Purl, Bumboats and the Pool of London

Main image, above: The Grand Panorama of London, Tower of London section, via the British Library.

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.

A small boat on the water.
From ‘An Illustrated Vocabulary for the Deaf and Dumb’, 1857.

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.

* * *

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.

Two Pubs In One: The Feathers, Waterloo, c.1878

This post is all about the picture above, really, which is why we’ve reproduced it at a decent size.

It comes from page 408 of the sixth and final volume of Old and New London by Edward Walford and Walter Thornbury published by Cassell in, or at least around, 1878. (Archive.org | British History Online | Hathi Trust.)

The artist is uncredited but it’s not unlike the work of Gustav Doré whose own collection of evocative drawings of London was published a few years before.

We came across it thanks to an article by Jan Bondeson in the latest edition of the Fortean Times — actually an extract from his new bookThe Ripper of Waterloo Road, about the 1838 murder of Eliza Grimwood in a house near The Feathers, on Waterloo Road.

And there’s the fascinating thing: The Feathers, as you can see, had entrances on two roads on different levels: Commercial Road was low and ran parallel to the Thames while Waterloo Road was high and merged with Waterloo Bridge.

Here’s something to pinpoint the location from the wonderful National Library of Scotland’s interactive website which allows you to see historic maps overlaid on modern ones:

Map of Waterloo Road/Commercial Road intersection.

The drawing depicts the view from, or near, the top of the staircase marked at the point where Waterloo Wharf meets the bridge and, of course, P.H. is the public house in question — the large building on the corner.

There’s a bit more information on The Feathers in an odd little book in our collection, H.E. Popham’s 1927 Guide to London’s Taverns, revised in 1928:

Before we leave the south side of the river there is one more house that is worthy of attention, as as it is situated at the end of Waterloo Bridge, it can easily be visited on the return journey to central London… The present house was erected at the same time as the bridge, which was opened on the second anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. On the original site of The Feathers were Cuper’s Gardens. it is said… that the house was opened as a tavern by one, the widow Evans, who could not get a licence to open as ‘gardens’ under the act of 1752, which enacted that all places kept for public amusement within twenty miles of the City should be licensed. The law was evaded by the wily widow’s… statement on her programmes that the entertainment was given by gentlemen for their own private diversion… Boswell mentions the establishment in his Life.

(If he does, we can’t find it, but we only ran a quick search of the six volumes available via Gutenberg.org — if you can dig up this reference, let us know.)

The Survey of London entry for Waterloo, undertaken in 1951, tells us that Popham was substantially right: Ephraim Evans took on the tavern and gardens in 1738 and his widow continued to run it after his death in 1740, advertising it like this:

Cuper’s Gardens. This is to acquaint all Gentlemen and Ladies, that this present Saturday, the 25th instant, will be perform’d several curious Pieces of Musick, compos’d by Mr. Handel, Sig. Hasse, Mr. Arne, Mr. Burgess, etc., in which will be introduced the celebrated Fire-Musick, as originally compos’d by Mr. Handel … the Fireworks consisting of Fire-Wheels, Fountains, large Sky-Rockets, with an Addition of the Fire-Pump, etc., made by the ingenious Mr. Worman … play’d off from the Top of the Orchestra by Mr. Worman himself … The Widow Evans hopes, that as her Endeavours are to oblige the Town, they will favour her Gardens with their Company; and particular Care will be taken there shall be better Attendance, and more commodious Reception for the Company.

The last record of The Feathers on the astonishingly comprehensive Pubs History website is from 1938 but it was still appearing on maps published as late as 1951, and is even visible, with distinctive window arrangement and a Reid’s Stout advertisement, in the upper right of this 1951 photograph in the RIBA archive.

Based on its location, we can say with some certainty that The Feathers was demolished in around 1970 to make way for the construction of the National Theatre, but we’ll keep an eye out for firmer evidence one way or the other. (UPDATE 08/05/2017: See comments below — the pub was demolished in 1951.)

In the meantime, you can get a hint of what The Feathers and the streets around it might have been like by walking one bridge further along to London Bridge where staircases still lead to pubs down below and up above.

Why Did Brewers Use Sugar?

Illustration: Sweet Tooth brand can sugar cube.

It’s good to be stopped in your tracks occasionally, as when Ron Pattinson challenged us last week over our assertion that brewers used sugar to cut costs.

Here’s what we actually said, in our post on David Pollard:

Sugar has been used in British brewing for centuries not only to increase alcoholic strength while saving on raw material costs, but also to thin the body of the beer (to make it more ‘drinkable’); to add colour, in the case of dark sugars; and to add a range of often subtle flavours.

To which Ron replied:

I don’t think you’ve got it right about sugar. Its principal functions seem to have been flavour and colour, especially in Mild. That it wasn’t particularly about cost is demonstrated by the fact that brewers continued to use sugar even when it was more expensive than malt.

That made us pause and think about our assumptions.

We knew for sure that there was a perception in the 1970s that all-malt beer was purer and generally superior. Here’s what Michael Hardman, co-founder and first chair of CAMRA, said in his 1976 book Beer Naturally:

Sometimes the brewer will add sugar to the boiling wort to complement the natural sugars extracted from the malt. This practice, which was illegal until 1880, is now widespread, though many brewers proudly adhere to recipes which use only malt and hops.

But we realised that, yes, Ron was right — we had taken for granted that brewers used sugar to save money without any particular evidence in mind. It was just an idea we’d absorbed, somehow.

To answer the question about why brewers did use sugar we turned to one of our favourite historical sources: the online archive of the journal of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD). It can be a pretty dry old thing — lots of formulas and lengthy debates about piping materials, or food for brewery horses — but if you want to know what brewers were saying to each other about a particular issue behind closed doors, it’s hard to beat.

Item 1: The Economical Production of Modern Beers, 1895

In a paper read before members of the Yorkshire Institute of Brewing in Leeds (link to PDF) Fred Maynard complained about the tendency of brewery owners to demand top notch beers while providing their brewers with mediocre ingredients — an entertaining read, as it happens — while acknowledging that there were some ways to save a bit of cash without excessively compromising the end product. On sugar in particular he says (our emphasis):

The oldest method of effecting economy, and the one most generally adopted, consists in the employment of sugars as a partial malt substitute… In cases where a heavy, well-cured Yorkshire or Scotch barley malt is in use a cheap glucose may possibly be employed with advantage, but the same glucose would give rise to thin, harsh beers utterly devoid of character, if the malt used consisted of a light, under-cured English variety, or a highly diastatic foreign grain. 

That seems pretty unambiguous and makes us a feel somewhat more confident in our original assertion.

Item 2: The Manufacture and Use of Brewing Sugars in America, 1899

This paper, by Rolfe and Defren, was read at a meeting of brewers in Manchester, and contains commentary that supports Ron’s point above:

From an economical standpoint glucose and grape-sugar are sometimes used, although at times the prices of these substitutes have been higher than malt or prepared grain, which would contain equivalent amounts of extract. A little more than a year ago American glucose was selling pound for pound at less then half the price of malt. To-day the market conditions have placed the price of glucose and malt on a more uniform basis, although it is still a decided economy for the brewer to use glucose at present quotations in combination with malt.

In other words, depending what the market is up to, sugar (relatively plain varieties) might contribute to savings, but that’s not the only reason to use it.

Item 3: Invert Sugar, 1896

At an 1896 meeting in Manchester a paper by John Heron was read and discussed. After a detailed description of the process for making invert brewing sugar, he has this to say on the question of economy:

For a number of years, in fact, not until 1875, did the use of sugar make much headway in brewing, very severe restrictions being placed upon it, so that it was only in those years when good barley was scarce that it paid the brewer to employ sugar at all…

Which would seem to suggest that the decision to use sugar, if not driven purely by economics, was certainly influenced by the relative price of malt vs. sugar. This section, meanwhile, suggests that sugar became popular because it helped to make the kind of beers the public wanted:

Slowly a taste for a lighter and less alcoholic class of beer began to spring up. This meant storage for much shorter periods, so that quickness of consumption was thus fostered. This necessarily involved earlier conditioning and brightening in cask, and to meet this new state of things the brewer has been led to use less malt, fewer hops, and more sugar… For the last 50 years the use of sugar in brewing has been recognised by Government as a legitimate material in the manufacture of beer, and whilst the public taste generally demands a light beer of such a character as can only be produced with the aid of sugar, no agitation of so called protectionists will ever be able to prevents its use in the brewing of that beverage which we claim as our national drink.

Item 4: The Economics of Brewing, 1969

All the above examples date from the very tail-end of Victorian period — what about later? This paper by J.O. Harris of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries gives a fantastic overview of where savings were really being made at the dawn of the CAMRA era, which is to say not through using sugar to replace malt:

Little need or can be said in this connection which is not obvious. Cane sugar (per unit of extract) remains expensive and its replacement by cheaper glucose preparations is a matter of individual consideration.

Instead, Mr Harris suggests, the real economies are to be made through using replacement cereals (wheat, corn), extracts (especially from barely-malted malt), hop extracts, and changes to fermentation processes.

* * *

We’ll try to do more reading around this but our feeling is that, yes, it is probably fair to say the use of sugar was sometimes motivated by profit concerns, but not solely; and that by the 1970s when sugar was used in brewing, it wasn’t to save money.

In that context, ‘all-malt’ as a marketing angle was probably more about corn, wheat, potato and onion starch (Protz, Pulling a Fast One, 1978) and other adjuncts than sugar per se, although we wouldn’t be surprised to find lingering ancestral memories of the Victorian period continuing to inform consumer perceptions.

So Low You Can’t Get Under It

The Big Project has been great for making us visit pubs we might not otherwise have got to, such as The Prince Alfred in West London.

With a couple of hours to kill between hotel check-out and westbound train last Friday we searched for pubs nearby rather than rely on our old favourite, The Mad Bishop & Bear. Google turned up The Prince Alfred which immediately rang a bell for Boak: ‘It’s in Geoff Brandwood’s book – it’s got rare surviving snob screens. We have to go.’

We wandered through Little Venice, up one street after another of white stucco and genteel dustiness, until we found the pub sparkling with Victorian cut-glass glamour.

Fired tiles at the Prince Alfred, a Victorian pub.

Challenge one: finding a way in. The obvious door led to the dining room and lounge – rather bland, hovered over by a smiling waitress. There was a Hobbit-sized door under the partition leading to the cosier spaces around the central island bar but they surely couldn’t expect us to duck under, could they? Health and safety and all that. No no no.

Continue reading “So Low You Can’t Get Under It”

QUOTE: Joseph Conrad’s Silenus Beer Hall

Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is set in London in the 1880s and features as a key location an imaginary German beer hall called The Silenus — a haunt of violent revolutionaries.

We made passing reference to The Silenus in our short e-book about German lager in Victorian and Edwardian London, Gambrinus Waltz, because it demonstrates the suspicion with which German beer halls in Britain came to be viewed in the run up to World War I.

For his fictional composite Conrad borrowed a location from two real establishments, Darmstätter’s and the Tivoli, which stood near each other on the Strand, while its name would seem to be a reference to an entirely different establishment, Ye Olde Gambrinus, which we think is pictured above in a photograph from around 1902.

Anyway, here’s a chunk from Chapter 4 of The Secret Agent via the Project Gutenberg edition, in which Comrade Ossipon meets The Professor at The Silenus:

Most of the thirty or so little tables covered by red cloths with a white design stood ranged at right angles to the deep brown wainscoting of the underground hall.  Bronze chandeliers with many globes depended from the low, slightly vaulted ceiling, and the fresco paintings ran flat and dull all round the walls without windows, representing scenes of the chase and of outdoor revelry in medieval costumes. Varlets in green jerkins brandished hunting knives and raised on high tankards of foaming beer.

‘Unless I am very much mistaken, you are the man who would know the inside of this confounded affair,’ said the robust Ossipon, leaning over, his elbows far out on the table and his feet tucked back completely under his chair.  His eyes stared with wild eagerness.

An upright semi-grand piano near the door, flanked by two palms in pots, executed suddenly all by itself a valse tune with aggressive virtuosity.  The din it raised was deafening.  When it ceased, as abruptly as it had started, the be-spectacled, dingy little man who faced Ossipon behind a heavy glass mug full of beer emitted calmly what had the sound of a general proposition.

‘In principle what one of us may or may not know as to any given fact can’t be a matter for inquiry to the others.’

‘Certainly not,’ Comrade Ossipon agreed in a quiet undertone. ‘In principle.’

With his big florid face held between his hands he continued to stare hard, while the dingy little man in spectacles coolly took a drink of beer and stood the glass mug back on the table.