Saturday, 29 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s -- 'Teetotal Chartism'

 Temperance and teetotal reformers offered another way of changing society and the temperance movement was a major cause of social reform in Victorian Britain[1]. It had long been an integral part of the radical ethos. John Fraser, who spent much of his life campaigning for temperance, went so far as to suggest that ‘Drinking radicalism is a contradiction in terms.’ It is not surprising that a temperance strand should have developed within Chartism or that this should be a cause of division in the movement. Radicals had been arguing about temperance as early as 1831 and drink and drink-sellers were so central to working class culture that these differences were almost inevitable.

The temperance movement: an overview

During the nineteenth century, the consumption of alcohol among working-class men began to be viewed as a wasteful and illicit form of entertainment that served no purpose, caused many problems and was scorned and fought against by the temperance movement. The temperance movement focused on the drinking habits of men, because men drank publicly and because the drinking habits of women were unknown. While its goals changed according to its respective leaders, it eventually achieved its goals of controlling drunkenness and changing Victorian England’s lenient treatment of alcohol abusers. The temperance movement’s main focus was working-class drinking and the movement was dominated by middle-class men who felt that by fighting intemperance they were helping the working class.

Representing the ideals of self-control and self-denial, the temperance movement epitomised middle-class Victorian values. Its values were shaped by the Evangelical movement that was concerned with salvation and the Utilitarian movement that was concerned with efficiency and valued self-control and self-denial. Joseph Kidd, a late-Victorian journalist for the Contemporary Review wrote, “To be able to rule self and transmit to children an organisation [society] accustomed to self-restraint and moderation in all things is one of the chief delights and aspirations to the moral nature of a true man.”[2] The temperance advocates believed that anyone under the influence of alcohol was no longer in control of him or herself.

Many Victorians thought that thrift and self-denial were essential to forming a “true man.” They argued that work was the key to success and that a “true man” was always willing to work hard. Leisure was distrusted because they believed that it perpetuated laziness. A man who indulged himself in leisure was not considered a “true man,” for a “true man” denied himself pleasure and practiced self-denial. Many of the temperance groups concerned with thrift encouraged working-class men in pubs to save their money rather than spend it on drink and also to avoid laziness and gluttony in order to be better workers.

The Victorians also valued the idea of self-help, claiming that an individual grows through personal effort. For example, the mayor of Chester during the 1830’s explained, “Self-help is of all help, the best because it brings with it mainly satisfaction of difficulties subdued.”[3]  Individuals who did not make a conscious effort to redeem themselves from lowly social stature, to improve their education and personal development, were labelled failures. Members of the working class were blamed for their own inability to succeed because they remained in an undesirable position in society without striving to better themselves. Temperance was seen as a way for these men to counter the claims that they were lazy, prove that they had self respect and cared about their social status.

The temperance movement did not consist of one cohesive group of non-drinkers who were in constant agreement and cooperated to achieve a common goal. The movement began in the 1830s when intemperance was beginning to be seen as a widespread problem. With the rise of industrialism, working hours became much more regulated than in the agricultural society and factory owners demanded punctual, alert and efficient factory workers. Previously, many working-class men had missed days of work due to their intoxication. However, as a result of industrialisation, this sort of behaviour was no longer acceptable because it hindered the work regimen of the factory.

The organised temperance movement was brought to Lancaster and Yorkshire, the northern industrial towns, in the 1830s, by the middle-class, who felt that they were fighting drunkenness out of Christian charity. The middle class saw intemperance as a problem solely in the working class, focused their efforts on eliminating hard liquor and sought to dramatically curb the widespread drunkenness that plagued society. They worked with clergymen and a few upper-class reformers to help working-class men control their drinking. Their goal was to enlist the help of those who drank only in moderation, to fight against drunkenness, rather than to cure drunkards. William Collins, a prominent temperance lobbyist, explained his group’s theory on membership by saying, “Drunkards we hold to be almost irreclaimable ... it is rather too late for men to become members, when they have become drunkards.”  The temperance leaders implored social drinkers not to take a drink between meals; however, some people facetiously complained that they would overeat as a result of this rule.[4]

Furthermore, in order to set an example for the members of the temperance groups and the community at large, those who worked for the temperance movement believed that they themselves should abstain from drinking any sort of alcoholic beverage.  This personal conviction was based on the message heralded by St Paul, that “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended or made weak.”  The strong Evangelical influence gave such Biblical references a strong and persuasive appeal. The main goal of the temperance workers was not to outlaw drinking, but to control it. Many working-class men were insulted by the temperance movement and believed that its leaders were hypocritical because they implied that the problem of drunkenness lay only in the working class.  They also complained that the temperance movement only diverted attention from the real problems of sanitation, overcrowding in housing developments and discontent in the workplace.[5]

During 1830, at the beginning of the temperance reformation, twenty temperance societies were founded, totalling between two and three thousand members. The inhabitants of urban communities in northern England were early supporters of the movement. Temperance societies held public meetings and invited only speakers whom they saw as nearly sinless to address their members and encourage them to avoid drunkenness. For example, the speech of a man invited to preach for the Leeds Temperance Society’s meeting held on March 9th, 1831, was so gripping that the audience did not disperse until late in the night.  Besides persuading them through exciting speeches, the temperance societies worked to attract members by publishing and distributing tracts, journals, and essays. They charged for these documents and this often made them unavailable to the poor working class, the very group of people whom they tried to address.

The temperance movement in the 1830s and 1840s focused on controlling drunkenness rather than abolishing all alcoholic beverages. It was believed that the promotion of beer, which they were convinced, was less intoxicating than the hard liquor of the working class, would provide for social drinking rather then public intoxication. The Beer Act of 1830 began forty years of the free trade of beer and enabled anyone who paid two guineas to receive a license to sell beer. It was believed that if beer was easily obtainable at an unlimited number of beer shops, people would choose to drink it rather than gin that was seen as more destructive and which was harder to obtain. In order to further encourage the sale of beer, in late 1830, the two guinea duty for the beer license was eliminated, making beer even more accessible. Many working class men procured the licenses so that they could profit from the sale of beer that was being so aggressively supported.

When it became clear that beer could be as equally intoxicating as the scorned drink, gin, temperance reformers realised that the Beer Act was a failure in controlling drunkenness and the second phase of the temperance movement began. Therefore, in 1832, those who fervently believed in the evil of alcohol called for an alcohol-free society and formed a group referring to themselves as “teetotallers.” This group sought to convince Victorians that any consumption of liquor was morally wrong. This alienated those of the middle-class who dominated the early temperance movement and believed in controlling drunkenness rather than abolishing liquor. While the temperance movement was founded by middle-class men seeking to improve the working class, the teetotal group was founded by seven working-class men under the leadership of Joseph Livesey.

Livesey and his teetotal group took a pledge, promising never to consume any alcoholic beverages. This pledge was considered the “cornerstone” of the teetotal movement. Labelled the “short pledge,” this pledge only required people to refrain from personal consumption. Later, the “long pledge” was introduced; this forbade anyone under the pledge oath from serving alcohol in his or her home. For the middle-class, this provided serious social problems because few socialites cared to dine in someone’s home and not drink wine. Also, the “long pledge” disallowed the giving or taking of sacramental wine.  As a result, many middle-class people who supported temperance but still wished to drink wine with their dinners, were not supportive of the teetotal movement. However, women at marrying age were encouraged by teetotallers and non-teetotallers alike to only marry men who were teetotal.[6]

The teetotallers’ goal was to create self-respect among the working class and encourage them to establish and strive for goals to improve their position in society and not remain idle. One working-class teetotaller, Thomas Whittaker spoke in reference to the middle-class value of the ideal “true man,” saying that teetotallers “made me feel that a man’s position and success did not, after all, depend so much on his birth and parentage than on his own efforts and perseverance.”  The “pledge” became a way for working-class men to decide their own fates by rebuilding their unions and involving themselves in the political process.

Many working-class men were more eager to join the group and take the pledge, because teetotallers were a group of the working-class men who sought the advancement of the working class. Several of these men found it encouraging that the members of these groups were obligated to trade (restrictive trading) only within their groups thereby promoting each other’s success and giving non-members the incentive to change their views and join a teetotal group. In order to enforce this policy, before each meeting, the secretary would read the names of each member and his job and skills to remind all members of whom to contact for their specific needs. Because of the Chartist movement’s concern for showing working-class respectability, many teetotallers quickly joined. Chartist groups were founded all over England in the early 1840s. One working-class temperance group, the East London Chartist Temperance Association, invited many speakers to address their members. One such speaker emphasised “the necessity of the working classes abstaining from all intoxicating drinks in order to assist themselves in obtaining their political rights.”

There was considerable resentment within the middle class because they wanted to be the leaders of the temperance movement. As a result, briefly, middle-class membership in the temperance movement declined. Joseph Kidd blamed the teetotallers for not recognising the temperance workers as partners in the same goal. In an article entitled “Temperance and Its Boundaries,” he wrote that, “The more vehement of the total abstinence orators try to brand the advocates of temperance as evil-doers, as half-hearted, as disguised enemies, if not false friends.” He claimed that if the teetotallers were not so adamant about the total abolishment of liquor, they would find more support. The teetotallers did not cease from insisting on the abolishment of liquor, however, and this led directly to their downfall. As problems such as lack of support and funding festered, the teetotallers’ movement dissipated. Due to mismanagement and lack of business skills, the working-class leaders found it difficult to keep all of the finances on track and the teetotal movement could no longer afford to continue. The frustrated leaders, unable to persuade society that drinking was immoral, disengaged their followers and sought to return to their private lives.  The Victorian journalist Charles Graham said he would[7] “give the compulsory abstinence party [teetotallers] ... the credit at least of good intentions,” after having labelled their efforts a failure saying that they were “doomed.”

 Temperance and political reform

The growth popularity of the temperance and total abstinence movements in the 1830s and 1840s encouraged some radicals to consider a ‘general union’ between temperance and political reformers. The National Charter Association argued for sobriety but consistently opposed calls to make total abstinence part of the Chartist programme. This made very good sense. Working men were divided on the temperance question. Some saw drink as an integral part of working class culture. A Trowbridge Chartist promised his audience ‘plenty of roast beef, plum pudding and strong beer for working three hours a day’ and public houses had long formed the focal point for radical activities. Ernest Jones repeatedly emphasised that ‘the Charter was not to be found at the bottom of a glass of water’. Many Chartist leaders disliked the temperance movement’s religious connections. Peter Murray McDouall[8] condemned the teetotal movement in 1842 as ‘more of a religious than a political body’[9]. Certainly for many middle class Nonconformists temperance was a religious and moral question, completely divorced from politics. The Aberdeen Teetotaller made this clear when it said ‘As an association we have as little to do with Chartism as the man in the moon’. In 1839, the Chartist delegates Robert Lowery[10] and Abram Duncan were opposed by the leaders of teetotalism in Cornwall. Chartist attitudes on religious grounds merged into objections on the grounds of class. Teetotallers were accused of narrow-mindedness and middle class pretensions and there was a real fear that that working class aspiration would be subordinated to the teetotal movement’s middle class leaders. It was this dilution of the movement that O’Connor feared.

Harrison argues that teetotal Chartism was ‘never a negligible force’ and that it ‘made no sharp break with previous radical attitudes’[11]. Sobriety made sound political sense. It stood well with public opinion, especially among the middle classes, and weakened government arguments about the irresponsibility of the working class. The links between Chartism and temperance were emphasised by some Chartists by the late 1830s. In early 1840 John Fraser described as ‘a revolting spectacle’ to see ‘pot-house politicians hiccuping for liberty’[12] Many Welsh and Scottish Working Men’s Associations followed the example of the London organisation and denied membership to drunken and immoral men. William Lovett in Chartism suggested the creation of drink-free district halls to encourage self-improvement and drink free entertainment. Many individuals campaigned for both temperance and the Charter and, in the early moths of 1841 when enthusiasm was at its height, Teetotal Chartist societies sprang up in London, the North and Midlands and in Scotland. The leading figure in this process was Henry Vincent[13]. Vincent had abstained since 1836 and had long argued for self-improvement and sobriety. Prison heightened his temperance and in December 1840, together with C.H. Neesom[14], Cleave, Hill and Hetherington, he signed as address, which argued that the aristocracy only ruled because of the vices of the poor, and that Chartists must therefore become teetotallers. The Morning Chronicle on 2nd December supported this stance maintaining that Chartist teetotalism was ‘a better pledge of the coming franchise than the loaded musket’[15]. Vincent’s manifesto reflected the growing division within Chartism and the search for an alternative social and political programme to the fundamentalism of O’Connor.

The appeal of Teetotal Chartism

What was the appeal of Teetotal Chartism? Many contemporary commentators, working as well as middle class, were concerned with the causes of poverty. The evils associated with drunkenness were obvious and this led many reformers to exaggerate its significance as the cause of poverty. Temperance was an expression of the dignity of class. There was also a widespread belief that drunkenness helped to explain the weakness of the Chartist movement in 1839 and 1840. The Northern Star[16] suggested in 1840 that “Teetotalism leads to knowledge – knowledge leads to thinking – thinking leads to discontent of things as they are, and then, as a matter of course, comes Chartism. This posed a direct assault on the ability of government to govern. At least a third of revenue came from drink taxes. Without this, some Chartist argued, government would not be able to pay its police or soldiers. Lord Brougham[17] described the non-payment of taxes as “…a thing utterly beyond all power of law – and even of force – and wholly impossible to be put down. This it is that makes it so formidable.”

Teetotalism was also a powerful means of redefining the working-middle class radical alliance. No argument against the extension of the franchise was aired more often than the allegation that drunkenness was widespread among working people. Vincent took middle class arguments against extending the franchise and tried to remove them[18]

“[Working people] should forsake the gin palace and so shew the aristocracy that they were a people worthy to be entrusted with the power they claimed.”

Teetotal Chartism advanced quickly in the spring of 1841. His teetotal tour took Vincent, during March and April, through Oxford, Banbury, Leicester, Nottingham, Cheltenham and Gloucester. His speeches promoted class harmony and co-operation and ended with pledge signing. O’Connor’s attack, in March and early April, was a stinging one. Teetotalism was divisive and a reflection of the London radicals whose influence he so despised. Vincent’s influence on the movement was declining – in late April he became a lecturer for the Complete Suffrage Union -- and the movement collapsed almost overnight. This rapid disintegration is, in some respects, deceiving. In some areas teetotalism remained a powerful adjunct to Chartism.

The rift between Vincent and O’Connor – Vincent branded O’Connor as ‘a fair and palpable mixture of knavery and folly’ in early May and O’Connor retaliated the following month calling Vincent ‘the political pedlar’ -- has been seen as a division between a moderate who blundered into a temperance backwater and a class-conscious repudiation of evangelising crusading. Such an interpretation, Harrison suggests, is wrong on three counts. First, Teetotal Chartism was only seemingly moderate. Lovett and Vincent were consistently anti-aristocratic and aware of the dignity of their class. In their earlier Chartist careers and in their ultimate objectives, they were at least as radical as O’Connor. Secondly, Lovett’s autobiography and Mark Hovell’s influential narrative were unwaveringly hostile to O’Connor and both give the impression that O’Connor was opposed to temperance. This was far from the case. O’Connor did not oppose teetotalism as a principle but to avoid embroiling Chartism with the cause of temperance[19]. He wrote in April 1841[20]

“Once make nonconformity grounds for exclusion and you establish sects and affiliations, instead of one universal corps of regenerators.”

This was a shrewd political judgement and there is ample evidence of the disunity Teetotal Chartism caused at national and local levels. Thirdly, the Lovett-Hovell interpretation ignored O’Connor’s later attitudes. His temperance views certainly influenced his practice in the Land Plan. He barred distillers, brewers and drink-sellers from his estates and in 1847 he urged the settlers on the Herongate estate to avoid the adjacent beershop. Temperance, he believed, was only possible when working people were no longer exploited. In 1846 he said[21]

“Ah! If I was monarch for twenty-four hours, I’d level every gin palace with the dust….and in less than a month I’d produce a wise representation of a sober and thoughtful national mind.”

Tactics not principle determined O’Connor’s attitude in 1841.


[1] Brian Harrison Drink and the Victorians, London, 1971, revised edition Keele, 1994 is the seminal work on the nineteenth century temperance movement. His ‘Teetotal Chartism’, History, volume 58, June 1973 provides the basis for this section and is reprinted in S. Roberts (ed.) The People’s Charter, Merlin, 2003, pages 35-63.

[2] Joseph Kidd, “Temperance and Its Boundaries,” Contemporary Review, volume 34 (January 1879), page 353.

[3] Lilian Lewis Shiman, Crusade Against Drink in Victorian England, St. Martin’s Press, 1988, page 9.

[4] R. H. Gretton, A Modem History of the English People 1880-1922, London, 1930, page 641.

[5] F. M. L. Thompson, The Rise of Respectable Society, Cambridge, 1988, page 321.

[6] Philippa Levine, Victorian Feminism, Macmillan, 1987, page 133.

[7] Charles Graham, “Beer and the Temperance Problem,” Contemporary Review, 30 (June 1877), page 73.

[8] Peter Murray McDouall (1814-54) was a surgeon who became involved with Chartism in 1838. He edited one of the movement’s best periodicals McDouall’s Chartist and Republican Journal (1841). Imprisoned in 1839-40 and 1848-50, he died in Australia. Owen R. Ashton and Paul A. Pickering Friends of the People, Merlin, 2003, pages 7-29 contain a useful biography of McDouall as does J. O. Baylen and N. J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770 volume 2: 1830-1970, Brighton, 1984, pages 323-326.

[9] Northern Star, 30th April 1842.

[10] Brian Harrison and Patricia Hollis (eds.) Robert Lowery Radical and Chartist, London, 1979 contains an annotated selection from Lowery’s writings. Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 309-313 and J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume iv, 1977, pages 112-117 are shorter.

[11] Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 196.

[12] True Scotsman, 16th May 1840 quoted in Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 197.

[13] William Dorling Henry Vincent: A Biographical Sketch, London 1879 remains the only detailed study of his life. Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 519-522 and in J. Bellamy and J. Saville (eds.) Dictionary of Labour History, volume i, Macmillan, 1972, pages 326-334 are more recent.

[14] See biography in J. O. Baylen and N. J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770 volume 2: 1830-1970, Brighton, 1984, pages 367-369.

[15] Quoted in Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 198.

[16] Northern Star, 5th September 1840, quoted in Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 200.

[17] Letter to Lord Lyndhurst (?) quoted in Harrison ‘Teetotal Chartism’, page 200.

[18] Northern Star, 6th March 1841.

[19] O’Connor was not alone in this. Richard Cobden took a similar line with the Anti-Corn Law League.

[20] Northern Star, 3rd April 1841.

[21] Northern Star, 10th October 1846.

No comments: