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.