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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