We use the phrase ‘pub crawl’ all the time but recently found ourselves wondering when it emerged as a concept.
Helpfully, the Oxford English Dictionary (which we can access in full online for free with one of our library memberships) offers an immediate answer: it’s a late Victorian and Edwardian thing.
Here are some selected entries from the list of examples provided by the OED in its entry for ‘pub-crawling’, under ‘Crawling’:
- 1877 | York Herald | women on ‘gin crawls’
- 1902 | Daily Chronicle | “the cockney ‘beer crawl’”
- 1915 | Nights in Town by Thomas Burke | “We did a ‘pub-crawl’ in Commercial Road”
The entry for ‘pub crawl’ under ‘Pub’ is oddly less comprehensive, omitting anything before that 1915 entry.
This all makes sense.
For a pub crawl, you need a certain concentration of pubs, which means you need a substantial town and city.
For pub crawling to become a commonly understood idea you need lots of substantial towns and cities.
And the 19th century was when British towns and cities exploded in size. Consider Bradford, for example, to pick somewhere at random. In 1801 its population was around 6,000. By 1850 it had grown to 182,000.
At the same time, the number of pubs increased.
We’re glad we chose Bradford, now we think of it, because that means we can check Paul Jennings’s book The Public House in Bradford 1770-1970 for stats.
In 1803, there were 41 public houses in Bradford. By 1830 there were 55 – and then a load of beerhouses came along, too, after the passing of an 1830 act of Parliament. By 1850, there were 178 of those, as well as a number of established public houses.
With around 220 boozers, give or take, you’ve got some options for a crawl.
Are there earlier mentions of pub crawls than the OED lists?
Beating the OED at its own games is a bit of a sport in the age of the digitised newspaper and book archive.
Whereas the dictionary compilers spent years scanning periodicals and recording usage, we can just run a ton of searches and see what can be dredged up.
On this occasion, though, we couldn’t find any earlier examples of:
- pub crawl, crawler or crawling
- beer crawl, etc.
- gin crawl, etc.
We did, however, like this description of a gin crawl from Fun magazine (a Punch knockoff) for 9 July 1879:
The Lancet seems to think that lime-juice will be the drink of the future. Possibly; but we should like to see the hansom cabby, the purple-faced “bus driver, and 92 X “splicing the main-brace” with a glass of lime-juice and water. The favourite pastime of some of these gentry on their off-days is to go for what they term a two-of-gin crawl, which means flitting from pab to pub until sufficient moisture is imbibed. We wonder if the day will ever arrive when they will indulge in “a two-of-lime-juice crawl.”
There’s more to be said about pub crawls. We’ll be digging at this a bit more in subsequent posts.