phrases, sayings, idioms and expressions at

"On The Wagon"

Posted by Brian from Shawnee on March 15, 2004

In Reply to: "On The Wagon" posted by Jim on March 13, 2004

: : : I vaguely remember a definition of the phrase being described by a London Taxi Driver on a PBS special several years ago. The taxi driver was driving the streets of London and speaking with the interviewer when something he passed triggered an explanation (my memory of what triggered the discussion is less clear) of the phrase "On The Wagon". He said that when prisoners were being escorted, by wagon (in much older times) to where they were to be executed the guards would stop at a pub and give them a final drink. After their drink the bartender would ask if they wanted another and the guards would say "No, he's On The Wagon". Has anyone heard this before? or can this PBS story be dug up for verification?

: : I haven't heard that one. It doesn't sound very plausible. A bartender familiar with the practice you describe would know that each prisoner was entitled to just one drink. He wouldn't ask about a second drink.

: : Entering "water wagon" into the archive-search box will get you the usual explanation offered on this forum.

: Read the history of AA (Alchoholics' Anonymous)
: The group that would collect and bring alchoholics to the shelter each morning by picking them up and putting them "on the wagon" they used, had some get off or fall off to continue or begin drinking again. To "fall off the wagon" was to return to drinking or "go on a bender" after a period of sobriety.
: Jim

They say that was the Salvation Army, not Alcoholics Anonymous. AA was founded in 1935 in New York City, by which time it would be quite rare to see a hay wagon in New York or any other big city.

Several regional Salvation Army sites claim "on the wagon" originated with them, including

Another site called attributes the phrase generically to "the temperance movement" in the 1890's.

The official BBC ( site attributes the phrase to a practice dating from 1547 to a tavern at Bow, where condemned prisoners went inside for a last drink, while the executioner stayed "on the wagon" outside. The article on the BBC's site is called "The Tyburn Tree", and states that this origin is only "one theory" for where the phrase came from.