David Olusoga’s hidden histories: Victorian temperance

“The Victorians constructed a great empire of abstinence”, writes David Olusoga

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Although largely forgotten today, Victorian temperance was, at its height, one of the biggest and most influential movements in British history. While the more extreme of the many temperance societies sought a legal ban on the sale of alcohol, most temperance activists aimed merely to persuade their fellow citizens of the social ills that it caused.

From the 1830s onwards they persuaded millions to sign the temperance pledge, and commit to abstinence. Thousands of children joined the temperance youth organisation the Band of Hope. New members signed a pledge that read: “I do agree that I will not use intoxicating liquors as a beverage.”

As well as condemning the ‘Demon Drink’ through a ceaseless stream of pamphlets, posters, marches and songs, the temperance movement set out to make it easier for people to keep their pledge by creating an alternative world in which those who had abandoned alcohol could socialise together. The first organised excursion in Britain was a temperance outing, a day trip from Leicester to Loughborough arranged, in 1841, for 500 temperance society members. The organiser was himself a committed temperance campaigner named Thomas Cook, the inventor of modern tourism.

Yet to loosen the grip that alcohol had on Victorian society, the temperance movement needed more than day trips. It had to take on one of the nation’s most beloved institutions – the public house. To do this, the most forward-thinking among the temperance activists began to open temperance bars – alcohol-free spaces that offered those who had pledged themselves to abstinence a place in which they could meet and talk, free from temptation.

Instead of beer, wines and spirits, the temperance bars offered cordials: sarsaparilla wine, dandelion and burdock, cream soda and ginger beer. Coca-Cola began as a temperance bar favourite. Considering most of these drinks were loaded with enormous quantities of sugar and syrup, we have to wonder whether some of the health benefits derived from eschewing alcohol might have been outweighed by the risk of diabetes.

As well as temperance bars there was also a fashion for milk taverns, which sold hot and cold milk and hot chocolate. They promoted themselves as places where the teetotallers of Britain’s bustling industrial cities could enjoy a slice of rural simplicity.

As the temperance movement began to lose momentum in the first half of the 20th century, the temperance bars began to close down. In a twist of fate that would have horrified the pious temperance campaigners, some former temperance bars – the jewels in the great empire of abstinence they had built up – were eventually converted into pubs.

Until recently there was just one surviving temperance bar in the whole of Britain: Fitzpatrick’s, which opened in the 1890s in Rawtenstall, Lancashire – the county that was the spiritual birthplace of the Victorian temperance movement. However, today Fitzpatrick’s is not a lone relic because in recent years the temperance bar has undergone an unexpected revival.

Each January millions of people, nursing post-Christmas hangovers, commit to four weeks of abstinence. Dry January is a temporary fix. Yet what the research shows is that people who stop drinking for one month tend to reduce their drinking afterwards. Many turn to low-alcohol and no-alcohol beers and wines, drinks that have seen enormous increases in sales. Tapping into the rise of this new form of modern teetotalism, a new generation of alcohol-free bars has appeared.

With alcohol-free beer rather than sugary cordials, and without any of the Victorian proselytising, these 21st-century temperance bars are very different affairs. Yet they are still setting out to prove the same point the temperance movement wanted to establish almost two centuries ago – that it is possible to socialise without alcohol.

This article was first published in the Christmas 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine

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