In early 1873, English newspapermen were amused to discover that the French critic and novelist Alphonse Karr had been writing about London gin palaces for Le Figaro.
Karr is these days best known for epigrams such as “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’ll confess we’d never heard of him at all until we came across a mention of him in an article in the British Newspaper Archive.
Here’s our attempt at tidying up Google’s automatic translation:
Let’s talk about cabarets and cafes.
This must be dealt with from three points of view, one of which is completely modern and contemporary.
The first point is drunkenness, its hideousness, its dangers; the second, the thefts, the tricks and the poisonings practiced by certain merchants; the third, the application of cabaret and coffee to street politics – or rather to agitation, to the spread of false or exaggerated ideas, to the poisoning of minds.
It seems that to see drunkenness in all its horrible stupidity, in England you have to visit the shops, the palaces, dedicated to it – gin shops, or gin palaces.
A flood of ragged beings move incessantly towards the temple, on the door of which shine, on large copper plates, the words gin, beer, spirits – that is to say, forgetfulness, absence stupor.
A room a hundred feet long, all furnished on one side with huge barrels painted in various colors, with portraits of the queen in between.
In front of the barrels, a long counter or bar and many waiters constantly busy pouring. In the crowd, there are as many women as men and women are often, in fact, in the majority.
We approach the bar, money in hand with a sort of dumb reverence, as if we were going to receive communion; in a low voice, gin or spirits are asked for; the glass, not filled until the waiter has received the money, is accepted in silence and with an icy seriousness; then we will sit on a long bench leaning against the wall in front of the barrels; here we remain motionless, silent, in a sort of ecstasy and contemplation of the barrels; a little later we rummage in our pockets and count our money; we return to the bar, we drink and we return to the bench, from where we return to the bar; and always thus as long as there is money.
Everyone knows how rigorously the sabbath is observed in England – any distraction is strictly prohibited; the only exception is the gin shop. It is enough that they should look closed, but you only have to push the door to enter. The State and Church seem to believe that there would be danger in leaving one day per week free of that awful misery – one day when people don’t forget and fall asleep like brutes.
The British take on his story was perhaps understandably arch: this daft foreigner didn’t understand how pubs worked and, worse, was some sort of temperance advocate. Here’s how it was reported in a syndicated story that appeared in numerous newspapers on and around 9 January 1873:
Not a word for the neat-handed Phyllises behind the counter. This is hardly courteous on the part French litterateurs, who are fond of ogling them when they do come here… M. Alphonse Karr a very remarkable man; one time, it we remember right, he even aspired to the dignity of citoyen, but has ever been animated with a strong dislike of perfidious islanders. It is very clear that he has never heard the Licensing Act.
We wonder if any more confident French speakers than us might be able to dig out more accounts of English pubs and drinking culture. For example, this advice looks intriguing:
L’intérieur de ces établissements si nombreux présente quelque intérêt en ce qu’il explique la société anglaise. Il y a d’abord la salle du comptoir (bar-room), sorte de terrain neutre sur lequel des hommes et des femmes debout se rencontrent pour étancher leur soif aux flots d’ambre liquide…
In 1892, Eliza Orme undertook a painstaking investigation into the working lives of barmaids, producing a report which takes us back to the pubs of the past with incredible vividness.
Eliza Orme was an interesting woman. She was the first woman in England to get a degree in law, in 1888, as Dr Leslie Howsam, who has studied Orme’s life, explains here:
[She] was 39 years old and already unofficially ‘practicing’ law out of an office in London’s Chancery Lane where she and a colleague prepared the paperwork for property transactions, patent registrations, wills, settlements, and mortgages. ‘I “devilled” for about a dozen conveyancing counsel who kept me busily employed on drafts they wanted done in a hurry, and for twenty-five years I found it both an interesting and profitable employment’, Orme recalled in a 1901 interview. This support-level work was the only legal employment open to women, who were not permitted either to be called to the bar or join the Law Society. It was only a small part, however, of Eliza Orme’s reputation as a public figure.
An early feminist, Miss Orme was a firm believer in allowing women to work in whichever industries they chose and was a member of the Society for the Promotion of the Employment of Women.
Through this, she ended up as Senior Lady Assistant Commissioner to the Royal Commission on Labour, overseeing a small team of Lady Assistant Commissioners.
After the Commission decided at a meeting in March 1892 to undertake research into the working lives of women, Orme dispatched her team around the country, from Bristol to the Western Isles, to investigate various industries such as textile mills, chocolate factories and stocking making.
The 1858 book The Night Side of London by James Ewing Ritchie offers an overview of places of entertainment in the capital, from music halls to proto-nightclubs. Most were built around pubs and all seem to have been permanently soaked with booze.
Ostensibly, this is a moralising tract: alcohol ruins lives, Ritchie argues, and nobody out at night is on the path to righteousness.
At the same time, like Mondo Cane and other ‘documentary’ films of the 1960s, its disapproving tone is at odds with the titillating nature of the content. In fact, it almost amounts to a guidebook for visitors seeking London’s naughtiest neighbourhoods.
It’s probably also worth saying at this point that in places, it’s an uncomfortable read: Ritchie is blatantly anti-Semitic, blaming Jewish people for everything from running sweat-shops to pimping to clip-joints. And just in case there’s any doubt, he even throws in a few references to the innate superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’. This seems to be at the root of his objective to alcohol, in fact – that it is weakening the mighty master race, and so on and so forth. Anyway…
The single most interesting thread is its perfect capturing of the moment when pubs and music halls began to branch apart from their common roots.
It sat in a neighbourhood otherwise dominated by railway lines and “monster gin-palaces, with unlimited plate-glass and gas… full of ragged children, hideous old woman, and drunken men”. The Canterbury Music Hall, though still boozy, the author reluctantly admits, was relatively more sober than the alternatives:
A well-lighted entrance attached to a public-house indicates that we have reached our destination. We proceed up a few stairs, along a passage lined with handsome engravings, to a bar, where we pay sixpence if we take a seat in the body of the hall, and nine- pence if we do the lobby and ascend into the balcony.We make our way leisurely along the floor of the building, which is really a very handsome hall, well lighted, and capable of holding fifteen hundred persons; the balcony extends round the room in the form of a horse shoe. At the opposite end to which we enter is the platform, on which is placed a grand piano and a harmonium, on which the performers play in the intervals when the professional singers have left the stage… Let us look round us; evidently the majority present are respectable mechanics, or small tradesmen with their wives and daughters and sweethearts there. Now and then you see a midshipman, or a few fast clerks and warehousemen, who confidentially inform each other that there is “no end of talent here,” and that Miss “is a doosed fine gal;” and here, as elsewhere, we see a few of the class of unfortunates, whose staring eyes would fain extort an admiration which their persons do not justify. Every one is smoking, and every one has a glass before him; but the class that come here are economical, and chiefly confine themselves to pipes and porter. The presence of the ladies has also a beneficial effect…
The book concludes with a detailed portrait of The Eagle Tavern, famous for its pleasure gardens, and another nascent music hall, where people sat “eating questionable sausage rolls, and indulging in bottled beer”.
For more on the birth of the music hall, read Lee Jackson’s excellent book Palaces of Pleasure, published earlier this year.
The roughest pubs in London get looked at, too – those on Ratcliffe Highway, which ran out of London through the East End to Limehouse. We are told that this notoriously dangerous stretch of road smelled worse than Cologne, or even Bristol. (Cheeky bastard.) Here, sailors would go wild spending their earnings from the last voyage, lured into clip joints by prostitutes who would drink water while the sailors downed gin.
One victim, James Hall, spent a month staying at a pub on Clive Street run by a Mr Glover, where he burned through £30 by drinking:
20 pints of rum… 20 quarts of beer… 8 glasses of rum… 5 pints of rum, 5 gills of rum, and 15 quarts of ale… 2 glasses of gin, and 2 gills of brandy… 15 pints of rum, and 28 gills of rum… 4 quarts, half a gallon, and 22 gills of beer…
…and so on.
Another interesting observation, in a chapter on ‘Discussion clubs’, is that pubs in crowded markets have always resorted to novelty and spectacle to draw in custom:
It is the condition of a public-house that it must do a good business some way or other. Mr Hinton, who has just got his license for Highbury Barn, says the dining apartment fell off and he was obliged to institute Soirees Dansantes. Sometimes the publican gets a female dressed up in a Bloomer costume; sometimes he has for his barman a giant, or a dwarf, or an Albino, or a Kaffir chief — actually as an attraction to decent people to go and drink their pot of beer.
Discussion clubs were one such entertainment:
Now, in the same manner the publicans provide a weekly discussion meeting for that part of the public that loves to hear itself speak. There is one at the Belvidere, Pentonville ; another at the Horns, Kennington. Fleet-street is much favoured. There are the Temple Forum, the Cogers’ Hall, and another large room in Shoe Lane. These are [free but] you are expected to sit and drink all night. The most celebrated one is that which meets not far from the Temple, presided over by the editor of a Sunday paper, and assisted by several reporters connected with the daily journals.
It’s hard to imagine live debating being much of a draw these days but back then, before television panel shows and daily news programmes, it might have seemed fun.
Doctor Johnson’s Tavern, which we think is The Old Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, gets a pen portrait, too:
[There] are about fifty or sixty gentlemen, chiefly young ones, present… They are all very plain-looking people, from the neighbouring shops, or from the warehouses in Cheapside. Just by me are three pale heavy-looking young men, whose intellects seem to me dead, except so far as a low cunning indicates a sharpness where money is concerned. One of them is stupidly beery. Their great object is to get him to drink more, notwithstanding his repeated assurances, uttered, however, in a very husky tone, that he must go back to “Islin’ton” tonight. A lady at one end of the room, with a very handsome blue satin dress and a very powerful voice, is screaming out something about ‘Lovely Spring’ but this little party is evidently indifferent to the charms of the song. Just beyond me is a gent with a short pipe and a very stiff collar. I watch him for an hour, and whether he is enjoying himself intensely, or whether he is enduring an indescribable amount of inward agony, I cannot tell.
That last line is fairly typical of the author: even if a bloke looks to be having fun, he must be inwardly tortured.
As well as music halls, clubs and pubs, there were also boxing pubs…
We enter, we will say, Bang Up’s hostelry, about ten on a Thursday evening ; there is Bang Up at the bar, with his ton of flesh and broken nose. Many people think it worthwhile to go and spend one or two shillings at Bang Up’s bar, merely that they may have the pleasure of seeing him, and consider him cheap at the money… [We] find ourselves in a very ordinary room, with very extraordinary people in it. First, there are the portraits — imprimis Bang Up, looking grosser and more animal than ever. Secondly, Mrs Bang Up, the exact counterpart of her bosom’s lord; then a tribe of Bang Ups junior, of all sizes and sexes, attract our astonished eyes. Then — for the room is a complete Walhalla — we have portraits of sporting heroes innumerable, with villainous foreheads, all “vacant of our glorious gains,” heavy eyes, thick bull necks…
…and 600 or so pubs with billiards rooms attached to pubs, as well as standalone billiard rooms with their own bars.
The most interesting bit of the whole book, given our recent pondering on gentrification and the research we did into the rise of the ‘improved public house’ for 20th Century Pub, is a chapter on the ‘Respectable public house’, which is…
…situated in one of the leading thoroughfares, and is decorated in an exceedingly handsome manner. The furniture is all new and beautifully polished, the seats are generally exquisitely soft and covered with crimson velvet, the walls are ornamented with pictures and pier- glasses, and the ceiling is adorned in a manner costly and rare… Time was when men were partial to the sanded floor, the plain furniture, the homely style of such places as Dolly’s, the London Coffee-house, or the Cock, to which Tennyson has lent the glory of his name. Now the love of show is cultivated to an alarming extent. “Let us be genteel or die,” said Mrs Nickleby, and her spirit surrounds us everywhere. Hence the splendour of the drinking-rooms of the metropolis, and the studied deportment of the waiters, and the subdued awe with which Young Norvals fresh from the Grampian Hills and their fathers’ flocks tread the costly carpets or sprawl their long legs beneath glittering mahogany.
This, from the 1850s, could almost be a description of a genteel London pub of today – one of those posh Fuller’s joints, maybe. The clientele according to Ritchie’s account was bank directors, railway officials and City boys. This type of pub, he says, was their equivalent of the working class beerhouse or gin shop and, of course, is sure to spell doom for them and their impressive careers in the long run.
The single most effective portrait of an individual pub is of one frequented by costermongers, “in a very low neighbourhood, not far from a gigantic brewery, where you could not walk a yard scarcely without coming to a public house”. Costermongers were street traders who wandered around selling cheap food and were famous for their ‘backslang’, such as ‘top of reeb’ for ‘pot of beer’. Here’s the scene:
Just look at the people in this public-house. A more drunken, dissipated, wretched lot you never saw. There are one or two little tables in front of the bar and benches, and on these benches are the most wretched men and women possible to imagine. They are drinking gin and smoking, and all have the appearance of confirmed sots. They are shoemakers in the neighbourhood, and these women with them are their wives… The landlord is in the chair, and a professional man presides at the piano. As to the songs, they are partly professional and partly by volunteers. I cannot say much for their character… [As] the pots of heavy and the quarterns of juniper are freely quaffed, and the world and its cares are forgotten… the company becomes hourly more noisy and hilarious…
Our edits above remove a lot of judgemental asides. Let’s be clear – the author does not approve of this kind of thing at all. It’s just the truth can’t help shining through: these people had hard lives and found happiness and companionship in the pub.
There are also a few stray beer-related nuggets and facts scattered throughout the text:
London consumed 43,200,000 gallons of porter and ale each year.
In London, “according to Sir R. Mayne”, there were 3,613 beer shops, 5,279 public houses, 13 wine rooms.
People were accompanying oysters with pale ale – not stout.
And, finally, there’s this piece of temperance-flavoured philosophy:
The truth is, men have often reserved the outpourings of their mind for the social glass, and have fallen into the natural mistake of believing that it was the glass, and not the opportunity and the action of mind upon mind, that elicited a certain amount of joyous fun.
In other words, it’s the socialising that makes you merry, not the booze. And, temperance propaganda aside, there might be something in that.
You can find the full text of The Night Side of Londonvia the Hathi Trust and no doubt elsewhere, too.
In 1836, somebody calling themselves ‘Observer’ put out a treatise in six parts comparing gin shops, or gin palaces, with pubs.
We’d never come across it until it popped up in a search for something else via the Hathi Trust website. What particularly caught our attention were the illustrations, reproduced below.
The introductory paragraph to the first issue suggests to us that it might have been a propaganda tool of brewers keen to bolster the image of beer as a healthy, moderate alternative to spirits:
A Succinct Historical Narrative of the Gin-shop; its Commencement, rapid Increase, its Collapse and System, with the inherent Evils, special Influences, deceptive Allurements, and demoralizing Nature of its Workings, carefully dissected, analyzed, and Comparisons drawn, proving the System to be worse than an intolerable Nuisance; while the Public-house System is shown to be both highly Useful and Necessary.
In fact, later on, the author grumbles that the Morning Advertiser (which, don’t forget, is an ancient institution) refused to run an advert for his series of pamphlets because it was so strident in defence of publicans and might offend gin-palace operators.
You start with Victorian pubs and end up pondering hazy IPA and mild – that’s just how this game goes sometimes.
One of the things researching pubs has made us think about it is how certain things come in and out of fashion.
It’s hard to believe now but that heavy Victorian look people expect in the Perfect Pub – carved wood, cut glass, ornate mirrors – was seriously out of fashion for half a century.
Look through any edition of, say, The House of Whitbread from the 1920s or 30s and you’ll find story after story of modernisation. In practice, that meant ‘vulgar’ Victoriana was out; and a plain, clean, bright look was in.
Slowly, though, Victorian style became cool again. We’ve written about this before and won’t rehash it – Betjeman and Gradidge are two key names – but did stumble upon a new expression of the phenomenon this week, from 1954:
Thirty years ago the Albert Memorial was only admired by the extremely naïve and old-fashioned; today, it is only admired by the extremely sophisticated and up to date. Thirty years ago the late Arnold Bennett was thought eccentric, and even a little perverse, to take an interest in papier-mâché furniture with scenes of Balmoral by moonlight in inlaid mother-of-pearl. Today tables and chairs of this kind command high prices in the saleroom and are the prize pieces in cultivated living-rooms. It is, in a word, once more ‘done’ to admire Victoriana. The slur of the old-fashioned is merging into the prestige of the antique.
That’s from a fantastic book called Victorian Vista by James Laver who turns out to be an interesting character. A historian of costume and of fashion more generally, he is best known for inventing ‘Laver’s Law’ which sought to explain how things come in and go out of style:
Indecent | 10 years before its time Shameless | 5 years before its time Outré (Daring) | 1 year before its time Smart | ‘Current Fashion’ Dowdy | 1 year after its time Hideous | 10 years after its time Ridiculous | 20 years after its time Amusing | 30 years after its time Quaint | 50 years after its time Charming | 70 years after its time Romantic | 100 years after its time Beautiful | 150 years after its time
This certainly works to some degree for pubs: Victorian pubs were naff in 1914, charming by 1950 and the best are now practically national monuments; inter-war pubs have recently become romantic after years in the wilderness; and we’re just begging to collectively recognise the charm of the post-war.
Naturally, though, with trends a constant topic, we couldn’t help test this on beer styles.
For example, does it map to the rise of hazy IPA? We definitely remember it seeming indecent and think we can now discern it’s decent into dowdiness.
Or 20th century dark mild, maybe? We’ll, not so clearly, because it reigned for years, even decades. But we could adapt Laver’s commentary on Victoriana:
Thirty years ago mild was only admired by the extremely naïve and old-fashioned; today, it is only admired by the extremely sophisticated and up to date. Thirty years ago CAMRA was thought eccentric, and even a little perverse, to take an interest in weak, sweet, dark beer. Today beers of this kind are the prize pieces in cultivated taprooms.
Mild might be in the romantic or charming phase, then.
This works best for specific sub-styles and trends, though. IPA? Too broad. West Coast IPA? Maybe.
And for beer, in 2019, Laver’s language isn’t quite right. Maybe this is better:
Ridiculous | 10 years before its time Bold | 5 years before Hyped | 1 year before Hip | ‘Current Fashion’ Mainstream | 1 year after its time Boring | 10 years after Interesting | 50 years after Classic | 70 years +
Osbert Lancaster, 1908-1986, was an influential cartoonist and cultural commentator who specialised in explaining architecture to the layman.
His work isn’t all that easy to come by and, in fact, a collection of his work published in 1959, reprinted by the Readers’ Union in 1960, entitled Here, of All Places, is the first of his books we’ve ever actually come across for sale.
It’s fun stuff, each double-page spread including a pithy note on some facet of architectural history and a cartoon to bring it to life. For example, ‘By-Pass Variegated’ is his name for a particular type of semi-detached suburban house, while he summarises post-war American cityscapes, blighted by advertising, as ‘Coca-Colonial’.
The entry that grabbed our attention was, of course, ‘Public-House Classic’, which first appeared in his 1938 book Pillar to Post.
That’s a lovely image – we have a strong urge to tear it out and frame it, but don’t worry, we won’t – and the prose that goes with it is almost as good. Here’s how it opens:
In the earlier part of the nineteenth century it was assumed, and rightly, that a little healthy vulgarity and full-blooded ostentation were not out of place in the architecture and decoration of a public-house, and it was during this period that the tradition governing the appearance of the English pub was evolved. While the main body of the building conformed to the rules governing South Kensington Italianate, it was always enlivened by the addition of a number of decorative adjuncts which, though similar in general form, displayed an endless and fascinating variety of treatment.
He goes on to praise the engraved windows, giant lanterns and beautifully painted signs that characterised Victorian pubs at their best, and examples of which you can still (just about) see around in 2019.
The second half of the entry, however, is a lament for this style. First, he says, it was replaced in the late nineteenth century by a self-consciously cultured facade of elaborate brickwork and ‘encaustic tiling’; and then, in the twentieth century, by…
a poisonous refinement which found expression in olde worlde half-timbering and a general atmosphere of cottagey cheeriness. Fortunately a number of the old-fashioned pubs still survive in the less fashionable quarters, but the majority of them are doubtless doomed and will be shortly replaced by tasteful erections in By-Pass Elizabethan or Brewers’ Georgian styles.
In 1938, big improved pubs were still being built, though the war stopped that in its tracks. We wonder what he made of post-war pubs – plain, small, pointedly modern. He was certainly snarky about modernist architecture in general, calling it ‘Twentieth-Century Functional’:
[The] style which now emerged was one of the utmost austerity, relying for its effect on planning and proportion alone, and faithfully fulfilling the one condition to which every importance was attached, of ‘fitness for purpose.’ Admirable as were the results in the case of factories, airports, hospitals and other utilitarian buildings, when the same principle was applied to domestic architecture, the success was not always so marked.
And there’s an interesting point: pubs are, or ought to be, considered domestic, not utilitarian, vital as they are, right? Which is what all this talk of Proper Pubs is really getting at.
And odd postscript to Lancaster’s brief note on pub architecture is that thirty years later, he revisited the concept for the cover of a book, Pub, edited by Angus McGill and sponsored by the Brewers’ Society.
At first, we thought it was the same drawing but, no, it’s a different piece altogether, even if the same street trumpeter makes a cameo, standing under a familiar wrought-iron lantern.
The river for the first half mile is abominably dirty, and for some distance above that is not to be called clean. In addition to the water being so dirty, very unsavoury odours assail your nostrils, at intervals, for the first mile as you pass through the parish of St. Philip’s. After the first mile or so you come into the fresh air of the country. The water here is beautifully clear, and if the weather is fine everything is very enjoyable. At one bend of the river a railway passes very near it, and to strengthen the banks it has been found necessary to build some arches which are now covered with ivy, which gives them a very romantic and pleasing appearance — quite unlike the matter-of-fact appearance of an ordinary railway embankment. After this the river is of the most pleasing description. A short distance above the ivy-covered arches is a landing for boats called Beese’s Tea Gardens. The Tea Gardens are three and a half miles from Bristol, so it is just a suitable distance there and back for an afternoon. It is quite easy to go up this length any half holiday after call over, and to be back by lock up.
Beese’s Tea Gardens opened on the banks of the Avon in 1846 as a partner business to the Conham Ferry.
Nowadays, under the name Beese’s Riverside Bar, there’s as much beer, cider and wine drunk as tea, and little evidence of Victorian heritage in the fixtures and fittings, but, still, it’s an incredible survivor.
We first came across it last summer on an evening walk, hearing the chiming of glassware and song of conversation from the wrong side of the water. From a distance it looked and sounded like a German beer garden. We didn’t stop then but made a note to come back.
Last Saturday, we approached from Broomhill, cutting from a council estate into a sloping park where teenagers flirted on the climbing frame next to a basketball court. A short walk down a wooded path brought us to a gate that might have been transplanted from Bavaria.
Down further, all the way down to sea level, we found tables scattered across a lawn and huge, old trees polished smooth by a century of clambering children.
It’s almost magical, except it’s also very British: the self-service bar feels as if it ought to be at a Butlin’s holiday camp and the service was abrupt to the point of aggression. (Though it warmed up later as the lunchtime rush passed.)
We drank Veltins, served in chunky German handled glassware for the first round, albeit with a stingy head of foam, and sat on a table in the shade.
“I used to think it was for old ladies, the Tea Gardens,” said an older woman to her friend, “but it’s nice, innit? It’s a laugh. And you can smoke, too. It’s treat to have a proper fag.”
There’s something classless about the place, and a sense that it exists outside reality, like Brigadoon. We noted Americans, Spaniards, Poles, Romanians, hippies, hipsters, families from the estate up the hill, and plummy tote-bag toters with extravagantly named free-range children, and yet no tension beyond occasional passive-aggression in pursuit of the prime seats.
It’s so peaceful that a boat passing registers as a major event, drawing people to the water’s edge to watch. We saw ferries, rowers, and even a swimmer at one point. (We worry for them; we’ve heard that swimming here tends to make you sick.)
The trees and the dancing of light through the leaves are what makes it feel like a German beer garden – a sense of being outside but sheltered, enfolded in green.
Getting the ferry across the water (£1 for a 45 second journey, but it beats paddling) was the perfect way to finish – a return to the real world in a puff of diesel fumes.
Beese’s Riverside Bar is open Friday 12:00–11:00 pm, Saturday 12:00–11:00 pm, Sunday 12:00–7:00 pm throughout the summer season.
Someone — we don’t know who — spent the week of 22-28 August 1908 visiting the capital of the British Empire and brought home as a souvenir a photo book called 350 Views of London.
They wrote the dates of their holiday on the inside cover in pencil. The book then spent at least some of the past century somewhere damp — an attic or shed — so that its cover buckled and the staples holding it together rusted away. That’s why we were able to by this relic for a couple of quid from the junk box in a secondhand bookshop in Bristol.
Among those 350 photos, some full-page, others fairly tiny, there are a handful that particularly grabbed our attention, for obvious reasons.
This is one of the clearest, most detailed views we’ve seen of the Spaten Beer Restaurant at Piccadilly — a pioneering London lager outlet that we obsessed over during the writing of Gambrinus Waltz. We still desperately want to see a view of the interior but this is nice to have.
The book contains two views of one particular pub, The King Lud at Ludgate Circus. This is interesting to us because Jess drank in it fairly regularly in its final years when it was branded as part of the Hogshead chain. It is now a Leon restaurant, but recognisably the same building.
The beer connection in this shot of the Royal Exchange is a little less obvious: look at those two omnibuses in the centre — they’re advertising Tennent’s Lager, as distributed in London by Findlater & Co of London Bridge. This is a reminder that Germany and Austria-Hungary weren’t the only countries importing lager to London in the years before World War I.
We haven’t seen this shot of Tottenham Court Road before, or any other from quite this angle. That’s Meux’s Horse Shoe brewery and the attached brewery tap to the right — the site of the famous beer flood. The sign above the brewery door advertises MEUX’S ORIGINAL LONDON STOUT. We’d like to know more about the Horse Shoe Hotel’s ‘American Bar’.
The Saracen’s Head was on Snow Hill in the City of London. We can’t quite pin down the precise location, even after looking at contemporary maps, aerial photos and the comprehensive Pubs History website. An educated guess is that it was destroyed during the Blitz — if you know otherwise, or can tell us exactly where it was, do comment below.
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.
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.
The artist is uncredited but it’s not unlike the work of Gustav Doré whose own collection of evocative drawings of London was published a few years before.
We came across it thanks to an article by Jan Bondeson in the latest edition of the Fortean Times — actually an extract from his new book, The Ripper of Waterloo Road, about the 1838 murder of Eliza Grimwood in a house near The Feathers, on Waterloo Road.
And there’s the fascinating thing: The Feathers, as you can see, had entrances on two roads on different levels: Commercial Road was low and ran parallel to the Thames while Waterloo Road was high and merged with Waterloo Bridge.
The drawing depicts the view from, or near, the top of the staircase marked at the point where Waterloo Wharf meets the bridge and, of course, P.H. is the public house in question — the large building on the corner.
There’s a bit more information on The Feathers in an odd little book in our collection, H.E. Popham’s 1927 Guide to London’s Taverns, revised in 1928:
Before we leave the south side of the river there is one more house that is worthy of attention, as as it is situated at the end of Waterloo Bridge, it can easily be visited on the return journey to central London… The present house was erected at the same time as the bridge, which was opened on the second anniversary of the battle of Waterloo. On the original site of The Feathers were Cuper’s Gardens. it is said… that the house was opened as a tavern by one, the widow Evans, who could not get a licence to open as ‘gardens’ under the act of 1752, which enacted that all places kept for public amusement within twenty miles of the City should be licensed. The law was evaded by the wily widow’s… statement on her programmes that the entertainment was given by gentlemen for their own private diversion… Boswell mentions the establishment in his Life.
(If he does, we can’t find it, but we only ran a quick search of the six volumes available via Gutenberg.org — if you can dig up this reference, let us know.)
The Survey of London entry for Waterloo, undertaken in 1951, tells us that Popham was substantially right: Ephraim Evans took on the tavern and gardens in 1738 and his widow continued to run it after his death in 1740, advertising it like this:
Cuper’s Gardens. This is to acquaint all Gentlemen and Ladies, that this present Saturday, the 25th instant, will be perform’d several curious Pieces of Musick, compos’d by Mr. Handel, Sig. Hasse, Mr. Arne, Mr. Burgess, etc., in which will be introduced the celebrated Fire-Musick, as originally compos’d by Mr. Handel … the Fireworks consisting of Fire-Wheels, Fountains, large Sky-Rockets, with an Addition of the Fire-Pump, etc., made by the ingenious Mr. Worman … play’d off from the Top of the Orchestra by Mr. Worman himself … The Widow Evans hopes, that as her Endeavours are to oblige the Town, they will favour her Gardens with their Company; and particular Care will be taken there shall be better Attendance, and more commodious Reception for the Company.
Based on its location, we can say with some certainty that The Feathers was demolished in around 1970 to make way for the construction of the National Theatre, but we’ll keep an eye out for firmer evidence one way or the other. (UPDATE 08/05/2017: See comments below — the pub was demolished in 1951.)
In the meantime, you can get a hint of what The Feathers and the streets around it might have been like by walking one bridge further along to London Bridge where staircases still lead to pubs down below and up above.