Saturday, 11 February 2012

Popular Culture: Case Study 2: Temperance

In the early-nineteenth century ale, wine and spirits were cheap and consumed in large quantities. [1] 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 sold in London until 1822. Tea [2] had become a virtual necessity among the working-classes by 1830 and per capital coffee consumption increased faster than tea between 1820 and 1850. [3] 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. [4]

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. [5] 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. [6] 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. [7] 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. [8] 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. [9]


[1] Burnett, John, Liquid pleasures: a social history of drinks in modern Britain, (Routledge), 1999, provides an excellent overview.

[2] Fromer, Julie E., A necessary luxury: tea in Victorian England, (Ohio University Press), 2008, and the broader Griffiths, John, Tea: the drink that changed the world, (André Deutsch), 2007.

[3] Bramah, Edward, Tea and coffee: a modern view of three hundred years of tradition, (Hutchinson), 1972.

[4] Holt, Mack P., (ed.), Alcohol: a social and cultural history, (Berg), 2006 provides an overview.

[5] Jennings, Paul, The local: a history of the English pub, (Tempus), 2007, Haydon, Peter, The English pub: a history, (Hale), 1994, and Kneale, James, ‘‘A problem of supervision’: moral geographies of the nineteenth-century British public house’, Journal of Historical Geography, Vol. 25, (1999), pp. 333-348.

[6] Gourvish, T. R., and Wilson, R. G., The British brewing industry, 1830-1980, (Cambridge University Press), 1994.

[7] Greenaway, J. R., Drink and British politics since 1830: a study in policy-making, (Palgrave Macmillan), 2003, and Nicholls, James, The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drinks Question in England, (Manchester University Press), 2009

[8] Ibid, Harrison, B., Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815-1872, and ibid, Lambert, W. R., Drink and Sobriety in Victorian Wales, provide the best analysis on the issue of temperance and take the story forward into the second half of the nineteenth century.

[9] Kidd, Joseph, ‘Temperance and Its Boundaries,’ Contemporary Review, Vol. 34, (1879), p. 353.

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