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.

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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.