Spotlight On … London Porters.

Spotlight On … London Porters.

Written by Victoria Green.

One of the main problems with history is that it often favours the richer, literate and well-to-do. Those who had the ability to write, and did so, could tell their stories. Those who could not were at risk of falling through the cracks and being forgotten. It is perhaps for this reason that I had never heard of the London Fellowship of Porters. It sounded a lot to me like a certain trilogy, so naturally I wanted to investigate. What I actually stumbled upon was an institution that underpinned the London economy between the 17th and 19th Centuries, and gave life to a whole new type of beer. And what is more sacred to us Brits than our beer heritage?

If I’m honest, I had no idea what it meant to be a London Porter. After some research I discovered that, in essence, they were a precursor to the modern delivery driver. Porters would be hired by individuals or companies to transport goods from barges on the River Thames to the doorstep. In particular, the London Fellowship Porters specialised in ‘measurable’ goods, like coal, salt and grain.

The National Leather Collection happens to have two examples of 19th Century Porter’s badges in storage. It would seem that the Porter’s badge was a mark of some prestige. In order to be a porter, you had to be licensed. An important part of this licensing process was to be deemed trustworthy enough to handle goods, and deliver them as promised. To be a Porter, therefore, was indicative of integrity and good character. Plus, a Porter’s daily earnings were typically around 5 shillings, a very generous wage for a labourer at the time (which I expect helped with the integrity).

The engraving on the left reads “Matthw. Hazard, Fellowship Porter, Aug. 5 1800, No. 6 SH”, and on the right “Chas. Underwood, Fellowship Porter 12 Nov, 1840, No. T. L. 10”.

These badges were meant to be attached to the lapel, with engraving on the brass. The engraving features the Coat of Arms of the City of London, the individuals’ names and presumably their dates of initiation. The numbers possibly pertain to a particular location or area of work.

After much head-scratching, we are proposing an interesting new theory about the stitching detail on the badges. We couldn’t help but feel it was significant that one badge seemed incomplete, with holes punched out, clearly intended for future use. Could it be that the stitching was a mark of proficiency or merit for good service? Perhaps this stitching was a method of ranking porters; the more stitches you had, the better at portering you were. There is clearly a differentiation between the linear stitches and the cross-stitch along the top but, of what this means, we remain unenlightened.

A reverse view of each badge, showing some of the stitching detail.

As promised, here comes the beer talk. For the uninitiated, Porter is a type of very dark beer, well-hopped and made from malt. Before the 1700s, ageing beer was the responsibility of the pub or dealer, so Porter was the first type of beer to be aged at a brewery and shipped out ready for immediate consumption. Porter was, by modern standards, a very strong beer, averaging around 6.6% ABV. The name ‘porter’ was first recorded in the 18th Century, and is thought to have been named after its popularity with the portering class. The drink was a very ‘hearty nourishing liquor’ (John Feltham, 1802), and so suitable for those with tough, manual jobs. As the London Porters were very much white-collar workers, running back and forth to make deliveries, they required a lot of carbohydrates to keep them going. With Weetabix still a few centuries off, a Porter’s main source of sustenance came from beer. It was thought that in the 18th Century, manual labourers would consume around 2,000 of their daily calories this way.

Public houses in London were universally recognised as refuelling stations, with benches and tables outside to accommodate Porters and their loads. Beer-drinking was an intrinsic part of being a Porter, particularly as breweries frequently hired Porters to unload malt barges. After making a delivery, the Porter would be rewarded with a pint or two of beer. Even the Fellowship Porters’ initiation at The Ship Tavern, Holborn, involved fishing their new badge out of a quart of ale.

In 1894, an Act of Parliament dissolved the Fellowship Porters and the eponymous drink was also languishing on its deathbed, having become the weakest and cheapest drink on the market. So ended the homegrown tradition of porterage, but thankfully the Porters’ legacy of beer-drinking after a hard days’ work remains.

These London Porter badges are just two examples of the countless treasures in the National Leather Collection. To learn more about the collection, please visit our website. All support is greatly appreciated, so find out how you can get involved by visiting our support page.