Bona Fide Travellers: Fibbing For a Pint

he Rocky Road to Dublin: the bona fides returning from Finglas', 1905.

Until 1921, while British pub opening hours were restricted by law, there was a loop-hole: publicans could sell booze to ‘bona fide travellers’.

We haven’t been able to pin down exactly when this loophole was introduced but an 1839 House of Commons debate mentions that ‘Landlords are entitled, under the Licensing Act, to serve bona fide travellers’.

What constituted a bona fide traveller, however, was much debated, and tested in courts up and down the country. In 1864, the Court of Common Plea upheld an appeal against magistrates in Birmingham and declared that ‘parties out for a stroll’ were just as much bona fide as those on business, so that, as long as you had walked a bit beforehand (i.e. from your village to the next one,) it was perfectly OK for a pub to serve you ‘during Church hours’ on a Sunday. (London Standard, 19/11, p.4.)

The vagueness of the law put a lot of pressure on, and temptation before, publicans, who were expected to prove that they had made sincere efforts to check the bona fides of drinkers, but perhaps more often than not, simply took people’s word for it, and the money on the counter, once they were sure the thirsty person before them was not a police officer.

An 1869 newspaper report demonstrates the lengths police would go to test publicans’ claims: they kept the Pegasus Tavern in Green Lanes, North London, under surveillance on the morning of Sunday 13 December 1868 counting 160 visitors in and out. Inspector Charles Goble entered at lunchtime and found six men at the bar; he interrogated them and, when they claimed to be travellers and gave addresses in other parts of London, sent men to check whether they were indeed known at those houses. They weren’t, and the landlord, Mr John Hallick Davis, was taken before Clerkenwell Police Court (‘crowded with licensed victuallers’) and fined. (London Standard, 30/12/1868 and 06/01/1869.)

The bona fide traveller rule was reaffirmed in the 1872 Licensing Act, though the language did nothing to clarify exactly what it meant or whose responsibility it was to prove bona fides:

None of the provisions contained in this section shall preclude a person licensed to sell any intoxicating liquor to be consumed on the premises from selling such liquor to bona fide travellers or to persons lodging in his house.

Somewhere along the line (another thing we’ve yet to pin down) three miles became the customary distance beyond which a person could said to be ‘travelling’, though not everyone agreed. Mr Cooke, passing judgement on another case at Clerkenwell in 1872 (Morning Post, 12/09) said:

The definition of a traveller would appear to be a person who goes abroad for business or for pleasure, and who requires refreshment on his way, as distinguished from a person who simply goes forth with the intention of drinking and passing his time in the public-house. The distance is of no moment, for if a man goes a long journey simply for the purpose of obtaining intoxicating drink he would be liable under the provisions of the Act. Each case must stand on its own merits, and no general rule in detail can be laid down.

He also judged that it was the traveller’s responsibility to tell the truth, not the publican’s duty to test their claims if he had no reason to doubt them, and drinkers were breaking the law if they obtained booze under false pretences. Punch (21/09/1972) mockingly suggested that police officers should therefore be stationed in sentry boxes outside every pub in the land to make self-proclaimed travellers take an oath before entering.

While it remained a legal grey area, publicans and drinkers continued to exploit it, with booze tours in rural areas apparently causing a moral panic similar to the 1980s collective freak-out over ‘lager louts’. Here is Sir Samuel Evans speaking in the House of Commons in a debate on the licensing bill in November 1908:

As to the bona-fide traveller’s inn, I am afraid there is in many parts of the country what may be described as the mala-fide traveller’s inn and not as the bona-fide traveller’s. Let me give a picture to the House, not an imaginary one, of a peaceful village, say, within seven miles of a great industrial centre, a village where the inhabitants may spend their Sunday restfully and contentedly enjoying themselves. It may well be that persons who cycle out there and frequent the inn may disturb the whole quietness and comfort of the village, so that the inn, in fact, derives the whole of its profits from the trade that is done with these people who come out on Sundays—these mala-fide travellers as I have called them for this purpose, although it would be difficult to prove that they were not bona-fide travellers.

When the 1921 Licensing Act finally did away with it in England and Wales (it lingered much longer in Scotland and Ireland) one commentator said:

[It] has succeeded in annhilating that formerly ubiquitous phenomenon of the country — the bona fide traveller. He departs, leaving no footprints behind him, and his disappearance is to be applauded, for the chars-a-bancs which now monopolise the highways are loaded with the type, and villagers and rural townspeople would have had their peaceful Sabbaths disturbed even more unpleasantly than in 1914 or previous years, when the bona fide travellers had commenced to increase in numbers and to extend the area of their excursions.

The 1929-31 Royal Commission on Licensing debated at length bringing back the bona fide traveller clause. Their report, published in 1932, acknowledged that there was a problem with country pubs being closed in the afternoon when thirsty travellers most needed them, but pointed out that there was nothing to stop them being open to sell only non-alcoholic drinks.

We have been asked to revive, in some form or another, the provisions as to the ‘bona fide traveller’… We cannot accept this proposal. Even before the days of motor transport and the restricted hours on weekdays the provision proved itself to be in the highest degree unsatisfactory in practice.

What they suggested — part of a recurring theme in such discussions — was that it might be possible to serve booze to travellers out of hours as long as they also ordered a meal.

The authors of the Licensed Victuallers’ official rebuttal — book-length and amusingly sarcastic throughout — didn’t buy this, desperate as they were to retain every possible advantage for their members: ‘Why a man should not be entitled to obtain an alcoholic drink if he wanted it after walking 3 miles, takes a teetotaller to explain’.

The bona fide traveller continued to come up in debates over licensing in England for decades to follow, only disappearing when restrictions on afternoon opening were finally loosened in the 1980s.

Looking into this has made us realise how lucky we are to be able to get a pint more-or-less whenever we want one, without having to pretend to have walked from the next town over, and without the risk of being taken to court.

Most of what’s in this post we’ve just learned in the last few days — it’s our study notes, basically — so don’t go mistaking this for anything authoritative; check the sources we’ve pointed to if you want to know more; or check out the numerous other articles and blog posts on the same topic via Google

Main illustration: Detail from ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin: the bona fides returning from Finglas’, 1905, via Irish Memory.

6 thoughts on “Bona Fide Travellers: Fibbing For a Pint”

  1. I can remember my dad talking about this from when he was a student in Edinburgh (late 50s). There was a village the required number of miles from the city (he had a figure but I can’t remember that either) that everyone would pitch up to on a Sunday.

  2. A well-known phenomenon in Scotland for longer. On Sundays when pubs were shut, Glaswegians and others could get “steaming” or “steamboats” by going “doon the watter” in the bar of a Clyde steamer.

    1. Just occurred to me that the film, ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ had the squire being persuaded to fund the project with the promise of a licensed bar onboard so that he could drink in the morning before the pubs opened.

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