On Temperance

Way back in the 19th century, the Temperance movement was one of the biggest and most influential of the many groups aiming to improve the mess that the industrial nation had become, with filthy, crowded cities and a population out of control.

People advocating temperance often seem to be rather miserable, after all, where’s the harm in a few drinks? Well, the problem was far more than that. In 1850, the Board of Trade claimed that Britain’s expenditure on alcohol and tobacco was over £59,000,000, and in families where the breadwinner earned at least 10 shillings per week, up to half  was spent in this way. Given the miserable living conditions most of these men had to go home to, it is no surprise they chose to detour via the gin palace or the pub, but this meant that their families were, quite literally, starving.

Not only this, the amount of grain that was used in producing alcoholic beverages was huge – it amounted to over a million acres for grain and a further 50,000 for hops. This is larger than the county of Somerset, one of England’s larger counties, if every inch of it was under cultivation. These figures are known, as the alcohol trade had to pay taxes. According to Daniel Defoe, England had not been self sufficient in grain since the early 18th century, so this means a massive importation, with the resultant costs.

Authors at the time complained of this waste – if such an area of land had been flooded or caught fire, it would have been deemed a huge disaster, yet this ‘waste’ was actually part of the economy, which created jobs whilst causing massive problems elsewhere.  Some counter claimed that the production of alcoholic beverages actually brought more land under the plough, but if so, why the ongoing importation of grain?

In the 18th century, these problems were known, as whenever there was a war, there was a ban on the export of grain, and a ban on brewing and distilling to preserve food stocks, as well as urging people not to make unnecessary travel, as the horses also needed extra feeding. In fact, when such bans were brought in you can tell from the papers that ether a famine or a war was on the cards.

“Colquhuon, in his work on the police of the metropolis, says that in the year 1796 and 1797, when the distilleries were stopped, although provisions were at a very high rate, the poorer classes in the metropolis were more comfortable, paid their rents more regularly, and were better fed than they had been fro several years before. the pawnbokers’ shops were less frequented, and the cases of assaults had greatly diminished. there could be no cause for this, but the one, that as the people could not gratify their love of gin, they had the money to spend on necessities.

The same facts are proved by the history of Ireland. In 1809 and 1810, distillation was stopped and there was immediately a large increases in the importation of drapery, cotton goods, haberdashery, earthenware, hardware and tea.”

I love this last item, as the image of Irish working men developing an interest in soft furnishings instead of getting drunk is a very appealing one. But these statistics are interesting.

Alcoholic beverages can thus be shown to have been a source of evil in the community,  but strangely one author compares it with the purchase of luxury goods such as works of art which I would have put into the same category, but he claims they promote industry, as people would save to be able to purchase a work of art for their home, so they almost become essential items.

These arguments are an interesting insight to the turbulent years of the mid 19th century in Britain, when the Crimean War was costing £1m per week, and harvests were falling – it must have been in part due to the men being sent abroad. The arguments against drinking were made without reference to the religious arguments, but claims that alcohol consumption is purely evil is pure nonsense.

There is a socialist saying about give me bread but give me chocolate, and this is a big part of why so many socialist societies have failed. There are loads of people who are happy in the midst of immense distress and deprivation, and there are plenty of people who are well fed but miserable.

And whilst on this, I would like to debunk a myth that keeps cropping up that people in the past were, due  to them drinking booze rather than water – constantly drunk. Nonsense! How  could they or society function in that state? Many many jobs required a clear head – riding horses, building, fishing, farming etc etc. so being drunk was not a good idea. Also, how alcoholic were these drinks? Small beer is said to have been only abut 2% alcohol, which these days is not really worth recording. But the big thing is that alcohol is a good source of fast energy; anyone working hard, especially in  a cold climate, would burn it off soon enough. People had no central heating, they mostly walked everywhere, and most did hard manual work: they needed energy.

Back when I was a medical student, and terrifyingly fit, I once got through a whole gallon of port at a ball – I was leaping about all night, don’t think I missed a dance. I am pretty sure I was still rather happy at the end of it, but that was a huge consumption for someone who was at the time a rare drinker.

As the song goes, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, as Ella Fitzgerald says, eventually….


7 thoughts on “On Temperance

  1. I once read a lot of John Wesley’s letters and instructions to the early Methodist groups and bands, and they sounded remarkably like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings – the mutual support to quit, the confidentiality preserved by the group, and the discussion around why they had taken to alcohol and the moral encouragement not to give up over one slip. There seems to have been a lot of genuine alcoholism in the 18th century because cheap and strong gin suddenly became available and was drunk instead of the more modestly alcoholic beer.


    • all true, and i think gin became the drink of choice as it was made from sugar ins tead of graiins, but Wesley was primarily working with the poor – he began in Bristol with soup kitchens and went into areas where the established church couldn’t be bothered as there was no money for them. He set up churches in Kingswood, an area famous for poor miners coming to bristol to riot, when they weren’t wrecking turnpikes – they were the ones who made it a criminal offence, so he was – I think – coming primarily from the same place, that of poor people starving because of it.

      also, without decent heath care, there were a lot of people in pain, which alcohol is supposed to numb. And from my own experience, living in crowded conditions and not getting enough sleep can send you seriously in need of relief of some sort

      A few years back there was a serial killer in the states who claimed he killed in order to be executed for the crimes as he suffered badly from toothache, but was too afraid to kill himself.


  2. I think Britain was inefficient in how it used its land all the way up to the World Wars, which then saw a revolution in how land was used.


    • Just think of all the grand estates that had displaced working villages. but there is also a problem with the gap between town and country, only partly being bridged by allotments. In much of Europe people still have links. I used to visit friends in germany who lived in a tiny village where most grew their own food & kept animals, but caught the train to the city to work. makes far more sense.


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