The forgotten story of London’s porters

It’s a mark of the low status given to working class history that the role in London’s life and economy played by the city’s thousands of street and river porters, the men who gave their name to the beer, is almost completely forgotten, only 70 or so years after the last of the porters died.

Almost no modern books on the history of London mention the Ticket Porters and their rivals the Fellowship Porters, not even Weinreb and Hibbert’s 1,000-page London Encyclopedia (which does, however, manage to mangle a nonsensical story about ale conners and the Tiger pub at the Tower of London).

The exception is Peter Earle’s A City Full of People, subtitled Men and Women of London 1650-1750, published in 1994, which leans for its scholarship about the subject on Walter Stern’s The Porters of London, written in 1960.

This lack of general knowledge about the people who played an irreplaceable role in London’s economy from the 17th to the 19th centuries, one that was the equivalent of white van delivery driver, motorcycle courier and postman rolled into one, meant confusion for beer writers in the 1970s when they came to write about porter the drink.

They read comments by people such as John Feltham in 1802 that the drink was “a very hearty nourishing liquor … very suitable for porters and other working people. Hence it obtained the name porter.” But they thought the porters he referred to must be the only porters they knew of, the only ones surviving in London at that time, the porters of Billingsgate fish market and Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, the ones famous for walking about with towering baskets of fish or fresh produce balanced on their heads. So they wrote, like Michael Jackson in 1977, about porter getting its name because of its “popularity … among porters in the London markets.”

The market porters, however, were only a fraction of the 5,000 or so men employed in full-time portering in London in the early eighteenth century, the time that porter the beer came into being (thousands more, incidentally,  worked as porters on a casual basis). The full-time porters were regulated by the City of London, and divided into two groups, the Fellowship Porters, who carried “measurable” goods (grain, coal, salt and the like) on and off ships moored in the Thames and in and out of warehouses, and the Ticket Porters (that’s a Ticket Porter pictured at the top of this blog, taken from Hogarth’s engraving Beer Street).

The Ticket Porters, who wore a pewter badge carrying the arms of the City, a cross and a dagger, were subdivided into two themselves, the waterside Ticket Porters, who dealt with all ship-borne cargoes the Fellowship Porters did not carry, and the Street or Uptown Porters. This last group carried everything from letters to parcels to merchant’s goods of all descriptions, which might weigh up to three hundredweight, nearly 350 pounds, the heaviest loads requiring a team of four porters with poles and chains. The Street Porters waited to be hired at 100 or so official stands placed around the City, and they charged up to five shillings a day, a good sum for a manual labourer.

Portering was hard work, however, and porters needed a considerable amount of carbohydrate as fuel – much of which they got from drinking. One estimate is that 18th century manual workers were getting 2,000 calories a day from beer. Pubs were used as fuelling stops: it was “universal” in the 18th century, according to a writer in 1841, for public houses in London to have a bench outside for porters to sit at and a board (that is, table) alongside it “for depositing their loads” while they stopped for “deep draughts of stout … such as are idealised in Hogarth’s Beer Street.” That was “stout” as in stout porter, of course: the strong, dark brew London’s brewers developed out of the brown beer they brewed at the beginning of the 18th century was just the sort of refreshing, energising brew the porters wanted, and its popularity with the portering class is why it was given their name.

Brewers were big hirers of porters, with Barclay Perkins’s Anchor brewery in Southwark, by the Thames, for example, taking on up to 140 Fellowship Porters at a time to unload malt barges. Reid & Co of the Griffin Brewery, in what is now Clerkenwell Road, like Barclay Perkins one of London’s 11 or 12 big porter brewers, also hired teams of porters to shift sacks of malt into the brewery. Reid’s then made the porters pick up their pay at one of its pubs, and it expected them to drink a pint of beer in the pub after they had been paid. When the brewery raised the price per load of malt it paid to the porters, it also increased the amount of beer they were expected to drink, to a “pot”, or two pints.

London had at least a couple of public houses actually called the Ticket Porter, one in Moorfields, which was kept by a man who worked as a Ticket Porter and the other (which was only closed and demolished around 1970) in Arthur Street, hard by London Bridge. (The former pub’s name is reflected in the name of a modern, and not very attractive bar, the Porter’s Lodge, at the bottom of Arthur Street.) Another pub, the Stave Porters, was in Jacob Street, Southwark until at least the 1930s. Charles Dickens invented a riverside pub called the “Six Jolly Fellowship Porters” in his novel Our Mutual Friend which was based, it is claimed, either on the Grapes, Limehouse or the Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping.

The Fellowship Porters are said, in fact, to have used the Ship, in Gate Street, near Holborn, where new members were initiated. A description of the rite written in the 1920s says that a quart of strong ale was ordered, and the novitiate’s badge of office was dropped into the mug. The would-be porter then had to extract the badge with his teeth without spilling any ale.

By the 1920s, however, the Fellowship had been wound up for 30 years or so. In fact, the power of the official portering organisations had been evaporating since the very beginning of the 19th century. As the big dockyards began opening to the east of the City from 1802 onwards, the companies that built and operated them barred the ticket porters and fellowship porters from exercising any right to work in their dockyards. The same bar was operated by the railway companies when they opened their London termini, and employed their own porters. Rowland Hill’s Penny Post knocked on the head the Street Porters’ monopoly of letter carrying.

The ticket porters had vanished by the late 1870s. Fewer than a hundred men earned their living as a Fellowship Porter in the 1860s, though when a meeting was held to talk about dissolving the fellowship in 1892, more than 160 members turned up. An Act of Parliament finally dissolved the fellowship in 1894, giving each former porter compensation for the disappearance of his job. However, ex-porters continued to make claims on the City of London for some decades: there were still 16 former Fellowship Porters alive in 1932.

Porter the drink was pretty much on its deathbed in London by then, too, its gravity down to 1036 OG or less. The writer TEB Clarke in 1938 called porter “a lowly brand of draught stout selling in the Public [bar] at fourpence a pint”, making it one of the cheapest (and presumably weakest) beers available.

It was, literally a drink for old men and boys: my father, Arthur, remembered being sent aged 11, around 1933, to the bottle-and-jug department of the family’s local pub in North London to bring back a quart jug of porter for his grandfather, who would then have been 70 or so. On the way home the young boy would take a sly, and strictly illegal, mouthful of beer: I wonder if my great-grandfather ever noticed, and decided a sip was a fit fee to pay for my father portering the porter.

25 thoughts on “The forgotten story of London’s porters

  1. A relative was the Landlord at Stave Porters Inn,Jacob Street in Southwark from around 1914.His name was Horace William Irwin.He must have done very well as he went back to Kings Lynn where he originated from and purchased a pub/hotel there.

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  4. A most enlightening article – many thanks. My great great grandfather and his sons were a mix of Fellowship Porters, Watermen, Fishsalesmen at Billingsgate and – later- Licensed Victuallers, all in London, and mostly Freemen of the City. I would be grateful if you would pass the name of the author to me so I can properly acknowledge him in my own personal records.

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  5. Most interesting article, my husbands g/g/grandfather was a Fellowship Porter in 1837 we have his ‘badge of office’ a leather strap that buttonholes onto the front of the uniform and has red/purple string threaded through the leather in a specific pattern we have been trying to find more details about him and what the string design on his badge actually means has anyone got any idea?

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  6. Im Manager of the Porters Lodge in Arthur Street near London Bridge.
    I read your article ,and found it very interesting to learn about the London Porters of yesteryear.
    And I agree about the new Porters Lodge being an ugly building.
    The bar is a basement bar,so although its all ugly brown stone on the outside,its quite nice once downstairs,although not as attractive as the majority of the square miles wine bars and gastros,it does hold its own as a darts and pool boozer.
    I expect the Market Porter on the South bank which is directly opposite the Porters Lodge on the north side may also be an old Porters favorite local.
    With both bars being so close to London Bridge ,im sure they where once in competition in the Portering world.

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  7. I am not sure people realise but there was a once well known London “curiosty” known as the Porter’s Rest I assume this was established by some philanthropist who felt sorry for these men It was a kind of shelf to enable them to put down their loads for a 5 min breather Dont know if it is still there in fact anno domini has made me forget where it was near Hyde Park Corner I think

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  8. My great-great-great grandfather was a fellowship porter from at least 1861 to 1884 He was killed on the Job in an accident.

    His son, my great-great grandfather, was a (waterside) Dock Porter & Corn Porter until 1884.

    I wonder if there is any records – that would be interesting to read!

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    • I found this interesting as my G.G grandfather was also a Fellowship Porter and I have not been able to find out very much. He was admitted in 1823 but by 1839 he had become a gunmaker. However when his daughter was married in 1862 he was referred to once again as a Fellowship Porter. I too wonder if there are any records to be found.

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    • Hi
      My Great Gt Grandfather was a Fellowship porter. Have you been able to discover any records of this group of men? If you have could you let me know where to find them please.
      Regards Linda

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      • Linda, your first calls should be to the London Museum and the London Metropolitan Archives. The City of London Corporation was the body that licensed the porters, if I remember correctly, so if neither the museum not the metropolitan archives can help, try the City of London, archivist, if they have one, and also the Guildhall Library in the City.

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  9. A great article regarding Porters of Old London Port. I have the brass and leather Fellowship Porter badge of Robert Hopkins dated August 12, 1813 No. 2 with the R – D Coat of Arms. The society was founded in 1155 and disbanded in 1894. These tangible historical items that we can hold in our hands give us a connection back to the old days. Preserving and collecting history is great.

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  10. Pingback: The origins of porter (and a bit about three-threads) | Zythophile

  11. i went to the Ticket Porter P. H. near London Bridge in about 1965 for an evening pint. Neither I nor the two pals I was with understood the name. It has continued to intrigue me ever since. Now I know the answer so many thanks for that. Sadly my pals have passed on.
    As i remember the pub was in an area that had not been fully rebuilt following Hitlers raids. Strange to think that this did not surprise us and it shows how long it took the U.K. to recover from that devastation.

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  12. Thanks for an enlightening article. many of my london relatives of the 1800s were porters, fellowship porters and yellow strap porter (1860 on his sons marriage doc.) have no idea what this means but at least i have a better understanding of this occupation. i think the next least recognized occupation was washerwoman, laudresses. if you look thru the 1800’s census’ thousands of married woman were working at this trade.

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  13. I came to this article as my 2xggf was licensee of the Stave Porters in Jacob Street and I’ve been looking for more details of the pub. I’d be happy to hear from anyone that can give me even the smallest bit of information.

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