One of the (admittedly very few) joys of following a football club around the country is that you get the opportunity to sample different ales in different pubs. The old greybeards amongst my team’s following often reckon that a game of football gets in the way of a good day’s drinking and the more experienced will have planned an extensive tour of public houses, timings set with military precision, to ensure sufficient alcohol is consumed to anaesthetise the senses for what is to come. We call this a pub crawl.
I had always assumed that the phrase came from the state of the toper after (s)he had visited a few establishments over a few hours. All they were capable of was crawling home. But I was wrong. It had a very specific origin from the world of politics.
In the days before radio and television and way before the dread days of social media, it was difficult for politicians to engage with their growing electorate. Newspapers were, as they are today, partisan and not everyone could be bothered to attend an election meeting. The Conservatives, at least in Cambridge in 1909, sent individuals from pub to pub to drum up support. Argus, the nom de plume of the correspondent who penned Our Local Letter published in the Cambridge Independent Press on May 21, 1909, takes up the story with some gusto and bluster.
Feigning surprise that the brains of the Conservative party should come up with so uninspiring a phrase as pub crawling, he consoled himself by noting, “assuming that they sally forth to advocate Imperialism, true religion, national defence, and other great topics of that sort, to the thirsty denizens of the Pig and Whistle, such a mission might surely be given a better title than the one I have mentioned”.
Clearly on a roll – had he sniffed a cork or two? – Argus continued to froth from his lofty perch. “I suppose they do crawl from “pub” to “pub”, if I may use their own somewhat contemptuous abbreviation. Some men would find such duties arduous and irksome, but tastes differ, and I doubt not that … some who can make such a duty a delight. And in addition to satisfying an honest thirst for information and for other things the pub crawler has the inspiring consciousness that he is helping the cause. That knowledge, together with the beer, must be peculiarly soothing. Pub-crawling is very popular in both West and East Cambs”.
Opponents quickly picked up on these new tactics and thought it advisable to warn their supporters of the dangers posed by these seemingly affable chaps visiting drinking establishments. At the time, 1909, British politics was polarised between advocates of free trade and protectionists, the latter, known as The Tariff Reform League, deploying the pub-crawling tactics. The Framlingham Weekly News in its edition of December 25, 1909 thought it necessary to alert its readers to the dangers of pub crawlers.
“Hired men”, it reported, “are being sent out to haunt the street corners and the public houses and catch you in your homes. They pretend to be independent, non-political gentlemen, grieved by the sad results of Free Trade. Sometimes they pretend that they are unfortunate victims “out of work through Free Trade”. The Tariff Reform League seems proud to call these men its “Missionaries”. Others, more truly, call them “Pub-Crawlers””.
These days the phrase has lost all its associations with political campaigning and is now commandeered by stag and hen parties, and other revellers.