London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the River Beer-Sellers, or Purl-Men.


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. These should strictly have been included among the sellers of eatables and drinkables; they have, however, been kept distinct, being a peculiar class, and having little in common with the other out-door sellers.

I will begin my account of the river-sellers by enumerating the numerous classes of labourers, amounting to many thousands, who get their living by plying their respective avocations on the river, and who constitute the customers of these men. There are the sailors on board the corn, coal, and timber ships; then the "lumpers," or those engaged in discharging the timber ships; the "stevedores," or those engaged in stowing craft; and the "riggers," or those engaged in rigging them; ballast-heavers, ballast-getters, cornporters, coal-whippers, watermen and lightermen, and coal-porters, who, although engaged in carrying sacks of coal from the barges or ships at the river's side to the shore, where there are public-houses, nevertheless, when hard worked and pressed for time, frequently avail themselves of the presence of the purl-man to quench their thirst, and to naval stimulate them to further exertion.

It would be a remarkable circumstance if the fact of so many persons continually employed in severe labour, and who, of course, are at times in want of refreshment, had not called into existence a class to supply that which was evidently required; under form or the other, therefore, river-dealers boast of an antiquity as old as the navel commerce of the country.

The prototype of the river beer-seller of the present day is the bumboat-man. Bumboats (or rather -boats, that is to say, the boats of the harbour, from the German , a haven or bar) are known in every port where ships are obliged to anchor at a distance from the shore. They are stored with a large assortment of articles, such as are likely to be required by people after a long voyage. Previously to the formation of the various docks on the Thames, they were very numerous on the river, and drove a good trade with the homewardbound shipping. But since the docks came into requisition, and steam-tugs brought the ships from the mouth of the river to the dock entrance, their business died away, and they gradually disappeared; so that a bumboat on the Thames at the present day would be a sort of curiosity, a relic of times past.

In former times it was in the power of any person who chose to follow the calling of a bumboat man on the Thames. The Trinity Com-


pany had the power of granting licences for this purpose. Whether they were restrained by some special clause in their charter, or not, from giving licences indiscriminately, it is difficult to say. But it is certain that none got a licence but a sailor— who had "served his country;" and it was quite common in those days to see an old fellow with a pair of wooden legs, perhaps blind of an eye, or wanting an arm, and with a face rugged as a rock, plying about among the shipping, accompanied by a boy whose duty it was to carry the articles to the purchasers on shipboard, and help in the management of the boat. In the or year of the reign of her present Majesty, however, when the original bumboatmen had long degenerated into the mere beersellers, and any who wished traded in this line on the river (the Trinity Company having for many years paid no attention to the matter), an inquiry took place, which resulted in a regulation that all the beer-sellers or purl-men should thenceforward be regularly licensed for the river-sale of beer and spirits from the Waterman's Hall, which regulation is in force to the present time.

It appears to have been the practice at some time or other in this country to infuse wormwood into beer or ale previous to drinking it, either to make it sufficiently bitter, or for some medicinal purpose. This mixture was called —why I know not, but Bailey, the philologist of the century, so designates it. The drink originally sold on the river was purl, or this mixture, whence the title, purl-man. 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 -men, though there is not of them with whom I have conversed that has the remotest idea of the meaning of it.

To set up as a purl-man, some acquaintance with the river, and a certain degree of skill in the management of a boat, are absolutely necessary; as, from the frequently-crowded state of the pool, and the rapidity with which the steamers pass and repass, twisting and wriggling their way through craft of every description, the unskilful adventurer would run in continual danger of having his boat crushed like a nutshell. The purl-men, however, through long practice, 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.

The thing required to become a purl-man is to procure a licence from the Waterman's Hall, which costs per annum. The next requisite is the possession of a boat. The boats used are 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. Thus equipped he then goes to some of the small breweries, where he gets "pins," or small casks of beer, each containing eighteen pots; after this he furnishes himself with a quart or of gin from some publican, which he carries in a tin vessel with a long neck, like a bottle—an iron or tin vessel to hold the fire, with holes drilled all round to admit the air and keep the fuel burning, and a huge bell, by no means the least important portion of his fit out. Placing his pins of beer on a frame in the stern of the boat, the spiles loosened and the brass cocks fitted in, and with his tin gin bottle close to his hand beneath the seat, or measures of various sizes, a black tin pot for heating the beer, and his fire pan secured on the bottom of the boat, and sending up a black smoke, he takes his seat early in the morning and pulls away from the shore, resting now and then on his oars, to ring the heavy bell that announces his approach. 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.

The bell of the purl-man not unfrequently performs another very important office. During the winter, when dense fogs settle down on the river, even the regular watermen sometimes lose themselves, and flounder about bewildered perhaps for hours. The direction once lost, their shouting is unheeded or unheard. The purl-man's bell, however, reaches the ear through the surrounding gloom, and indicates his position; when near enough to hear the hail of his customers, he makes his way unerringly to the spot by now and then sounding his bell; this is immediately answered by another shout, so that in a short time the glare of his fire may be distinguished as he emerges from the darkness, and glides noiselessly alongside the ship where he is wanted.

The amount of capital necessary to start in the purl line may be as follows:—I have said that the boats are all of the skiff kind—generally old ones, which they patch up and repair at but little cost. They purchase these boats at from to each. If we take the average of these sums, the items will be—

   £ s. d. 
 Boat . . . . . 4 10 0 
 Pewter measures . . . 0 5 0 
 Warming-pot . . . 0 1 6 
 Fire stove . . . . 0 5 0 
 Gallon can . . . . 0 2 6 
 Two pins of beer . . . 0 8 0 
 Quart of gin . . . 0 2 6 
 Sugar and ginger . . . 0 1 0 
 Licence . . . . 0 3 6 
 Total £ 5 19 0 

Thus it requires, at the very least, a capital of to set up as a purl-man.

Since the Waterman's Hall has had the granting of licences, there have been upwards of issued; but out of the possessors of these many are dead, some have left for other business, and others are too old and feeble to follow the occupation


any longer, so that out of the whole number there remain only purl-men on the river, and these are thus divided: — ply their trade in what is called "the pool," that is, from to Ratcliff Cross, among the coal-laden ships, and do a tolerable business amongst the sailors and the hard-working and thirsty coal-whippers; purl-men follow their calling from to , and sell their commodity among the ships loaded with corn, potatoes, &c.; and are known to frequent the various reaches below Hole, where the colliers are obliged to lie at times in sections, waiting till they are sold on the , and some even go down the river as far as the ballast-lighters of the Trinity Company, for the purpose of supplying the ballast-getters. The purl-men cannot sell much to the unfortunate ballast-heavers, for they are suffering under all the horrors of an abominable truck system, and are compelled to take from the publicans about and , who are their employers, large quantities of filthy stuff compounded especially for their use, for which they are charged exorbitant prices, being thus and in a variety of other ways mercilessly robbed of their earnings, so that they and their families are left in a state of almost utter destitution. of the purl-men, whose boat is No. , has hoops like those used by gipsies for pitching their tents; these he fastens to each side of the boat, over which he draws a tarred canvas covering, water-proof, and beneath this he sleeps the greater part of the year, seldom going ashore except for the purpose of getting a fresh supply of liquors for trade, or food for himself. He generally casts anchor in some unfrequented nook down the river, where he enjoys all the quiet of a Thames hermit, after the labour of the day. To obtain the necessary heat during the winter, he fits a funnel to his fire-stove to carry away the smoke, and thus warmed he sleeps away in defiance of the severest weather.

It appears from the facts above given that is the gross amount of capital employed in this business. On an average all the year round each purl-man sells "pins" of beer weekly, independent of gin; but little gin is thus sold in the summer, but in the winter a considerable quantity of it is used in making the purl. The men purchase the beer at per pin, and sell it at per pot, which leaves them a profit of on the pins, and, allowing them per day profit on the gin, it gives per week profit to each, or a total to all hands of per week, and a gross total of profit made on the sale of gallons of beer, beside gin sold on the Thames in the course of the year. From this amount must be deducted , which is paid to boys, at the rate of per week; it being necessary for each purl-man to employ a lad to take care of the boat while he is on board the ships serving his customers, or traversing the tiers. This deduction being made leaves per annum to each purl-man as the profit on his year's trading.

The present race of purl-men, unlike the weather-beaten tars who in former times alone were licensed, are generally young men, who have been in the habit of following some river employment, and who, either from some accident having befallen them in the course of their work, or from their preferring the easier task of sitting in their boat and rowing leisurely about to continuous labour, have started in the line, and ultimately superseded the old river dealers. This is easily explained. No man labouring on the river would purchase from a stranger when he knew that his own fellow-workman was afloat, and was prepared to serve him with as good an article; besides he might not have money, and a stranger could not be expected to give trust, but his old acquaintance would make little scruple in doing so. In this way the customers of the purl-men are secured; and many of these people do so much more than the average amount of business above stated, that it is no unusual thing to see some of them, after or years on the river, take a public-house, spring up into the rank of licensed victuallers, and finally become men of substance.

I conversed with who had been a coalwhipper. He stated that he had met with an accident while at work which prevented him from following coal-whipping any longer. He had fallen from the ship's side into a barge, and was for a long time in the hospital. When he came out he found he could not work, and had no other prospect before him but the union. "I thought I'd be by this time toes up in Stepney churchyard," he said, "and grinning at the lid of an old coffin." In this extremity a neighbour, a waterman, who had long known him, advised him to take to the purl business, and gave him not only the advice, but sufficient money to enable him to put it in practice. The man accordingly got a boat, and was soon afloat among his old workmates. In this line he now makes out a living for himself and his family, and reckons himself able to clear, week with the other, from to "I should do much better," he said, "if people would only pay what they owe; but there are some who never think of paying anything." He has between and due to him, and never expects to get a farthing of it.

The following is the form of licence issued by the Watermen's Company:—

Height feet inches, years of age, dark hair, sallow complexion. & Vic. cap. , sec. .

I hereby certify that of , in the parish of in the county of Middlesex, is this day registered in a book of the Company of the Master, Wardens, and Commonalty of Watermen and Lightermen of the river Thames, kept for that purpose, to use, work, or navigate a boat called a skiff, named , number , for the purpose of selling, disposing of, or exposing for sale to and amongst the seamen, or other per-


sons employed in and about any of the ships or vessels upon the said river, any liquors, slops, or other articles whatsoever, between and Hole; but the said boat is not to be used on the said river for any other purpose than the aforesaid.

Waterman's Hall, ,

Beside the regular purl-men, or, as they may be called, bumboat-men, there are or others who, perhaps unable to purchase a boat, and take out the licence, have nevertheless for a number of years contrived to carry on a traffic in spirits among the ships in the Thames. Their practice is to carry a flat tin bottle concealed about their person, with which they go on board the ship in a tier, where they are well known by those who may be there employed. If the seamen wish for any spirit the river-vendor immediately supplies it, entering the name of the customers served, as none of the vendors ever receive, at the time of sale, any money for what they dispose of; they keep an account till their customers receive their wages, when they always contrive to be present, and in general succeed in getting what is owing to them. What their profits are it is impossible to tell, perhaps they may equal those of the regular purlman, for they go on board of almost every ship in the course of the day. When their tin bottle is empty they go on shore to replenish it, doing so time after time if necessary.

It is remarkable that although these people are perfectly well known to every purl-man on the river, who have seen them day by day, for many years going on board the various ships, and are thoroughly cognizant of the purpose of their visits, there has never been any information laid against them, nor have they been in any way interrupted in their business.

There is of these river spirit-sellers who has pursued the avocation for the greater part of his life; he is a native of the south of Ireland, now very old, and a little shrivelled--up man. He may still be seen every day, going from ship to ship by scrambling over the quarters where they are lashed together in tiers—a feat sometimes attended with danger to the young and strong; yet he works his way with the agility of a man of , gets on board the ship he wants, and when there, were he not so well known, he might be thought to be some official sent to take an inventory of the contents of the ship, for he has at all times an ink-bottle hanging from of his coat buttons, a pen stuck over his ear, spectacles on his nose, a book in his hand, and really has all the appearance of a man determined on doing business of some sort or other. He possesses a sort of ubiquity, for go where you will through any part of the pool you are sure to meet him. He seems to be expected everywhere; no appears to be surprised at his presence. Captains and mates pass him by unnoticed and unquestioned. As suddenly as he comes does he disappear, to start up in some other place. His visits are so regular, that it would scarcely look like being on board ship if "old D——, the whiskey man," as he is called, did not make his appearance some time during the day, for he seems to be in some strange way identified with the river, and with every ship that frequents it.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work