HISTORICAL CHANGES IN DRINKING HABITS

The pattern of drinking in Britain has changed with modifications in the organization of society. Of the days of Queen Anne, Trevelyan1 writes:

Drunkenness was the acknowledged national vice of Englishmen of all classes, though women were not accused of it. A movement for total abstinence was out of the question, in days before tea or coffee could be obtained in every home and when the supply of drinking water was often impure. But tracts in favour of temperate drinking were freely circulated by religious bodies and anxious patriots, setting forth with attractive detail the various and dreadful fates of drunkards, some killed attempting to ride home at night, others seized by a fit while blaspheming, all gone straight to Hell. Among the common folk, ale still reigned supreme; but ale had a new rival worse than itself in the deadly attraction of bad spirits. The acme of cheap spirit-drinking was not indeed reached till the reign of George II, in the days of Hogarth’s â˜Gin Lane’, but things were already moving in that direction.

Meanwhile the upper class got drunk sometimes on ale and sometimes on wine. It is hard to say whether the men of fashion or the rural gentry were the worst soakers. But perhaps the outdoor exercise taken by the fox-hunting, sporting, and farming squire made him better able to absorb his nighdy quantum of October, than the gamester and politician of St James’s Square to escape the ill effects of endless Whig toasts in port and Tory toasts in

I. Trevelyan, G. M. (1944). ‘English Social History. London: Longmans. Quoted by permission of the publishers.

French claret and champagne. Magistrates often appeared on the bench heated with wine; Court Martials, by a prudent provision of the Mutiny Act, might only take place before dinner.

The worst excesses of the gin palace era of cheap spirits were checked in 1751 by an Act which taxed them highly and stopped their retail sale by distillers and shopkeepers. Even after this, however, as many as an eighth of the deaths of London adults were attributed by medical men to excess in spirit-drinking.1 Tea became a strong competitor to alcohol towards the end of the eighteenth century. The industrial revolution brought with it a resurgence of excessive drinking, particularly in the cities. Alcohol became for many the only recourse from the miseries inflicted by direst poverty. In the wake of this orgy of mass drinking the temperance movement grew up in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Doctors, clergyman and others not only urged the merits and indeed duties of temperance upon a largely heedless public but, more to the point, succeeded in producing in 1914 effective legislation licensing the places which could sell drink and fixing hours for its purchase and consumption. Trevelyan1 comments:

When Queen Victoria died, drinking was still a great evil from the top to the bottom of society, more widely prevalent than in our day, but decidedly less than when she came to the throne.

These laws abated some of the worst excesses at the time when some of the widespread social misery was being reduced. The beneficial impact of the improved licensing laws was rapidly felt but the advantages of temperance were much slower to be appreciated. It was not until during and after the First World War that drunken behaviour began to be considered unacceptable in every walk of society. During the depression in the late twenties and early thirties there was once again an increase in drunkenness, which for a long time had moved in step with unemployment. However, gross public drunkenness, people lying paralytic in the streets, is now a rare sight in England although it can still be seen in parts of Scotland. In the 1950s a new phenomenon began to be apparent in Britain, teenage drunkenness, probably as a consequence of the increased affluence of this age group. The increase in drunkenness in the young is rightly causing serious concern.

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