Temperance Town or Party City? Self-Employed Consultant and Aspiring Writer from Washington, SIMON LEE, Draws on Extensive Historical Research of Newcastle to Discuss Whether Its Current "Party City" Image Is a New Phenomenon, or Something Which Has a Basis in History

Article excerpt

Byline: SIMON LEE

WHEN last week's Government report announced that people should have at least two alcohol free days a week, it was no surprise that the television news reports included a number of items from the North East.

With alcohol now seemingly synonymous with how the region is viewed across the country, no doubt a report from the "party city" would help illustrate the point that Britain has a love affair with getting plastered. But what fuels this stereotype of the drunken Geordie living in the "eighth best place in the world" for a night out? In the Victorian era, there was massive increase both in number of public houses and their importance in the community.

Beer houses, gin palaces and pubs were long established in our villages, towns and cities when Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, but their development during her reign mirrored that of society and the country as a whole. Whilst the era is often regarded as austere and straight-laced, the licensed trade was an important part of the fabric of society.

For example, improvements in transportation that saw the journey time from London to Edinburgh slashed to 60 hours led to the need for regular, well stocked and hospitable coaching houses every few miles. Away from the main routes, there were a far more local licensed premises than there are today. Victorian pubs served as meeting places and community centres, and men sitting around listening to a more learned customer reading aloud from the newspaper would have been a common sight. However, despite this gentle and idyllic vision, to many Victorians, particularly, although not exclusively the middle classes, temperance, (or the complete avoidance of alcohol) was the way forward. The great names and even greater minds of the era all wrestled with what they perceived as the blight licensed premises were having on their communities and, rather patronisingly, their negative influence on the contemporary working man. The great social reformer Joseph Rowntree was a staunch advocate of temperance, arguing that the "present consumption of alcohol in this country is excessive and should be reduced". He also believed "the force of law and local arrangement should favour sobriety rather than intemperance". Indeed, Rowntree and many of his counterparts at the time called on Parliament to introduce nothing less than full prohibition. It was 1920 before the United States, in an ultimately vain bid to combat gangster Al Capone and his criminal buddies, took that very route. But in the 19th century, Rowntree and his followers would have found many friends in Newcastle with the city being able to boast both the North of England Temperance League - established in 1858 with the aim of "total abstinence for the individual and prohibition for the nation" - as well as the Newcastle upon Tyne Temperance Society. The society's annual report of 1890 hints at the strength of the movement on Tyneside at the time.

The report proudly boasts an attendance of over 350 members at its twice-monthly meetings, and records the need for alterations at the Temperance Hall. These changes - namely the removal of the partition dividing the hall from the tea room - were to allow increased accommodation for the regular Saturday evening entertainment. Ironically, given his namesake's well documented issues with drink, the Honorary Secretary of the society at this time was named Gascoigne. So should we hang our heads in shame then? Have we Geordies, in little more than a century, degenerated from great proponents of chastity and temperance to a drunken rabble happy to waste our hard-earned money on getting plastered? Hardly. One need only look at the statistics from the time to realise the city has always had a love affair with partying and has always been used by others to highlight the damaging effects of alcohol. The Temperance movement proclaimed Newcastle to be 1901's most drunken City in the UK. …