On the evening of 20th March 2020, last orders were called in the pubs, bars, taverns, taprooms, gin palaces, speakeasies and every other type of boozer across the country in an attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19. For many patrons of the public house, this news was received with resigned acceptance. The days of accompanying Mr Orwell to The Moon Under Water to sample soft, creamy stouts served in pewter pots with a liver-sausage sandwich on the side are, alas, over. For the time being at any rate (well, until July 4th).
If, however, you had asked a member of Victorian Britain’s temperance movement what they thought about the pub closure, they probably would have said something along the lines of “About time too!”
The temperance movement in Great Britain has its roots in the country’s ‘Gin Craze’. The consumption of grain spirits, particularly the increasingly popular gin, saw a rapid increase during the first half of the 18th century. The extreme levels of drunkenness that followed, particularly amongst the poorest, elicited moral outrage from within the middle classes. Five separate acts were passed by parliament in an attempt to slow the flow of strong, cheap alcohol, and by 1757 the ‘Gin Craze’ had largely ended.
While the government deemed it appropriate to promote the respectable consumption of alcohol, particularly gin, there were others who saw encouraging moderation as a stepping stone to total abstinence. A new principal of teetotalism began to gain traction in the 1830s. From 1847 to 1855, there was a significant increase in the number of Bands of Hope, church groups of all denominations whose aim was to teach people, especially children, about the evils of drink. Later, these independent groups would become one cohesive organisation, the UK Band of Hope Union. Members of the Union were encouraged to “sign the pledge”, a promise to abstain from all alcoholic beverages. In 1887, the Union had a reported 1.5 million members which rose to more than 3 million during Queen Victoria’s jubilee year in 1897.
In the 1870s, the Church of England gave its official backing to the temperance cause. In a meeting at Lambeth Palace Library in February 1873, the Church of England Temperance Society, under the chairmanship of Archbishop Tait, was founded. By 1899, the Church of England Temperance Society had become a significant movement in its own right with 200,000 members across 7,000 branches.
Lambeth Palace Library holds collections for both the UK Band of Hope Union and the Church of England Temperance Society. Both organisations published a range of literature which included cautionary tales and guides to self improvement.
The image below, Temperance Pictorial Diagram no. 12. In the Laundry, 1893 [MV5443.U6] published by the UK Band of Hope Union, is one of 12 diagrams which accompanied a manual entitled Abstinence and Hard Work. Each diagram demonstrated how different jobs were better performed without the consumption of alcohol. “Of all the domestic operations in which women are employed, laundry-work is, perhaps, the most trying and fatiguing. The testimony of both the employers and the women is, that the work is best and most easily done without alcoholic liquor of any kind.”
While it is true that mixing manual work and intoxicants is best avoided, some workers were less willing to adopt this new way of thinking. For example, in Temperance Pictorial Diagram no. 4. Reapers, (see below) harvest workers were encouraged to drink oatmeal-and-water instead of their usual tipple of beer or cider. However, as stated in the Church of England Temperance Society’s Chronicle, “The great difficulty in the way of Temperance reform is the large amount of cider produced, and the facility with which it can be procured. Nearly all the farmers give cider as part payment for work done, and during the harvest-time the amount supplied is practically unlimited. The farmers are not always to blame; if they refuse to supply cider, the men either decline to work, or else procure a worse liquor from the public-house.”
By the 1930’s, the temperance movement had lost much of its initial fervour. According to Wayne Hall’s 2010 review of prohibition in the United States during the 1920s and early 30s, there probably was on balance a reduced consumption of alcohol per capita. However, this was coupled with an increase in organised crime and anti-social drinking habits. Each year of prohibition saw the movement loose support. The complete failure of prohibition in the United States put paid to any chance of the temperance lobby achieving prohibition in the UK. The temperance movement as a whole saw a decline in membership as more moderate members left due to an upsurge of more fundamentalist and nativist ideologies.
The Church of England Temperance Society suffered from a declining membership from its peak in 1899. Its inclusion of non-abstainers and refusal to abandon the use of wine during Holy Communion put it at odds with other factions within the temperance movement, most notably, the Methodist Church. The UK Band of Hope Union, now Hope UK, continues to educate young people on the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse.
Although the temperance movement has never regained the same influence it enjoyed during its Victorian heyday, abstinence from alcohol, especially amongst the young, has seen a noticeable increase in recent years thanks in no small part to the booming health and wellness industry. While most of us won’t be signing the pledge or ordering pints of oatmeal-and-water anytime soon, the records of these organisations demonstrates the influence that the temperance movement once had and remains a fascinating insight into this period of social history.
The Church of England Temperance Society, The Church of England Temperance Chronicle, Vol. 5, (London: 1877), .p. 114.
W. Hall, “What are the policy lessons of National Alcohol Prohibition in the United States, 1920-1933”, Addition, Vol. 105(7), (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), pp. 1164-1173.
R. Palmer, “Signing the Pledge”, Lambeth Palace Library: Treasures from the Collection of the Archbishops of Canterbury (London: Scala Publishers Ltd, 2010), pp. 158-159.