Purl or wormwood ale is an English drink. It was originally made by infusing ale with the tops of the wormwood plant, especially the variety which grows in coastal salt marsh, which is called old woman. Other purgative or bitter herbs such as orange peel or senna might also be used. The drink was commonly drunk in the early hours of the morning at which time it was popular with labourers.
By the middle of the 19th century, wormwood had been forgotten and the recipe was to mull ale with gin, sugar and spices such as ginger. It was sold by purl-men from purl-boats on the Thames who were licensed by the Watermen's Hall. The drink ceased to be popular by the end of the 19th century, being replaced by beer, especially the variety known to the English as bitter.
Purl-royal was a similar concoction made using wine in place of ale or beer.
Shakespeare mentions purl in his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary entry for February 19, 1660, "Thence forth to Mr Harper's to drink a draft of purle, whither by appointment Monsieur L'Impertinent..." On March 21, 1662, he writes, "Thence to Westminster Hall ... Here I met with Chetwind, Parry, and several others, and went to a little house behind the Lords' house to drink some wormwood ale, which doubtless was a bawdy house, the mistress of the house having the look and dress". Two centuries later, Charles Dickens described the final period of the drink in his last novel, Our Mutual Friend:
|“||For the rest, both the tap and parlour of the Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters gave upon the river, and had red curtains matching the noses of the regular customers, and were provided with comfortable fireside tin utensils, like models of sugar-loaf hats, made in that shape that they might, with their pointed ends, seek out for themselves glowing nooks in the depths of the red coals, when they mulled your ale, or heated for you those delectable drinks, Purl, Flip, and Dog's Nose. The first of these humming compounds was a speciality of the Porters, which, through an inscription on its door-posts, gently appealed to your feelings as, "The Early Purl House". For, it would seem that Purl must always be taken early; though whether for any more distinctly stomachic reason than that, as the early bird catches the worm, so the early purl catches the customer, cannot here be resolved.||”|
Dickens had also made reference to purl in the earlier novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, which was published in 1840-1841. When Dick Swiveller discovers a poor ill-treated servant, who does not know her age or even her own name, he asks "Why how thin you are? What do you mean by it?". In a display of impulsive kindness, he vanishes out to a public house and returns with a boy, "...who bore in one hand a plate of bread and beef, and in the other a great pot, filled with some very fragrant compound, which sent forth a grateful steam, and was indeed choice purl, made after a particular recipe which Mr Swiveller had imparted to the landlord, at a period when he was deep in his books and desirous to conciliate his friendship."
The fetching of the victuals has key significance in the plot.
Mr Swiveller shows for the first time his humanity and compassion that exists alongside his playful self-interest. He calls the girl The Marchioness and teaches her to play cribbage. Later in the story, she nurses Dick through a fever and is the key witness in proving the innocence of Kit Nubbles, who has been framed. This allows Kit and other key characters to resume their search for Little Nell, which brings the novel to its poignant end.
The purl, therefore, plays a key part:
"Next," said Dick, handing the purl, "take a pull at that, but moderate your transports, you know as you're not used to it. Well, is it good?"
"Oh! Isn't it?" said the small servant.
The passage is a fine cameo of Dickens humour and knowledge of the detail of Victorian life.
Purl is also represented now in modern form at award winning London Cocktail bar Purl London in Marylebone.