The potboy in history, literature and art

I was born, in what Carl Jung would have insisted was no coincidence, on the site of an old pub, the Upper Flask in Hampstead, near the Heath. The pub closed in the second half of the 18th century, and the building that housed it was replaced in the early years of the 20th by Queen Mary’s Maternity Home. Today it’s nursing accommodation for the Royal Free Hospital, but over the decades tens of thousands of babies must have been born there. I wonder if we all like beer.

If you walk down Heath Street from the site of the Upper Flask towards Hampstead Tube Station you come to the side-road called The Mount. In 1852 the painter Ford Madox Brown, who was lodging in Heath Street, spotted a gang of workmen digging up the road here to lay drains and decided what a marvellous picture these heroes of labour would make. It took him 11 years to complete the painting, which he called, simply, “Work”. But it is an allegorical masterpiece typical of the pre-Raphaelite period (though Madox Brown was not, strictly, a member of the pre-Raphaelites), where every character of the more than two dozen portrayed, from the gentleman earning £15,000 a year to the effeminate flower seller, has a back-story. It’s also still recognisably the same scene today, 155 years later, as you will see if you stand by the high brick wall on the left of the painting and look north: except the upper middle classes now go past in BMW X5s rather than on horseback.

Madox Brown wanted his painting to illustrate the nobility of honest toil, but labour needs sustenance and refreshment, and one of the navvies is draining a pewter pot of something uplifting and alcoholic – porter, probably, given the era. In front of the drinker, and shouting “beer ho!”, according to Madox Brown, who wrote notes about all the people in the painting, is the fellow who brought the navvy the beer, the potman from one of the nearby pubs. He is fancily dressed in bowtie and waistcoat, and wearing the apron of his calling, and in his left hand he carries the potboy’s beer tray or pot-board, rather like a carpenter’s wooden toolbox, which bore eight or ten beer pots and, on the top, clay pipes for those who wanted a smoke with their beer.

I like to think the potman was from the Holly Bush pub barely a minute away round the corner and up Holly Bush Steps, my favourite Hampstead pub. It became licensed premises in the early 19th century, and preserves a more domestic layout of rooms off and behind the bar and down corridors, with wooden floors and high-backed settles. It also has on the wall a superb sign for the former Benskin’s Cannon Brewery, Watford, dating from before 1895 (when Benskin’s changed its trademark from a cannon to a pennant) and advertising Benskin’s old and mild ales, pale ale and Imperial stout. Unfortunately Madox Brown’s notes suggests his potman was from the larger, and classier, Coach and Horses or Nag’s Head in Heath Street itself:

‘The man with the beer-tray, calling “beer ho!” so lustily, is a specimen of town pluck and energy contrasted with country thews and sinews. He is humpbacked, dwarfish, and in all matters of taste, vulgar as Birmingham can make him look in the 19th century [a reference to his gilt watch chain]. As a child he was probably starved, stunted with gin, and suffered to get run over. But energy has brought him through to be a prosperous beer-man, and “very much respected,” and in his way he also is a sort of hero; that black eye was got probably doing the police of his master’s establishment, in an encounter with some huge ruffian whom he has conquered in fight, and hurled through the swing-doors of the palace of gin prone on the pavement.’

Madox Brown actually painted two copies of “Work”: one is in Manchester Art Gallery, and the other, slightly smaller version is normally in Birmingham Art Gallery. Right now, however, and until October 14, it’s at the National Gallery in London, as part of an exhibition called Work, Rest and Play, which has brought together 25 pieces by artists as diverse as Canaletto, Gauguin and LS Lowry. A couple of other paintings in the exhibition have beery connections. One is “Skittle Players Outside an Inn” by the 17th century Dutch artist Jan Steen, who was the son of a brewer, and a tavern-keeper himself, and painted a number of scenes inside and outside inns.

The other is “La Serveuse de Bocks”, portraying a waitress at the Brasserie de Reichshofen in Paris by Edouard Manet and made in 1878/9. Manet was apparently fascinated by the waitress’s ability to hold several glasses of beer at once, and asked her to come and pose for him at his studio: waitresses serving at tables were a comparatively new phenomenon in Paris. The young woman agreed, but only if she could bring her boyfriend along to add some respectability: “artist’s model” was a synonym for “prostitute”. Manet included the boyfriend in the picture: he’s the “customer” in the blue smock, in the foreground, smoking a pipe just like the ones Madox Brown’s potman was selling. “La Serveuse” comes in two versions as well: the other is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. For me, the National Gallery’s Manet is the better, The waitress is looking harassed, and to her left out of the picture, doubtless at another customer who is trying to order some beer himself: in the Paris version she is looking straight at the viewer. It’s also a much better picture, I think, than Manet’s much more famous “Bar at the Folies Bergere”, which is static and dull by comparison.

Madox Brown painted “Work” at a time when the institution of the potman, and potboy, was about to give way before the rise of the barmaid and the waitress. A potboy appears in another iconic English work of art, William Hogarth’s “Beer Street” of 1751, 101 years earlier – that’s him at the door of the pawnbroker’s on the right, passing through the pint that is all the impoverished “uncle” in happy and contented Beer Street can afford, while everyone else (including the porter on the extreme right, who also appears at the top of this blog) is drinking quarts. As a word, potboy is only a century or so older than that: the Oxford English Dictionary found its first use in an anonymous book published around 1662 titled The Life and Death of Mrs. Mary Frith, Commonly Called Moll Cutpurse. The potboy’s cry of “beer-ho” as he sought customers for a quick draught was one of the familiar sounds of London: a poem by the 18th century writer Mary Darby Robinson called “London’s Summer Morning”, written in 1775, says that amid “The din of hackney-coaches, waggons, carts”, “the pot-boy yells discordant”.

History’s most notorious potboy was Edward Oxford, an 18-year-old out-of-work barman who fired two pistols at the newly married (and pregnant) Queen Victoria as she and Prince Albert drove in a carriage up Constitution Hill from Buckingham Palace on June 10 1840. Both shots missed: Oxford was arrested immediately at the scene, and put on trial at the Old Bailey for high treason less than a month later. However, he was acquitted on the grounds of insanity – the evidence for his madness included papers found at his lodgings setting out the rules of a (non-existent) secret society, called “Young England,” whose members were pledged to meet, ” carrying swords and pistols and wearing crepe masks”. Oxford was ordered to be detained at the Bedlam hospital for the insane in Lambeth. Later, in 1864, he was transferred to the new Broadmoor Institution in Berkshire, before being released in 1867 on condition that he left the country. He went to Australia, where he is said to have earned his living as a house painter, dying, according to one source, in 1900.

Charles Dickens mentions potboys in several of his novels. The potboy’s, or potman’s dual role as beer server and bouncer, indicated in the shiner worn by Madox Brown’s potman, is alluded to by Dickens in Our Mutual Friend, when he says that at the Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, ruled by the strict Miss Abbey, “the white-aproned pot-boy with his shirt-sleeves arranged in a tight roll on each bare shoulder, was a mere hint of the possibility of physical force, thrown out as a matter of state and form.” Other jobs carried out by the potboy included taking down the shutters on the pub windows every morning and putting them back up at night, ensuring the spittoons were emptied and regulating the gas lights. Many probably had ambitions to run their own establishment, and some graduated to the post of landlord by marrying their former employer’s widow.

The fullest recording of a potboy’s work outside the walls of the pub was made by Alfred Rosling Bennett in a book called Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties. Writing in 1924, Bennett (who was actually an electrical engineer rather than a social historian) contrasted the street scenes of his childhood with those of the mid-1920s:

“Another member of our little world who has no counterpart in these later times was the perambulating potman. Public-houses in the 1850s were allowed to deliver liquor at customers’ premises, and nearly every tavern did so, employing potmen for the purpose who carried wooden frames divided longitudinally into two compartments in which cans of ale, porter and stout were deposited, together with a measure or two; a parallel bar above affording the necessary carrying handle. On weekdays the supper hour was the principal time of activity for these potmen, but they appeared to better advantage on Sundays, when, as soon as the clock had struck one, they issued from their bars clad in spotless white aprons and, in warm weather, in equally immaculate shirt-sleeves, intent on serving the Londoner with his dinner beer. Staggering under the weight of a couple of frames they went the round of their customers, measuring what was required from the cans into gaping expectant jugs. I am not sure whether they were entitled to serve any pedestrian who wanted drink, but I think they could be called to a house by a chance customer.”

But while the potboy was still filling orders for those wanting beer at home, or delivering porter for an aristocratic household’s servants to drink with their meals, pubs, and potboys, were changing, and the potboy was already in decline. George Dodd, in The Food of London, published in 1856, wrote:

“The Public-Houses of London … have undergone great changes within the last few years. They have been transformed from dingy pot-houses into splendid gin-palaces, from painted deal to polished mahogany, from small crooked panes of glass to magnificent crystal sheets, from plain useful fittings to costly luxurious adornments. The old Boniface, with his red nose and his white apron, has made way for the smart damsels who prepare at their toilettes to shine at the bar … Even the pot- boy is not the pot-boy of other days; there is a dash of something about him that may almost be called gentility; his apron is cleaner than were the aprons of pot-boys twenty years ago; and the tray filled with quarts and pints of dinner-beer, carried out to the houses of the customers, seems to have undergone some change, for it is less frequently seen than “in days of yore.”

John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary of 1874 says the “backslang” for a potboy was “top-yob”, which is a clue to the job’s social standing: “from potboy to peer” was a phrase The Times used in the 19th century to indicate the widest possible range of society. The Daily Telegraph journalist James Greenwood, who specialised in low-life exposés, recorded in a book called The Wilds of London, published the same year as Hotton’s slang directory, being confused by backslang in a flyer for a “rat-killing” event for members of the “Canine fancy” to be held at Billy Skunko’s Turnspit pub, Quaker’s Alley. Somers Town, in the East End of London, “Rats in the pit at Half-past Eight precisely. Previous to the above entertainment, Mr Chitley will sing his finch Peeler against Edward the Topyob’s celebrated bird, for a pound a side.” Edward was presumably an employee, as potboy, of Mr Skunko at the Turnspit: competitive finch-singing is still practiced in Flanders.

“Pot-boy-dom” was a tough job: George Gissing (admittedly English literature’s greatest miserabilist), in his novel The Nether World, set around 1880, described the life of 18-year-old Stephen Candy: “Stephen pursued the occupation of a potman; his hours were from eight in the morning till midnight on week-days, and on Sunday the time during which a public-house is permitted to be open; once a month he was allowed freedom after six o’clock.”

However, several developments were conspiring to eradicate the potboy. The passing of the “grocer’s licence” Act in 1860 allowing shops to retail wines and beers for consumption off the premises – “off-licences” – meant pubs no longer had an effective monopoly of the “carry-out” trade. The increasing popularity of bottled beers meant households could stock up with drink rather than having to send out as required for the potboy to make a “just-in-time” delivery. Finally, young working-class women were seeing serving in bars as a respectable alternative to working as a servant in the homes of the middle and upper classes – and pub owners were starting to prefer barmaids as well. The Reverend Charles Maurice Davies wrote in 1875 in Mystic London:

“The discriminating visitor will decidedly prefer to receive his sandwich and glass of bitter at the hands of a pretty barmaid rather than from an oleaginous potman in his shirt-sleeves; and the sherry-cobbler acquires a racier flavour from the arch looks of the Hebe who dispenses it. If silly young men do dawdle at the bar for the sake of the sirens inside, and occasionally, as we have known to be the case, take unto themselves these same sirens ‘for better or for worse,’ we can only cite the opinion of well-informed authorities, that very possibly the young gentlemen in question might have gone farther and fared worse, and that it is not always the young lady who has, in such a case, the best of the bargain”

By the time of the First World War, when, in any case, fit young men not in reserved occupations would be called up to fight the Kaiser rather than working in pubs, the potboy was effectively extinct. The expression potboy lingered in the 20th century only as a lightly contemptuous term for the elderly pensioner every “local” used to have who, for the price, generally, of a pint of mild, would act as semi-unofficial collector-up of used glasses at the end of every session. It was a long fall from Madox Brown’s “prosperous beer-man” of the 1850s.

3 thoughts on “The potboy in history, literature and art

  1. More fascinating stuff.

    There are a couple of references to “potman” in these transcripts I’ve made from Charles Booth’s notebooks. In particular, it refers to the potman’s job of kicking out unruly customers. It also mentions that the name was falling into disuse as pubs were no longer using pots and that the new word was “Porter”.

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