The temperance movement emerged in Britain in the late 1820s and 1830s, at a time of demands for political and economic reform. Drink was everywhere; it was economically important and culturally unavoidable.


The first organised societies against alcohol focused on spirits. However, their reach was limited; while the poor were asked to give up their drink, the rich retained their wine. In the Lancashire town of Preston in 1832, Joseph Livesey – a publisher, trader in cheese, and moral reformer – led a public pledge of total abstinence from all intoxicating liquors except on medical grounds. It would be celebrated in temperance history as a clear moral and social challenge to the place of drink in popular culture, and the perceived immorality of drinking places.

Temperance was not just a giving up, a letting go of the dangers posed by drink. It also pledged a communal adoption of a new way of living. Such ideas of self-respect and moral uplift resonated with several Nonconformist groups, and spoke to opportunities for economic improvement too.

In a set of regulations dated November 1835, the Executive Council of the Independent Order of Rechabites confirmed: “we conceive it to be our duty to promote the happiness and comfort of our brethren by recommending and adopting those habits and practices which will most assuredly tend to the promotion of temperance, chastity, and every virtue that adorns the human character.”

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A cartoon depicting Sir Wilfrid Lawson, a 19th-century temperance campaigner
A cartoon depicting Sir Wilfrid Lawson, a 19th-century temperance campaigner. (Image by Getty Images)

The idea of a sober workforce might have been popular with industrialists. Yet this was progress sought – not imposed from above, as it were. Adapting an older model of burial and friendly societies, the Independent Order of Rechabites provided its members with a place to save through subscriptions against future sickness and a code for living in the present. Members had to take the pledge, and could lose their rights for breaking it.

Temperance promised connections between groups and even across classes. But it could also be divisive. The lifestyle change attracted suspicion and criticism, particularly where it was connected to other political ends. Some groups noted with unease the radical arguments of teetotal Chartists.

Father Theobald Mathew on a temperance pin button
Father Theobald Mathew, of the Capuchin religious order, was pictured on many artefacts linked to the temperance movement, such as this pin button, c1909. (Image by Getty Images)

Moral force Irish nationalists linked bodily self-respect to demands for self-rule, drawing on the extraordinary efforts of Father Theobald Mathew, of the Capuchin religious order, to spread temperance in pre-famine Ireland. Though, later in the century, as it provided members with an opportunity to campaign publicly, the British Women’s Temperance Association was split over the extent to which their temperance message should be associated with political demands for suffrage.

Temperance in the community

Children were a particular target for temperance action. From its origins in Leeds in 1847, The Band of Hope spread into a network of thousands of branches, often attached to the likes of Sunday schools. Instruction was made entertaining with magic lantern technologies and performances of songs, recitations, and dramas. Legitimate targets as future adults, children were a means by which temperance messages could be spirited into the homes and minds of parents.

Beyond the importance of charismatic leadership, and the collective force of the pledge, temperance also offered members a sober route through life by providing a range of social alternatives to the pub. Members could join brass bands, go on outings, and processions – smartly dressed, parading through the streets behind ornate banners. They could patronise temperance cafes, hotels, and music halls. Dedicated publications generated a sense of purpose and progress.

By the 1870s, with high numbers of apprehensions for drunkenness nationwide, temperance action seemed more vital than ever. We can trace revived Roman Catholic interest, a growing Church of England Temperance Society, and revivalist missions. The Band of Hope, meanwhile, was producing a generation that had grown up with temperance. Impatient for change, reformers from different backgrounds challenged the licensing laws: there were simply too many pubs – too many temptations – and the drink trade seemed too powerful for moral arguments alone to carry the day.

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As parliament extended the franchise to more groups of male voters, the ability to be sober and show capacity to plan for the future offered a way to demonstrate a fitness to vote. The existence of these new voters also allowed temperance groups to pressure parliamentary candidates to support reforms. Chief amongst these was the United Kingdom Alliance, which had been founded in Manchester in the 1850s to campaign for the legislative suppression of the liquor traffic.

For years, Alliance President and Liberal MP Sir Wilfrid Lawson championed giving ratepayers a right to vote to suppress the licensed trade in their local areas. This would provide a local, incremental, path to prohibition, supporters argued. Making such a case meant reimaging the very purpose of government, presenting drinking as an obstacle to the practice of liberal freedom rather than being some cherished icon of it.

The Alliance exercised influence over the Liberal party, but its opponents characterised these moves as the imposition of sobriety by Act of Parliament. Such a move would threaten government tax revenues and jobs in the licensed trade, not to mention the rights of publicans and the liberty of workers to enjoy their beer.

For the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries, temperance campaigners fought the licensing of new pubs in their local communities. It was harder to make singular arguments that drink was the cause and not a consequence of crime, economic loss, poor health and even urban decay. Parliamentary debates about licensing reform reflected an attempt to balance contrasting ideas about the role of the state and the rights of the different groups who stood to be affected by any change in the law.

A lithograph depicting Justice, armed with the Sword of Temperance
A lithograph depicting Justice (armed with the Sword of Temperance) pulling the disguise from a British Lion to reveal an unidentified politician's drink-flushed face, c1910. (Image by Getty Images)

The First World War saw the state reject demands for prohibition in favour of a very different model of reform. It instituted a Control Board, which even included brewers, and nationalised the drink trade in certain military and munitions areas, closing some pubs and reforming others. That would have outraged prohibitionists, but can still be read as a temperance reform designed to mitigate the effects of alcohol consumption.

There was no single temperance movement, because there was no one reason to moderate or forego alcohol consumption. Members might have looked with confidence to a brighter future, but there was no one agreed model of how to get there. Nevertheless, belonging to temperance societies provided many men and women with opportunities to articulate their own understandings of community and citizenship. Temperance was a collective effort then, rich in ideas about what bound people to each other, to their villages and towns, and even to the nation.


Dr David Beckingham is Associate Professor of Cultural and Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham. This article is based on a talk, ‘Taking the Pledge: The Temperance Movement in Britain’, given at the University of Nottingham in August 2022

Recommended reading and resources
  • The Livesey Collection, University of Central Lancashire
  • Harrison, Drink & the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815-1872 (1994, Keele University Press)
  • McAllister, On the Temperance Movement (2012, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net)
  • Nicholls, The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England (2009, Manchester University Press)