Purl, Bumboats and the Pool of London

The Grand Panorama of London, tower of London section.

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.

6 thoughts on “Purl, Bumboats and the Pool of London”

  1. That pic­ture sug­gests anoth­er, more lit­er­al, ori­gin for the phrase bum-boat. To an oars­man­’s eyes it looks real­ly weird, because the row­er is right up in the bows to make more room for the stock in the stern. Nor­mal­ly the row­er would be in the mid­dle (qv your aver­age row­boats in a park), but in this design a poten­tial cus­tomer would see a prime builder’s bum com­ing towards them, and not much else.

    It’s a bit ten­u­ous, but it does high­light some­thing unique about the arrange­ment of these boats. Also “bum” in the tram­p/­cadg­ing/poor-qual­i­ty sense seems to be more of an Amer­i­can Civ­il War thing, influ­enced by Ger­man immi­grant solid­ers, where­as the “back­side” sense is much old­er.

    1. OK, prob­a­bly should have expand­ed a bit more on the OED entry: it has ‘dirt­boats’ as syn­ony­mous with ‘bum­boats’ based on 17th cen­tu­ry sources, and draws a con­nec­tion with e.g. ‘bum­bay’, mean­ing a pit of wet dung.

      1. An inter­net search reveals about a mil­lion pos­si­ble ety­molo­gies. Wikipedia says the name is based on “boom­schuit,” Dutch for canoe (appar­ent­ly from tree-boat or tree-barge). Accord­ing to Wikipedia, they start­ed out as scav­engers’ boats. The Free Dic­tio­nary has it as a “ship’s boat.” Mer­ri­am Web­ster agrees with May­hew.

        Could the boats have been orig­i­nal­ly used to col­lect “night soil” from ships in the riv­er? That would explain the name, and it would be con­sis­tent with the OED’s the­o­ry. That said, would col­lect­ing shit from ships have been fea­si­ble or prof­itable? Sure­ly there was an over­sup­ply on land, where it was eas­i­er to get? (Or is it actu­al­ly eas­i­er to row from ship to ship rather than lug­ging buck­ets through the streets?) Any­way I would have thought the sailors would shit over­board. Maybe that was pro­hib­it­ed by local author­i­ties who did­n’t want the riv­er fouled? (That seems unlike­ly giv­en what I’ve read about the Thames at the time. I believe the idea of water­borne dis­ease was­n’t tak­en seri­ous­ly until Snow essen­tial­ly proved it in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry.)

        1. The Wikipedia entry for “gong farmer” has some inter­est­ing poten­tial clues:

          Much of Lon­don’s efflu­ent was tak­en to dumps on the banks of the Riv­er Thames such as the appro­pri­ate­ly named Dung Wharf – lat­er the site of the Mer­maid The­atre – from which it was trans­port­ed by barge to be used as fer­tilis­er on fields or mar­ket gar­dens.”

          The fact that it was used as fer­til­iz­er sug­gests that it had some val­ue. Even after being cart­ed to the Thames, it was­n’t sim­ply dumped, but rather was sent by barge to its final des­ti­na­tion. That in turn sug­gests that it may have been worth­while to col­lect it from ships in the riv­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly as it was even­tu­al­ly going to be shipped by water in any case.

          But this sug­gests anoth­er the­o­ry as well. Per­haps shit was­n’t col­lect­ed from the ships, but the mer­chants who dealt with sailors used boats that resem­bled the boats used to haul “night soil.”

          I don’t know. Would be inter­est­ing to track down. A bit of a damper on my the­o­ry is that the word “bum­boat” was­n’t used (at least accord­ing to Ama­zon’s search-inside-the-book fea­ture) in Emi­ly Cock­ayne’s “Hub­bub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in Eng­land, 1600–1770.”

  2. Roman worm­wood, inci­den­tal­ly, was a dif­fer­ent and less potent plant to ‘ordi­nary’­worm­wood.

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