. The same source tells us that John was actually called Werner and was born in Dortmund but perhaps grew up in Danzig (now Gdańsk, Poland) which might be why he didn’t want to go home. And another perhaps: he may have ended up in Liverpool because of family connections as one Otto Burchardt was appointed consul to the King of Prussia in Liverpool in 1841 and was buried there when he died in 1882.
But, back to pubs: John Burchardt told the reporter for TW magazine that he didn’t see much difference between running a Bavarian Bierkeller and an English pub like the one upstairs. Here’s the public bar in a shot taken, we think, from just about exactly where we sat when we visited in 2016:
We don’t know yet what became of Rigby’s Bierkeller but, based on our research into others, we’d guess it slowly went downmarket and became less German before folding in the late 1970s. (The standard pattern.)
But if you know otherwise, or remember drinking there during its Germanicised phase, do comment below or drop us a line.
A few times now we’ve been asked, or seen others being asked, to recommend a single great book that tells the story of lager. Unfortunately, as far as we know, no such book yet exists.
Last time our answer amounted to a short reading list — this article, that book, this blog post — which made us think that it might be useful to put this together in a single place. That is, here. Partly because it’s fun, and partly to add a bit of weight to the idea, we’ve decided to think of it as a virtual anthology.
Where we have been able to identify free-to-access sources we’ve provided links and in the cases of material you have to pay for we’ve tried to suggest free alternatives.
What we really wanted to find but couldn’t was something to act as a foreword — a rip-roaring, passionate ‘In Praise of Lager’ piece. Most we dug up were either too dry, too specific (Czech beer, German beer) or laced throughout with digs at IPA and craft beer culture. If you know of the perfect piece, mention it in the comments below or drop us an email: email@example.com
Beer history isn’t all about pubs. Imagine working on a ship or boat on the Thames in the days before Thermos flasks or vending machines, unable to get to any of the pubs you might see on the shore. Wouldn’t you welcome a booze delivery? Well, that’s where the purl-men came in.
The most comprehensive reference when it comes to purl-men, as with so many odd aspects of London street life, is Henry Mayhew’s great survey London Labour and the London Poor, researched and written as a series of articles during the 1840s and published in book form in 1851. You can read the entire section on purl-men in Volume II, beginning on page 93 in this edition, but we’ll be quoting a few big chunks as we go, via the indexed text at the Tufts University website:
There is yet another class of itinerant dealers who, if not traders in the streets, are traders in what was once termed the silent highway — the river beer-sellers, or purl-men, as they are more commonly called… The purl-men…. are scarcely inferior to the watermen themselves in the management of their boats; and they may be seen at all times easily working their way through every obstruction, now shooting athwart the bows of a Dutch galliot or sailing-barge, then dropping astern to allow a steam-boat to pass till they at length reach the less troubled waters between the tiers of shipping…. Those on board the vessels requiring refreshment, when they hear the bell, hail ‘Purl ahoy;’ in an instant the oars are resumed, and the purl-man is quickly alongside the ship.
Mayhew’s account of the history of purl-men on the Thames seems broadly plausible, which is to say that it’s fairly dull and mostly free of cute stories. He says that the custom began with small vessels selling a wider range of goods to those aboard ships – floating general stores with the rather unfortunate name of ‘bumboats’. Mayhew reckons this derives from the German Baum (tree) which he says can also mean harbour, or haven, but we checked with a German-speaker who didn’t think so. The Oxford English Dictionary reckons the derivation is entirely English and more obvious: it’s bum (meaning arse) plus boat, meaning boat. That is, basically, a shitty boat.
Mayhew describes the bumboats of the 1840s as ‘all in the form of skiffs, rather short, but of a good breadth, and therefore less liable to capsize through the swell of the steamers, or through any other cause’. (Hyperlink ours, not Mayhew’s.) Bumboats worked the river for some time before they were officially recognised by Trinity House in 1685 by which point (Mayhew says) they had ‘long degenerated into the mere beersellers’, hence the drive for licencing and regulation.
Though Mayhew calls the boats bumboats and their crew purl-men other sources, such as Arthur Morrison’s 1902 novel The Hole in the Wall, set in and around a Wapping pub, or this court record from the 1770s, are just as likely to call them ‘purl-boats’ which brings us to the fun bit: the booze itself.
Purl proper is fairly well documented. It was an infusion of ale with wormwood, a plant best known perhaps for its use in the manufacture of the psychedelic green spirit known as absinthe, which is the French name for wormwood. Another variant, purl-royal, used wine instead of beer as the base for the drink. (As you might expect, Samuel Pepys tasted both at various points,and Dickens mentioned purl more than once.) By the early 19th century this recipe was in circulation in home recipe books:
To make improved wholesome purl. — Take Roman wormwood two dozen, gentian-root six pounds; calamus aromaticus (or the sweet flag root) two pounds; a pound or two of the galien-gale root; horse-radish one bunch; orange-peel dried, and juniper berries each two pounds; seeds or kernels of Seville oranges dried, two pounds…. These being cut and bruised, put them into a clean butt, and start mild brown beer upon them, so as to fill up the vessel about the beginning of November, and let it stand till the next season; and make it thus annually.
Mayhew says, however, that what was actually being sold on the river was something quite different, simpler, and cheaper:
Now, however, the wormwood is unknown; and what is sold under the name of purl is beer warmed nearly to boiling heat, and flavoured with gin, sugar, and ginger. The river-sellers, however, still retain the name, of purl-men, though there is not one of them with whom I have conversed that has the remotest idea of the meaning of it.
The mechanism for warming this latter version of purl was a kind of brazier ‘with holes drilled all round to admit the air and keep the fuel burning’ over which the purl-man would hold the beer in a ‘black pot’. The ale was typically stored in two pins (36-pint casks) alongside a quart or more of gin in a long-necked tin vessel.
A combative article in the Morning Advertiser from 1844, however, suggested that a hundred or so licences had been granted since 1839 and that there was great concern about the sheer number of bum-boats and the frequent criminal conduct of the purl-men. It also got in a dig at the quality of the beer they sold alongside a plug for the ‘respectable Licensed Victuallers and…. owners of riverside [public] houses’ that were among its core readership. Mayhew’s figures, from around the same time, were quite different: he reckoned there were only 35 licensed purl-men on the river, 23 of whom were working the Pool of London.
The life of a purl-man, like the life of many who grubbed a living in Victorian London, seems to have been hard – a constant round of scraping together money to buy stock, and dangerous, body-wracking work. Many were disabled to begin with having got into purl-selling after being injured working on the river. The profits were never huge but, still, Mayhew reports that some of the younger purl-men managed to parlay their river work into careers as publicans on dry land.
There were still bumboat men trading in London as late as 1871 when a river policeman, new in town from the country and unfamiliar with the bumboat tradition, saw William Henry M’Colley serve something from a tin cup to a man aboard a grain ship and challenged him. According to the report in the Morning Advertiser on 19 August that year, M’Colley produced a licence which he believed entitled him to sell rum and other spirits:
Bumboat, No. 8,706. Received of William Henry M‘Colley the sum of 2s. 6d. fees due from him on registering him in the books of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames, as the owner of the boat (8,706) to be used, worked, or navigated by him for the purpose of selling and disposing of or exposing for sale to and amongst the seamen and other persons employed in and about ships or vessels upon the said river, liquors, slops, and other articles, or buying or selling other articles in like-manner, but such boat is not to be used for any other purpose, for the period of three years, to the 23rd day of May, 1873. (Signed) Henry Humpheries, Clerk.
The police officer, Inspector Charles Marley, disputed the terms of the licence and the case ended up in court. The judge concluded that the bumboat men should not for the time being sell any more spirits but said nothing particular about beer. References to bumboats dry up after this which leads us to suspect (pending further research) that this particular incident triggered the end of the trade in London.
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If you know more about this or can point to really substantial sources our Googling might have missed, comment below. We’d be especially interested to know if there’s any way we can see a copy of an 1835 painting by George Chamber entitled ‘Purl boat and barges on the Thames — morning’ mentioned here.