Pussyfoot Johnson and the London mob

My review of Ink And The Bottle, an exhibition about cartoons and alcohol, appears in the Independent.

One of the cartoons at the gallery is based on the story of William ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson, an American who was active in the temperance movement and came to London on Nov 13, 1919 to give a talk.

Johnson was leader of the Anti-Saloon League and after success in America, he headed to the Old World to spread the anti-drinking word. He argued, ‘There is more bootlegging and more moonshining in Europe than in the whole United States.’

He may have been right. This temperance movement map from 1886 attempted to show the scale of the problem by depicting all of London’s pubs in its ‘Modern Plague of London’ map.

Modern Plague, London

Pussyfoot earned his nickname for his habit of amending laws by stealth, and this did not go down well with the London mob. As one anti-temperance advocate told the New York Times, ‘You know how the majority of Englishmen look upon prohibition and Mr Johnson’s activities? The thought of not being able to have the well-known pint of bitter fills them with horror. The war was terrible enough but it was something that happened before. There have always been wars. Taking away the drinks is attacking the divine rights of the Britisher. I can tell you they don’t like it!’

They certainly didn’t, and decided to do something about it. While Johnson was speaking at Essex Hall, he was captured by medical students from nearby King’s College who dragged him out the buildin, poured a bottle of beer over his head and marched him around the West End chanting ribald songs. It was noted that the police ‘seemed lacking in sympathy with the missionary’.

Johnson was hauled hatless on a stretcher around Regent’s Street, Leicester Square and Oxford Street while the students chanted ‘What won the war? Rum!’ and ‘We’ve got Pussyfoot meow, send him back to America’.

Such larks, what fun and games! 

And so what if Johnson lost his right eye in the incident? The lesson was learnt. Not many people have tried to take the Britisher’s beer away from him since.


4 responses to “Pussyfoot Johnson and the London mob

  1. I love a story with a happy ending!

  2. I also enjoyed this show and in particular the Johnson incident which you describe.

  3. Knew of all the pubs, loved that story, pity about his eye. Is this the start of yanks telling us what to do

  4. There’s a 1919 song sung by Harry Fay, “Mister Pussyfoot” about the London visit of Johnson, warning of the evils of soft drink. I’ve just loaded it on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ndc-ZaMO5T8

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