Forced to walk three miles for a pint

Leafy Woodplumpton circa 1900
Leafy Woodplumpton circa 1900
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During the late 1800s pubs could only serve people who had travelled more than three miles which was a blow for many locals but a boon for one village just four miles from Preston, as John Grimbaldeston reports

At some vague time in the mid-19th century, those in charge of licensing laws decided public houses and beer houses needed some restrictions on their sales as the country-side was awash with alcohol.

The Wheat Sheaf, at Woodplumpton

The Wheat Sheaf, at Woodplumpton

At least that was the view of many local dignitaries and magistrates, always keen to monitor the behaviour of the great unwashed. Thus a rather arbitrary rule was made, that hostelries could only serve what were termed bona fide travellers, people who had travelled for a genuine reason, three miles was the usual agreed distance, and were therefore in need of sustenance.

The 1872 Licensing Act confirmed the rule and for a while it took up a lot of print in newspapers and novels – it features in James Joyce’s Dubliners - as police, publicans, local big-wigs and local pub-goers sought either to supervise the law or to take advantage of it. Those villages three miles or so from a town suffered particularly. Woodplumpton is about four miles from Preston.

By the time one of the village’s Red Lions came up for a licence renewal, as landlord Mr Croft had died and his wife wanted the pub in her name, the pub had a reputation for serving customers from the town who were claiming to be travellers but “were sometimes kept there too long … so that the character of the house had not been altogether such as one would wish.” Nevertheless, Mrs Croft received her licence.

A rather more serious incident occurred a year later in 1875. One September Sunday, Richard Bramwell, Henry Duckworth, “and eight other notorious roughs from Preston” began pulling damsons from a farm belonging to Mr W Turner at Bartle. The local Constable, PC Morgan, intervened, but the gang turned on him and the formidable Mrs Turner, “a tall, powerful woman,” came to his rescue, got him inside her house, followed by the two defendants.

The Running Pump at Catforth

The Running Pump at Catforth

She managed to shut the door on the others, then she and PC Morgan managed to overpower the two inside, though Morgan himself suffered considerable injuries. Bramwell and Duckworth each received one month hard labour. The onus to enforce the rule was on the licensee, and for a while, Woodplumpton’s licensees appeared regularly before the magistrates.

On July 9, 1876, PC Camp had visited Mrs Croft’s Red Lion at 9am and seen several men from Preston drinking there, and a local man, Joseph Hogarth, among them. Mrs Croft explained at their trial that Hogarth had been doing a job for her and she had given him a pint as a reward, an excuse that the magistrates accepted, but which was frequently offered, as will be seen.

At the same court, Thomas Coxhead, landlord of the Birley Arms, now the Sitting Goose, was summoned for serving Thomas Porter, Richard Sudell and Thomas Parker, a case again brought by the extremely busy PC Camp. Mr Coxhead assured the magistrate the three men had told him they were from over three miles away, and they were ordered to pay costs.

A year later, and it was the turn of Mrs Smith of the Wheat Sheaf to be in bother. On Sunday September 21, 1877 PS Carr and PC Irwin found 50 ‘travellers’ in her pub, but among them were two locals, Thomas Bolton and the blacksmith, William Parker. Mrs Smith’s excuse was that she had asked the two men in to help her change a barrel and was merely rewarding their efforts, but this time the magistrates were less credulous and Mrs Smith was fined 20s and costs, and her two barrel-changers 10s and costs. Naturally enough, the police began to ask just how much refreshment travellers needed, and initiated a test case for the magistrates in June 1878.

The Bay Horse, Catforth

The Bay Horse, Catforth

They visited Mrs Cross’s Red Lion four times on one Sunday afternoon, and observed the same number of ‘travellers’ not travelling very much but enjoying themselves greatly, and asked the court if a prosecution was possible. The magistrates ruled that the time scale was irrelevant, “they could not sustain an action of that sort for one moment, because the persons in the house were travellers and had called for refreshments.” That case, and another against John Procter, landlord of the Wheat Sheaf, was dismissed.

Thus the official view was established that, legally, there was little that could be done about so-called bona fide travellers, but the more upright members of the village were increasingly inconvenienced, particularly through the late 1880 and 1890s as transport improved, three miles was felt to be less and less of an obstacle, and also Woodplumpton became a popular venue for cycling clubs.

Landlords and landladies could make much more on the Sunday than they could the rest of the week, the more idle of the villagers tried to sneak in as ‘travellers’ and the police were ever more vigilant as they felt control slipping out of their hands, and so the whole village was split.

There was more outrage when it was deemed necessary to shift the afternoon church service to the evening to avoid the cat-calls of out of town ruffians, and as a result of complaints the Woodplumpton Red Lion, only a few yards from the Wheat Sheaf, was closed.

The Preston Herald was never slow to voice its opinion on the matter, and must have widened the schism in the village when the paper accused the police of persecuting innocent folk enjoying a Sunday stroll.

It stated, “It has become almost criminal, it seems, for a Preston man to stretch his legs as far as, say, Woodplumpton on the day of rest, and most certainly so if he thinks himself during the dry and dusty seven or eight mile journey entitled to a modest pint of beer or a small and mellow Scotch whiskey.”

The Herald had been moved to comment because the police had raided the Tabley Arms, a pub then on the Preston extreme of the village, and arrested 30 customers, but only three of the summonses had been upheld, two obvious locals and a third who had been buying them drinks.

The police were perhaps becoming a little over-zealous and there are many examples of arrests on Sundays for what now seem quite petty reasons. John Mc Dermott, of Preston, and Ernest Rimmer and John Salthouse, of Blackpool, were fined 2s 6d for riding their bicycles on footpaths; Richard Porter and James Ellison of Preston were fined a similar amount for riding without lights after lighting up time.

But the most extreme collision of pub, policemen, cyclist and Sunday was in September 1906 when a gardener, John Singleton, crashed into PC Smith on the short stretch of road between the Birley Arms and the Saddle, was thrown from his cycle and killed.

The inquest tended to blame Mr Singleton: he was what was known as a ‘Scorcher,’ a cyclist keen to travel as fast as possible, his seat was a good nine inches above the handlebars to assist streamlining, and his feet were encased in toe-clips, which the coroner also regarded as dangerous.

Ultimately, a verdict of accidental death was recorded, but a modern day inquest would surely ask more searching questions. Publicans did become a little more vigilant: some required customers to write down where they had come from and where they were going to, which led to offended facetious replies such as “cradle” and “grave.”

A Licensing Act of 1921 finally did away with the rule, at least in England and Wales. The other Red Lion, at Swillbrook, soon joined its namesake in closing, as did the Tabley Arms. The relatively recent demolition of the Bay Horse at Catforth means the parish has just the four hostelries now, five if the boundaries are stretched a little, but at least they are available for both traveller and resident to slake their thirsts on a Sunday.