Dispiriting England

Drink and the Victorians:
May 12, 1995

In 1864 George Cruikshank published a steel engraving 45 inches by inches entitled "The Worship of Bacchus or The Drinking Customs of Society - Showing how Universally the Intoxicating Liquors are used upon Every Occasion in Life from the Cradle to the Grave''. It consisted of dozens of vignettes and hundreds of tiny figures illustrating the way in which every stage of life and every rite of passage among all classes of the British people was accompanied by the consumption of alcohol. It could well serve as a frontispiece to the welcome new edition of Brian Harrison's solid work on the Victorian temperance movement. This a real second edition, with the bibliography up-dated in a new introduction and many infelicities of style and presentation trimmed. It is difficult to compare it with the original edition since pages and footnotes have been reorganised - in some cases rather confusingly - but it is clear that the qualities of the first edition are retained in all essentials. The brilliant essay with which it opens on "Drink and English Society in the 1820's'' remains one of the outstanding pieces of British social history to have been written in the past quarter of a century.

This is a book that has been in constant use among social historians since it appeared, and its reissue raises the question of why so little has been done to follow up the many important questions that it raised. Economic historians have provided accounts of the brewing and distilling industries, and the phenomenon of the short-lived but intense Irish temperance movement under Father Matthew has had its modern historian, but there is to my knowledge only one study which attempts a more detailed account of the interaction of alcoholic drink with other aspects of social experience, that of W. R. Lambert in his study of South Wales.

Perhaps, just as his study of the anti-suffrage women upset and annoyed many feminist historians, so the sympathetic treatment of anti-drink crusades has touched some sore spots among social historians. The pub and the ale house, past and present, are after all dear to the hearts of most modern social historians. If there is anywhere a tendency to embrace the "heritage'' heresy and to indulge in a slightly unfocused and hazily sentimental picture of past popular recreations, it is to be found in what has sometimes been called the Newcastle Brown Ale school of social history and more generally on the subject of pubs and of booze. Not that there is not plenty of reason for labour historians and the historians of popular culture to be a bit defensive on the subject of the temperance question. The inn and the ale house were not only drinking places, they were one of the few areas of public space to which the lower orders had access and over which they had some control. Early trade unions, friendly societies, dissenting religious groups and radical clubs owed their existence in the 18th and early 19th centuries largely to the opaque culture of the ale house and, after 1830, the beer shop. Games and sports, folk and traditional music and theatre and the language and customs of trades and of districts were nourished and preserved there. To modern researchers as well as to many contemporaries, the anti-drink movement could often be seen as the interference by moralistic do-gooders of the narrow Whiggish variety. In his study of the Leeds middle class, R. J. Morris divided the Victorian voluntary societies into "patronage'' and "membership'' organisations. Most of the temperance societies which survive for any length of time belonged to the former category, and might indeed have been seen as attempts to marginalise or even criminalise some of the few autonomous recreations of the working people.

Temperance, however, as Harrison shows here and in other works, was never a simple attempt at the control of the mores of the common people by a moralising middle class. Abstention from alcohol, or at least from spirits and the heavy drinking associated with many trades was urged and practised by reformers and radicals of many kinds. The anti-government tactic of abstention from excisable articles which had led Foxites to abjure hair-powder inspired the Chartists after the rejection of the 1839 petition to propose abstention from liquor and tobacco. Many autobiographies of leaders of the labour movement as well as of nonconformist preachers and clergy record the take-off of their careers as starting from the deliberate rejection of the waste of time and money represented by customary drinking habits. They risked being accused of sacrilege by Christians and of risking their life and health by believers in the medicinal power of alcohol.

The main substance of Harrison's study is the campaign to limit the sale and consumption of alcohol by law. He gives a detailed account of the programmes and campaigns organised by a variety of bodies, some working for temperance and moderation, others for the complete abolition of the liquor trade. There were tensions at the heart of the movement, including the insoluble contradiction between the doctrines of free trade and the need to restrict the market in drink. One of the book's great virtues is the way in which it illustrates the interaction between social attitudes and political actions, underlining, as it insists, the mistake of arbitrarily separating "social'' from "political'' history. The temperance organisations and the political campaigns are meticulously recorded.

Given the continuing concern with social history, it is, as I have said, surprising how little work has been done on the more complex aspects of the drink question. Even more surprising is how few writers of women's history have picked up the suggestions which Harrison made all these years ago as to the importance of the temperance question to women. The new edition contains a separate index heading for "women'', but most of the entries under it are for material that was already in the original. The different responses of the genders to issues involving drink may help in the examination of a number of questions relating to the family in the later 19th century, the curious absence, for example, of a female presence among the leaders and organisers of the local working-class self-help organisations which characterised the years 1850 to 1880. The Band of Hope and the Mothers' Unions and the proliferating working men's clubs may here have provided mutually exclusive recreational spaces for the women, children and men of the better-paid working-class families. There is a constant danger of economic reductionism in looking at patterns of behaviour, a danger from which Harrison does not always escape. The ascription of heavy drinking to the lower labouring orders, as opposed to the more enlightened and sober skilled workmen does not, as Peter Bailey reminds us, work. The real Bill Banks is more elusive, and as the century progressed domestic and recreational patterns could divide men within occupations, trades and localities. They could also cause divisions within families and must form an important element in recovering the history of the family in the 19th century.

Dorothy Thompson is the author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power.

Drink and the Victorians:: The Temperance Question in England 1815-72

Author - Brian Harrison
ISBN - 1 85331 046 8
Publisher - Keele University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 521pp

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments