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The Temperance Movement in Victorian Britain

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.

George Burgess 1829-1905

George Burgess 1829-1905

Issues of Drink in Victorian Britain

Influenced by American Society

George Burgess (1829-1905), my great-great grandfather, a Bristolian who visited America three times in his youth, became influenced by American society and became a teetotaller from the young age of 21.

A principle he held firm all his life and which he often wrote about in his diary; as in this extract below:-

"About the year 1850, in America, I examined and then adopted the principles of Total Abstinence from all intoxicating drinks."

Also, while he was in America George Burgess starts to collect newspaper articles on subjects of interest him, including Temperance; and when he returned to England in 1857 he continues collecting newspaper articles and sticking them into his Victorian Scrapbook which ended up being a collection of over 500 Victorian Era Newspaper Articles.

George Burgess was born in Staple Hill, Bristol in 1829. He left school at 14 and at 16 went to Baltimore, Maryland, America with his brother-in-law (George Sperring) to continue their apprenticeship in stone cutting. George Sperring died there and was buried in Baltimore but George Burgess continued and finished his Apprenticeship in Marble Works in Philadelphia, America, returning to England in 1857.

However, while in America he also learned about Phrenology and in 1861 started his own business in the Arcades in Bristol as a Phrenologist which he successfully ran until his retirement in 1901.

The Victorian Era newspaper articles below on Temperance (from England and America) are just a few samples from his Victorian Scrapbook on this subject.

Bolton Temperance Bar

The Victorian Temperance Movement

Bolton, in Greater Manchester, North West England was during the Victorian period an important industrial town producing textiles in its mills with cotton imported from American.

I took the photo (below) of the Bolton temperance wagon while on holiday in northern England to visit Beamish.

Beamish is a large open air living museum of past British society and culture, which takes a good two days to fully explore; getting around the site by hopping on and off of the free Edwardian public transport e.g. trams and buses.

The open air living museum, divided into time periods includes houses, villages, schools and farms; all fully furnished and with period livestock covering British life in Northern England from the Georgian era to the Victorian and Edwardian period.

Temperance was a popular movement in Victorian Britain; at least it was popular with those who didn't drink e.g. the wives of their drunken husbands.

Bolton Temperance Bar (photographed at Beamish)

Bolton Temperance Bar (photographed at Beamish)

British and American Newspaper Article on Temperance

Below are three Temperance newspaper articles published in Britain and America.

How A Distillery was stopped in Scotland by the Scottish Temperance League

How A Distillery was stopped in Scotland by the Scottish Temperance League

A Temperance Family in Massachusetts (humorous article entitled 'Drinks All Round')

A Temperance Family in Massachusetts (humorous article entitled 'Drinks All Round')

British 1851 Census on the Mortality of persons engaged in the liquor traffic.

British 1851 Census on the Mortality of persons engaged in the liquor traffic.

Stats on Mortality Linked to Drink in the 1851 British Census

The above article is interesting as it quite clearly (and not surprisingly) shows a clear link between mortality and drink in Victorian Britain.

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The newspaper article is based on data collected from official records, including the 1851 census, and therefore a reliable source.

It shows that at the time (for all age groups) those working within the liquor trade (at all ages) had a significantly higher mortality rate to the rest of the population in general. For example: -

  • The mortality rate for all classes in the 25 age group was 0.948%, while mortality for those working in the liquor trade, in the same age group was 1.383.

These statistics are not surprising in that ever since the beginning of the industrial revelation: -

  • Working conditions and social living conditions for the poor were very harsh.
  • Working conditions, and life in general were so harsh that wage earning men often spent their meagre earnings on alcohol as a form of escapism from reality, rather than use their money to feed their wives and children, and
  • Beer was commonly drunk instead of water because in those days sanitation was poor and drinking water often carried disease.

Impact of Health and Social Reforms on Drink

Although Temperance movements started as early as the 1820s in America and England, It was not until the latter half of the 19th century, when there was a greater public awareness and better understanding of the dangers of excessive drinking, that attitudes towards drink really began to significantly change.

Also, from the latter half of the 19th century right through to the 20th century, with social reforms and better working conditions, people’s health and lives were continuingly improving; removing the stresses that drove many people to drink.

The first major step towards improving pubic heath in Britain, through the construction of sewers, amongst other provisions, was the 1848 Public Health Act; most of London was connected to the sewers by 1866. This Act was followed up by the 1875 Public Health Act that required all new residential construction to include running water and an internal drainage system.

The Victorians were great engineers; not only did they build a comprehensive railway network across the whole of Britain, and the London underground (both of which are still in full operation to this day) but within just a few decades they had just about every home in Britain connected to a fresh water supply and sewage system.

In fact (like the railways) the Victorian sewers were so well designed and built that they remain in use to this day.

The social reforms included significantly better working conditions and pay, all of which along with better health and education helped to reduce poverty and deprivation; and by doing so reduce the need to squander meagre wages on drink as escapism.

Divergence of Temperance in USA and UK

While America introduce Prohibition from 1920 until 1933, and to this day has a minimum drinking age of 21; Britain took a less stern approach at that time, and today (apart from strict drink/drive laws) British laws on drink is far more relaxed.

In Britain children from the age of 5 can legally drink on private premises; this is based on the custom to allow a child to have a small glass of wine at the dinner table on special occasions e.g. Christmas and Easter etc.

Also in Britain, a person from the age of 16 can legally drink beer, wine or cider in public, provided it’s with a meal and provided an adult of 18 or over buys the drink for them.

The minimum age an adult can buy alcohol in Britain is 18.

Whose Drinking Age Is Better U S vs UK!

Further Reading

Reference can be found to the 'National Temperance' under Evangelical Chairities on the Victorian Web

Pastor Brandy Wine

Humorous Poem on Temperance by George Burgess

Below is one of several poems by my great-great grandfather on Temperance. This poem was written by him in 1875.


Main Source for the Victorian Newspapers

Free to View online

Below is a link to over 500 Victorian newspaper articles saved by my great-great grandfather in his scrapbook, including several on Temperance; originals and Transcripts .

Your Votes on Temperance

Factual vs Humour

Whether you like a sipple or not; how do you think is the best way to get the message across on Temperance; factual reporting or humour.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ

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