The origins of the Southville Stroll are well known to locals – legend has it that it was born of a friendly rivalry between two Willis Tobacco Factory workers. William ‘Young Willy’ Smith, a Bristolian, and ‘Welshly’ Percy Coles from Black Forest were arguing over who had the sturdiest drinking boots, Bristolians or the Welsh.
As they were both Southville residents they decided to settle the argument with a drinking contest, drinking one drink in each pub until one man could go on no more . Welshy stayed neck and neck with Young Willy but his 14th pale ale proved to be his limit and he retired (to this day the slang for cutting short a drinking session in Bristol is called ‘pulling a welshy’).
Young Willy in his merriment continued the drinking session, and would have carried on through the night, but it was cut short when he was fatally injured by a horse and carriage leaving the 17th pub. After that day the factory workers, his friends and his widow met up every year to recreate the epic drinking contest and mourn his passing.
The date of the original pub crawl passed into memory but the ‘Southville Stroll’ (as it became known) remained popular with the working classes in the area for decades afterwards.
‘Strolling became pandemic amongst Southville residents in the run up to the first world war. By this point the stroll had ceased to be just an annual event and was attempted often by factory workers, eager to be seen able to “walk-the-walk”. It was a common sight to see men turn up for work, still incoherent from all the ‘Avon Pounder’ drunk the night before.
Several of the factory owners petitioned the local council at the time to ban pub crawls Southville in 1913 but were unsuccessful for, as Mayor Charles Bamford argued at the time, “We cannot in good reason stop the factory workers ‘Strolling in Southville, for they would surely seek to stroll in the fine establishments of Clifton instead, where they would disturb our lady folk and befoul our footpaths”.
‘Strolling was temporarily banned soon afterwards however. In the advent of war several factories in the area were converted to munitions production. One young worker insensible from a previous nights ‘Stroll (said to be a man called Oliver Nitch) literally blew his own arse off when some gunpowder was incorrectly handled. In the interests of public safety local establishments were forced to close early, a ban that stayed in place until the close of the second world war. This resulted in several establishments closing down and, according to the first post war census, a huge surge in birth rate, divorce and literacy in the Southville area.
The ban was lifted (forgotten) on VE day but because of the lack of drinking establishments a ‘street party stroll’ was staged for the whole community. Gathering all the beer and spirits they could find, the residents in the area also drank a crudely brewed spirit made from potatoes and powdered milk. It was said to have tasted like a White Russian.
The names and owners of those original 17 pubs may have changed but the spirit of those Tobacco Factory workers still lives on. Whenever locals need to blow off steam, whenever a drinking feud needs to be settled, whenever a pub crawl in Clifton or Gloucester Road seems too far away – the ‘Stroll is there, awaiting the next person dangerously apathetic to the dangers of binge drinking.
We have detailed the most up to date ‘Stroll here, taking in a wide variety of pubs, bars and one establishment that is probably more of a restaurant. And of course you’ll take in the sights, sounds and smells of Southville, walking in the footsteps of men like Young Willy and Oliver Nitch. Welcome to the most historic of Bristol’s pub crawls.