Monday, 23 June 2008

Cultural reform 1830-60

By 1830 a clear distinction was apparent between the nature of much popular recreation and the dominant intellectual movements of the day -- rational liberalism and evangelicalism -- with their argument for a self-conscious and moralistic cultivation of respectability. This produced much of the impetus for reform. From the formation of the Proclamation Society in 1787, the campaign for reform gathered momentum. By the 1830s there were societies for preventing cruelty to animals, the Lord’s Day Observance Society (founded in 1831) and the British and Foreign Temperance Society. Parliamentary reform in 1832 gave such societies slightly more influence over Parliament and as the police force extended they gained the means to enforce legislation. Betting was an early and obvious target for reform but lotteries were not made illegal until 1823 and 1825 and further measures to discourage gambling had to wait until the 1840s and 1850s. Reform was not achieved easily, quickly or completely. Neither was it the prerogative, nor was it dictated by the interests, of any one social group. It traversed class boundaries, dividing all groups, especially the working-classes, internally.

Changing attitudes: some case studies

The emergence of ‘respectability’ as the defining characteristic of acceptable forms of behaviour was a major feature of the changed attitudes to traditional forms of social behaviour. This can be seen in the cases of cruelty to animals, temperance and the growing problem of drug addiction.

Cruelty to animals

The staging of contests between animals was still one of the most common and popular forms of recreation in England in the early nineteenth century.[1] Cock fighting was the normal feature at fairs and race meetings involving the mingling of all social groups, though only men, and accompanied by heavy betting and often local and regional rivalries. Hunting and hawking were widespread. Small children were notorious for amusing themselves in torturing living creatures but they were merely reflecting the standards of the adult world. This was largely what Keith Thomas calls ‘the cruelty of indifference’ as animals were outside the terms of their moral reference.

During the eighteenth century the feelings of animals became a matter of very great concern and led to agitation in the early nineteenth century culminating in the formation in 1824 of the Society (later Royal Society) for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the passage of legislation against cruelty to horses and cattle in 1822, to dogs in 1839 and 1854 and against animal baiting and cock-fighting in 1835 and 1849. There are various reasons why this changed occurred. There had long been a tradition that unnecessary cruelty to animals was wrong not because of any moral concern with animals but because of its brutalising effects on human character. It did not go unnoticed that the poisoner William Palmer hanged in 1856 had conducted cruel experiments on animals as a boy. In the early nineteenth century there was a move away from this point of view towards one that regarded cruelty to animals as morally wrong whether it had human consequences or not. At a less philosophical level animal sports were associated with noise, gambling and disorder. Hunting proved to be a more difficult issue and there is something in the contemporary argument that ‘in the long war against blood sports it was the most plebeian activities that were criminalised and those sports with gentry and upper-class support that survived.’


In the early nineteenth century ale, wine and spirits were cheap and consumed in large quantities. With the dangers of disease from untreated water it was natural for town-dwellers to rely increasingly on alcohol and on water that had been boiled with tea and coffee. People did not believe that local water would ever be safe to drink, as Chadwick’s inspectors found out from London slum-dwellers in the 1840s. The scarcity of drinking water even created the profession of water-carrier. There were alternatives to alcohol: milk, though this was considered a dangerous drink even when fresh; soda-water was not made commercially until 1790 and ginger-beer was not old in London until 1822. Tea had become a virtual necessity among the working-classes by 1830 and per capital coffee consumption increased faster than tea between 1820 and 1850. But alcohol was more than just a thirst-quencher; it was thought to impart physical stamina, extra energy and confidence. Agricultural labourers, for example, believed that it was impossible to get in the harvest without their ‘harvest beer’. Alcohol was regarded as a painkiller: it assisted dentists and surgeons before the use of anaesthetics, quietened babies and gave protection against infection. It also relieved psychological strain, moderating the sense of social isolation and gloom, and enhanced festivity; drinking places provided a focus for the community.

Before 1800 drinking was not rigidly segregated by rank. Squires, for instance, often drank with their social inferiors. However, by 1830 a measure of social segregation had developed and by 1860 no respectable urban Englishman entered an ordinary public house. Private, as opposed to public, drinking was becoming the mark of respectability. Drinking was also a predominantly male preserve and encouraged men to enjoy better living standards than their wives. On paydays drinking houses were often besieged by wives anxious to get money to feed and clothe their children before it was drunk away.

The drinks trade comprised a large complex of different interests. Of particular importance was the powerful landed interest that helps to explain the regional variations in support for the temperance movement. The barley crop was most important to farmers and without the distillers’ demands for poor-quality grain, lighting lands in Scotland and Ireland might not have been cultivated. Politically the drinks trade drew its prestige from the reliance government placed on drink taxes for national revenue. Attitudes to alcohol were deeply ingrained in British society. Abandoning drinking was, for the working-classes, more than simply not going to public houses. It isolated workers from much popular culture and from a whole complex of recreational activities.

The Reformation Societies that emerged in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were enthusiastic about temperance but the main platform of their movement was the suppression of vice. The temperance movement that emerged in the 1830s differed from them in its concentration on the single issue of spirits, their belief in total abstinence and their repudiation until after 1850 of legislative support. The anti-spirits movement that developed in the 1830s was not a planned movement, at least initially, and arose independently at the same time in different places. Why did it develop? It was one of several attempts to propagate a middle-class style of life and arose at a time when drunkenness was already becoming unfashionable. Sobriety received the support of influential groups. Medical opinion, since the 1790s, had increasingly attacked its physical and psychological effects. Evangelicals saw excessive drinking as a sin. Radicals attacked alcohol for its effects on the standard of living of the working-classes and coffee trades wished to popularise their product. The movement would not have made such an impact in the 1830s without the techniques of agitation and mass persuasion used by evangelical humanitarians, especially the anti-slavery campaign. Though any clear link between industrialisation and temperance is difficult to establish, the earliest anti-spirits societies originated in textile manufacturing areas in Ulster and Glasgow and spread to England though the textile centres of Preston, Leeds and Bradford. Some employers welcomed the more reliable workforce that temperance encouraged. Money not spent on drink could, of course, be spent on home-produced goods and some industrialists welcomed the movement as a means of accelerating economic growth and educating people on where to spend their wages.

Throughout the 1830s and 1840s a debate within the temperance movement raged between those whose attack was focused on spirits while advocating moderation elsewhere and those who believed in total abstinence. But while these approaches gained support among those sections of the working population for whom respectability was an objective, the appeal of temperance and abstinence from alcohol was of more limited appeal for the poor, for whom it still provided temporary escape.[2]

The ‘opium eaters’

The importance and impact of drug taking across social boundaries in the nineteenth century has only recently become a subject of serious historical study.[3] Opium or opiate compounds were used widely in the first half of the nineteenth century and, though the main features of addiction and withdrawal had been known since the 1750s, most doctors still thought of opium not as dangerous or threatening but central to effective medicine. Until Pharmacy Act 1868 opium was on open sale and could be bought in any grocer’s or druggist’s shop. Regular ‘opium eaters’ were accepted in their communities and rarely the subject of medical attention. They were certainly not seen as ‘sick’, deviant or diseased as they were to be by 1900. Lack of access to orthodox medical care, the suspicion of the medical profession and positive hostility to professional medical treatment ensured the position opium held in popular culture as a major form of self-medication. Society generally used opium for sleeplessness, headache or depression and these shaded imperceptibly into non-medical or ‘recreational’ uses.

Opium consumption was particularly high in the Fens in the nineteenth century and, according to an analysis made in 1862, more opium was sold in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and Manchester than in other parts of the country. The Fens were an unhealthy, marshy area where medical assistance, especially for the poor, was severely limited and where many of the working-classes were prone to ague, rheumatism and neuralgia. The habit was limited to the low-lying areas centring on the Isle of Ely and south Lincolnshire.[4] The largest consumers were the labourers who came from the outlying fens rather than village or town dwellers. Why was opium of such importance in the Fens? There was a tradition of self-medication with opium being used to treat both people and animals. The introduction of new methods of exploiting the land resulted in declining standards of child care and an increasing in the doping of young babies with opiates: infant mortality in Wisbech was 206 per thousand in the 1850s, higher than urban centres like Sheffield. Doping young babies was essential as women could be away from home for long periods of time working on the itinerant ‘gangs’ that became a more source of employment after 1830. Opiates may have been used to dispose of unwanted children, though this was not peculiar to the Fens. Opium could be used as an escape from the perceived reduction of status for the agricultural labourer that resulted from enclosure and drainage. Certainly use for euphoric purposes was not uncommon in the Fens. Dr Rayleigh Vicars wrote in the 1890s that ‘their colourless lives are temporarily brightened by the passing dreamland vision afforded them by the baneful poppy’. It is very difficult to estimate the effect opiate use had in the Fens though there may be a connection between it and the high general death rate. In the 1850s it stood at 22 per thousand in southern Lincolnshire, a figure as high as the environmentally less agreeable industrial areas of Huddersfield and Keighley in Yorkshire.

Reaction to opium eating in the fens, with its population apparently able to control and moderate its consumption was markedly different from the concern expressed about the urban problem. The ‘stimulant’ use of drugs by the urban working-classes was perceived as a threat to public order in a way that did not apply in the Fens. This is indicative of the way in which views of opiate use were coloured by the social and class setting. The use of opium for child doping was attacked in the 1830s. Behind this was a desire to remould popular culture into a more acceptable form and a critique of the basic pattern of child rearing by the working-classes. Using opium as a scapegoat led to criticism of its use being diverted away from the realities of the urban environment to the individual failings of working mothers. The uses of opium by adults and for children in the rest of society went unremarked or were viewed more tolerantly. The writings of Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both frequent users, attracted a great deal of attention after 1830 and by drawing attention to the habit may have led to a gradual change towards a harsher, more restrictive attitude.


These three examples of changing attitudes to popular culture illustrate the importance of pressure, either voluntary or through legislation, to control and modify aspects of people’s lives. To those, from all sections of society, who argued for change the issue was one of improving the quality of economic and social life, enhancing respectable attitudes and removing potential tensions and disorder. To those affected, reform attacked what they maintained was their traditional right to enjoy themselves and to escape -- if momentarily -- from their social conditions.

[1] H. Ritvo The Animal Estate, Penguin, 1990 and B. Harrison ‘Animals and the State in Nineteenth Century England’ in his Peaceable  Kingdoms:  Stability and Change in Modern Britain, OUP, 1982 on cruelty to animals.

[2] B. Harrison Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815-1872, Faber, 1971, revised edition Keele U.P., 1994 and W.R. Lambert Drink and Sobriety in Victorian Wales, University of Wales Press, 1984 provide the best analysis on the issue of temperance and take the story forward into the second half of the nineteenth century.

[3] See in particular V. Berridge and G. Edwards Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth Century England, Yale, 1987.

[4] High opium consumption may have characterised areas like this: there is evidence, for instance, of similar practices among the poor in the Romney Marshes in Kent.

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