Buy yourself a drink

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A well-known French judge visiting England was riding in a London tramcar, when the conductor approached him for his fare. It was twopence.

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The judge tendered sixpence in payment, and on receiving the change, the judge, who had a warm heart, presented twopence to the conductor saying: “Here, my man, get yourself a glass of beer.”

A clergyman sitting opposite interposed: “Excuse me, sir; but is it wise to encourage drinking? I have not touched a glass of beer for years.”

“Poor man,” exclaimed the judge, “take ze odder tuppence!”

The story

I copied that one verbatim from the 26 December 1903 edition of the Burnley Express. The paper ran a joke competition (five shillings to be won each week!), and this is one of the non-winners. We won’t bother with the winner as it’s a verse in broad Lancashire (“Aw’ve written some jooaks – a scooar or two…”) and is even less funny than the above.

In Victorian times, increasing prosperity and more efficient brewing methods turned alcohol into a major social problem. This led to a powerful temperance movement which crossed all social barriers – from evangelical Christians through middle class social reformers who hated the sight of children going hungry while their fathers spent their wages in pubs, all the way to socialists who believed the people would never claim their fair shares while the ruling class kept them stupefied by drink.

The mighty booze business hit back, portraying temperance campaigners as meddling killjoys and God-botherers. By 1914 the drink issue had split more or less along party lines, with brewers donating generously to the Conservative party, while those who had taken the pledge tended to support the Liberals. When the First World War came, Lloyd George famously proclaimed that Britain was fighting three enemies: “Germany, Austria and drink.”

The government imposed restrictions on opening hours, increased taxes (the average pint cost fourpence by 1915) and dramatically reduced the potency of beer. Ostensibly to conserve grain and ensure workers and soldiers turned up at work sober, it was also a case of the temperance lobby seizing its chance. Most notable of all was the wartime ban on “treating” – buying rounds. A man in Bristol was even prosecuted for buying his wife a drink in a pub.

In 1914 there were an average 3,388 convictions for drunkenness in England and Wales every week. By 1918 the number had fallen to 449. Some of the measures, particularly Britain’s restrictive opening hours remained in place long after the war’s end. Alcohol was not widely regarded as a major social problem in Britain again until more recent decades.

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The Burnley Express joke still isn’t a patch on the gag attributed to comedian Tommy Cooper. Cooper, the story goes, once (or maybe more than once) thanked a taxi driver at the end of his journey. He then stuffed something into the driver’s breast pocket and said, “Here, have a drink on me!” Thinking the comedian had given him a generous tip, the driver found Cooper had given him… a tea-bag.