Monday, 7 July 2014

‘The Thirsty Sex’

This was, for instance, evident in increased levels drinking by women described in contemporary newspapers. Concerns about women drinking was not a new problem: ‘If a woman is out drinking all day long, the home is neglected’.[1] The problem appears, at least as far as the authorities were concerned, to have been exacerbated by the war. Although women probably accounted for between 25 and 30 per cent of all pub patrons in before 1914, most came from the working-classes. During the war, novel drinking habits began to emerge with an unprecedented increase in the number of upper working- and middle-class women who patronised pubs. The Aberdeen Journal reported: ‘Having more money in their hands than usual, there were only too many ready to help them to spend it in the wrong way.’ [2] In November, Carnarvon magistrates restricted the hours during which women could purchase alcohol.[3] The following year, Theophilus Simpson, a member of the county magistrates, expressed his shock in the Manchester Evening News at counting:

…26 women enter a licensed house in ten minutes, with 16 coming out who he had not seen enter…Some people said women have a right to spend their money as they liked; they might as well say that they had a right to sell themselves if they like.[4]

In 1916, the Liverpool Echo reported a debate of the Bootle Licensing Magistrates during which Captain Oversby said: ‘In the opinion of the committee, the great increase in the number of women visiting public-houses during the past year has demanded drastic treatment.’ A number of different measures were discussed to stop women visiting the public houses, including a refurbishment of all public houses: ‘All licensed houses to be provided with clear plate-glass windows; partitions, snugs and other obstacles likely to facilitate secret drinking, be done away.’ a member of the Flintshire Police Committee described women as ‘The Thirsty Sex’ two months before the war ended. [5] The scale of the problem, even if it applied to only a ‘small minority of the soldiers’ wives’, and its impact was made clear in a report produced by the Dundee Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1918: the number of women drinking in 1915 was reported to be 275 and 175 soldiers’ wives or 55 per cent; in 1916, the respective numbers were 260 and 172 or 66 per cent; and in 1917 263 and 189 or 71 per cent.

In many cases the Service allowance to soldiers’ wives was larger than the ordinary labouring man’s wide was accustomed to receive from her husband…the result [of drinking] was neglect of the children, and abandonment of parental responsibility, and not infrequently unfaithfulness to the husband at the front. [6]

In the early-twentieth century beer, wine and spirits were relatively cheap and consumed in large quantities.[7] In the outbreak of war, drink was one of the main political issues in Britain was and convictions for drunken behaviour regularly exceeded 200,000 per year.[8] Drinking places provided a focus for the community.[9] By 1830 a measure of social segregation had developed and by 1860 no respectable urban Englishman entered an ordinary public house.[10] Private, as opposed to public, drinking was becoming the mark of respectability. Drinking was also a predominantly male preserve and on paydays pubs were often besieged by wives anxious to get money to feed and clothe their children before it was drunk away.

Job opportunities in alcohol: A women brewer securing the lid of a barrel of beer

Growing control over licensed premises predated the war at least in part motivated by concerns about women drinking with calls for the government to take action to keep women out of bars, for publicans to stop serving them, and even for changes to the design of pubs, to discourage female drinkers.[11] The 1908 Licensing Bill, with the enthusiastic support of Lloyd George a long-time supporter of the temperance movement, sought to limit the number of licensed premises in each local authority area and one of its provisions included the banning of women from working behind the bar. Unlike the suffrage movement that called a truce for the duration of the war, temperance reformers saw it as a call to arms and there were immediate calls from some for the introduction of total prohibition. It was believed that military efficiency would be enhanced by abstinence. Many prominent public figure including King George V, Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener endorsed wartime pledge to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the war as a means through which the whole population, should they take the pledge, could contribute to the war effort. British teetotalism, therefore, was seen as a crucial weapon to be deployed against beer-drinking Germany. [12]

It was not uncommon for pubs to open between 5.00 am and midnight. At the end of August, the Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Act gave licensing authorities the power to curtail drinking hours. The legislation allowed pubs to be open for a maximum of six hours per day with a compulsory afternoon break but it was never applied universally. Rising concern about drink impeding the war effort prompted the government to commence a new policy of regulating selective areas through the Liquor Traffic Central Control Board (CCB). Created in May 1915, the CCB addressed insobriety with radical ideas that transformed virtually every aspect of drinking--from hours, liquor strengths and increasing alcohol taxes to retailing and social customs, for instance banning the buying of rounds (the ‘No Treating Order’) in 1915. Shorter, broken licensing hours ranked as one of the key changes.[13] Arrests for drunkenness, already down one-quarter in 1915, decreased another two-thirds over the next two years. Still weaker beer at comparably higher prices in 1918 cut drunkenness by almost a further two-fifths. When the war ended, arrests were less than one-fifth the level of 1914.[14] Between 1914 and 1916, although alcohol consumption had decreased by 17 per cent, actual expenditure had increased by 24 per cent but largely down to higher taxation.


Crispin Street, Stepney in c1916

The CCB protected women from discriminatory policies that some authorities had introduced in 1914 to banish women from licensed premises after 6 or 7pm. This appealed to a government that dreaded the revival of the pre-war violent strife with the women’s suffrage movement especially after the NUWSS reacted with outrage to at an attempt by the Chief Commissioner of Police in London to bar women from buying alcohol before 11.30 am. Concerns about female insobriety took second place to threats to public harmony. Despite the alarm expressed by local newspapers, there appears to have been a waning of the stigma attached to women drinking in public. Their large numbers, coupled with far fewer men drinkers and more women running pubs for husbands away at war, also helped to make the pub more respectable. This did not prevent affronted local magistrates seeking to divest women of newly-attained drinking rights, a process that accelerated in the final years of the war, as part of a strategy to restore pre-war gender segregation.

Hostility against women drinkers reflected a north-south divide. It was strongest in ports and industrial areas of northern England, regions most committed to preserving existing drinking habits. This was less the case in southern England where respectable women had traditionally found less opposition to drinking in pubs. The issue, like that of ‘Khaki fever’, was one of female independence—one social, the other sexual—and both threatened patriarchal authority. Drinking alcohol in pubs defied established norms and women were regarded as flagrantly challenging the gender status quo. Female drinkers, whether respectable or not, were seen—much as those campaigning for women’s suffrage before the war—as feckless, disorderly and unpatriotic and, consequently, not only unfit to use licensed premises but also unfit to have the vote.

[1] ‘Teignmouth Inn’, Western Times, 12 February 1914, p. 2. ‘A Plague Spot: Clarendon Hotel License Opposed’, Nottingham Evening Post, 9 March 1914, p. 5, ‘the landlord was charged with harbouring women of immoral character…The women were behaving in a more unbecoming manner, dancing ragtime and smoking as if they were men.’

[2] ‘Drinking among Wives of Soldiers’, Aberdeen Journal, 25 November 1914, p. 3. See also, ‘Drinking amongst Women’, Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough, 3 November 1914, p. 4, ‘Drinking and Women’, Manchester Evening Post, 7 November 1914, p. 2.

[3] ‘Women’s Drinking Hours’, Liverpool Echo, 18 November 1914, p. 8.

[4] ‘Soldiers’ Wives’, Manchester Evening News, 5 April 1915, p. 4, see also, ‘Manchester Morals’, Manchester Evening News, 11 December 1915, p. 5.

[5] ‘What Becomes of the Beer’, Sheffield Evening Telegraph, 5 September 1918, p. 2.

[6] ‘The Dundee Liquor Problem. The Care of the Soldier’s Wife’, Evening Telegraph and Post, 25 February 1918, p. 3.

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

[8] Nottingham Guardian, 2 May 1914. ‘The Flying Inn’, Nottingham Evening Post, 21 May 1914, p. 4, suggested that a ‘general diminution of drunkenness reported throughout the country…’

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

[10] 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.

[11] Donnachie, I., ‘World War I and the Drink Question: State Control of the Drink Trade’, Journal of the Scottish Labour History Society, Vol. 17, (1982), pp. 19-26, Gutzke, David W., ‘Gender, Class and Public Drinking in Britain during the First World War’, Histoire social/Social History, Vol. 27, (1994), pp. 367-391.

[12] Yeomans, Henry, ‘Discussion Paper: Providentialism, The Pledge and Victorian Hangovers: Investigating Moderate Alcohol Policy, 1914-1918’, Law, Crime and History, Vol. 1, (1), (2011), pp. 95-107.

[13] Carter, Henry, The Control of the Drink Trade: A Contribution to National Efficiency, 1915-17, (Longman, Green and Co.), 1918, pp. 136-148.

[14] Wilson, George B., Alcohol and the Nation: A Contribution to the Study of the Liquor Problem in the United Kingdom from 1800 to 1935, (Nicholson & Watson), 1940, pp. 432, 435-436. See also, Nicholls, James, The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England, (Manchester University Press), 2009.

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