Temperance Society

Temperance Society

In 1832 Joseph Livesey and seven Preston workingmen signed a pledge that they would never again drink alcohol. Other groups of working men followed the example of Livesey and his friends and by 1835 the British Association for the Promotion of Temperance was formed.

At first temperance usually involved a promise not to drink spirits and members continued to consume wine and beer. However, by the 1840s temperance societies began advocating teetotalism. This was a much stronger position as it not only included a pledge to abstain from all alcohol for life but also a promise not to provide it to others.

The artist, George Cruikshank, whose own father, Isaac Cruikshank, had died of alcoholism, played an important role in helping in persuading people to join the movement by producing a series of books on the subject: this included The Bottle (1847), The Drunkard's Children (1848) and The Worship of Bacchus (1862).

One of the most important figures in the temperance movement was the Catholic priest, Theobald Matthew, who persuaded thousands of people in Ireland to sign the pledge. Members of the British Women's Temperance Association were also responsible for persuading men to promise never again to drink alcohol. The Band of Hope, a temperance organisation for working class children that had been founded in Leeds in 1847, also helped to increase the number of teetotalers.

Quakers and members of the Salvation Army also played an active role in trying to persuade the House of Commons to pass legislation to restrict the sale of alcohol. In some parts of Britain public houses were forced to close on Sundays and permission was rarely granted to allow new ones to open. The National Temperance Federation that was formed in 1884 became closely associated with the Liberal Party, whereas the Conservative Party tended to support the interests of the drink trade.

Nonconformists were very active in the temperance movement. By the 1870s most of the young ministers abstained from alcohol. A survey in 1886 of 1,900 Baptist ministers revealed that 1,000 were total abstainers. Another study during that period showed that 2,500 out of 3,000 Congregational ministers had signed the pledge. It has been estimated that by 1900 about a tenth of the adult population were total abstainers of alcohol.

George Cruikshank, Life in London (1821)
George Cruikshank, Life in London (1821)

Primary Sources

(1) As a child Philip Snowden signed the pledge that he would never drink alcohol.

The vicar of the parish was the Reverend George Bayldon. He was the vicar of the parish for forty years. The only active part he took in the life of the village was in connection with the Temperance Movement. He was the man to whom the boys went when they wanted "to sign teetotal". Mr. Bayldon was the only person in the village who took a daily newspaper, and when the boys wanted paper for their kites it was to Mr. Bayldon they went on the pretext of signing teetotal, but really to beg for old newspapers.

(2) In an article published in The Morning Chronicle in 1849, Angus Reach described gin shops and beer-houses in Manchester.

On Saturday night the gin shops are in full feather - their swinging doors never hang a moment still. Itinerant bands bang and blow their loudest; organ boys grind monotonously; ballad singers or flying stationers make roaring proclamations of their wares.

The street is one swarming buzzing mass of people. Boys and girls shout and laugh, and disappear into the taverns together. In a beer-house in Charter Street a number of barefooted boys were drinking. The rattle of dominoes were heard on every side: the yellow dips which lighted the room burned with a sickly flicker amid the drafts and the thick tobacco smoke.

(3) In How the Poor Live George Sims explained why he was a supporter of the Temperance Society (1889)

Drink is the curse of these communities; but how is it to be wondered at? The gin-palaces flourish in the slums, and fortunes are made out of men and women who seldom know where tomorrow's meal is coming from.

Can you wonder that the gaudy gin-palaces, with their light and their glitter, are crowded? Drink is sustenance to those people; drink gives them the Dutch courage necessary to go on living; drink dulls their senses and reduces them to the level of the brutes they must be to live in such places.

The gin-palace is heaven to them compared to the hell of their pestilent homes. A copper or two, often obtained by pawning the last rag that covers the shivering children on the bare floor at home, will buy enough alcohol to send a woman so besotted that the wretchedness, the anguish, the degradation that await her there have lost their grip. The drink dulls every sense of shame, takes the sharp edge from sorrow, and leaves the drinker for awhile in a fools' paradise.

It is not only crime and vice and disorder flourish luxuriantly in these colonies, through the dirt and discomfort bred of intemperance of the inhabitants, but the effect upon the children is terrible. The offspring of drunken fathers and mothers inherit not only a tendency to vice, but they come into the world physically and mentally unfit to conquer in life's battle. The wretched, stunted, misshapen child-object one comes upon in these localities is the most painful part of our explorers' experience. The country asylums are crowded with pauper idiots and lunatics, who owe their wretched condition of the sin of the parents, and the rates are heavily burdened with the maintenance of the idiot offspring of drunkenness.

(4) George Sims, Horrible London (1889)

More than one-fourth of the daily earnings of the citizens of the slums goes over the bars of the public-houses and gin-places. On a Saturday night, butchers, bakers, greengrocers, clothiers, furniture dealers, all the caterers for the wants of the populace, are open till a late hour; there are hundreds of them trading around and about, but the whole lot do not take as much money as three publicans - that is a fact ghastly enough in all conscience. Enter the public-houses, and you will see them crammed. Here are artisans and labourers drinking away the wages that ought to clothe their little ones. Here are the women squandering the money that would purchase food, for the lack of which the children are dying.

The time to see the result of a Saturday night's heavy drinking in a low neighbourhood is after the houses are closed. Then you meet dozens of poor wretches reeling home to their miserable dens; some of them roll across the roadway and fall, cutting themselves till the blood flows. Every penny in some instances has gone in drink.

All honour to the brave temperance workers who have already done so much to diminish the evil. In this district such men are labouring night and day. No one now disputes the good which temperance can accomplish. It will strengthen the hands of those who are trying to wean the thriftless poor from drink, if we give the people better homes and enforce sanitary laws.

The temperance advocates have accomplished much - they will accomplish more; but if they wish to check the evil in its hotbed, they must be among the strongest advocates of the proper housing of the poor. To say, because a certain proportion of the poor are drunkards, it is useless to try and improve the social conditions of the masses, is like refusing to send the lifeboat to a sinking ship because half the crew are already known to be drowned.

(5) In 1891 Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence began work as a social worker in a working-class area of London. She wrote about her experiences in her book My Part in a Changing World.

Drunkenness was extremely common… It seemed for many the only refuge from depression and misery. The effect of drunkenness upon the ordinary relationship of husband and wife, parents and children, was disastrous. There was a woman whose husband used to knock her about badly when in drink. But he went to the Mission Hall in the district, was converted and signed the pledge. All went well for some time until she again turned up with several bruises. "Oh, Mrs. Smith, has your husband taken to drink again?" She replied: "Oh, no, that was another lady what done that! Since my husband went to the Misson Hall, he ain't like a husband at all - he is more like a friend!"

There was a particular point of view with regard to wife-beating. A friend of mine was once walking along the street and she passed a woman with a black eye. At the same time two other women passed, and one of them remarked: "Well, all I can say is, she is a lucky woman to have a husband to take that trouble with her." Another woman who had gone through a similar experience remarked: "Well, it ain't pleasant to be knocked about, but the making-up is lovely."

(6) Nancy Astor, maiden speech in the House of Commons (1919)

I do not want you to look on your lady Member as a fanatic or lunatic. I am simply trying to speak for hundreds of women and children throughout the country who cannot speak for themselves. I want to tell you .that I do know the working man. and I know that, if you tell him the truth about drink, he would be as willing as anybody else to put up with these vexatious restrictions.

(7) Philip Snowden, An Autobiography (1934)

Under capitalism it was greatly to the benefit of the individual to spend his wages on useful things instead of upon drink, though temperance alone would not touch the rot causes of low wages and poverty. The way I put the case in after years, when I often publicly discussed this question, was that drink is an aggravation of every social evil, and, in a great many cases, the prime cause of industrial misery and degradation. The economic waste of expenditure on drink lowers the standard of living and reduces a great many families to destitution, who, if their incomes were usefully spent, would enjoy a reasonable degree of comfort. Universal temperance would undoubtedly bring incalculable benefits and blessings, but so long as the social system is based upon exploitation the mass of the people will remain comparatively poor.