Trouble Brewing: Britain's Concerns over Binge Drinking Are Nothing New Says Luci Gosling, Who Describes How the Brewing Industry United to Wreck Asquith's Licensing Bill of 1908

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In the New Year of 1908, Messrs. Barclay, Perkins and Co. of Southwark, one of London's largest breweries, issued a statement to its shareholders:

   It is the avowed intention of the Government to introduce a new
   Licensing Bill of a drastic nature. The details of this Bill have
   been carefully guarded, but there can be little doubt that
   increased taxation, either of the brewer or the licensed
   victualler, and the imposition of a 'time limit' on licences
   already granted, is sought to be imposed.

The brewing magnates were already in a state of high alert after a flurry of legislative measures had begun to whittle away at the industry's trading freedom. The Licensing Bill of 1908, introduced by Herbert Asquith's Liberal government, was the proverbial final straw. Through a number of proposed measures it sought to radically reduce the number of licensed premises in the UK by as much as a third, provoking vigorous opposition from brewers, publicans and all ancillary suppliers associated with the industry. 1908 is significant in that it saw the 'trade'--a group traditionally divided by sectionalism and regionalism--galvanize its power effectively for the first time to protect the interests it had so long enjoyed and profited from.

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From a Liberal standpoint, the legislation was firmly grounded in moral responsibility and intended less to weaken the commercial interests of wealthy brewers than to remedy social ills. Widespread drunkenness was an enduring concern to which Victorian and Edwardian social reformers strove to find a solution. The 1870s are regarded as the pinnacle of insobriety, with a staggering average of 40.5 gallons of beer consumed per capita per year. Between 1860 and 1876, arrests for drunkenness had more than doubled, although the population had risen by only 10 per cent. In the industrial cities of the North, particularly Liverpool and Newcastle, arrests far exceeded the national average, reflecting a clear correlation between the higher earnings of urban workers and the increase in drinking and, inevitably, drunkenness.

The brewers were quick to exploit the opportunities industrialization brought with it. There were a hundred drinking establishments in just half a mile of the industrial quarter of Birmingham, while in Liverpool docks, within a tiny 200 yard radius, a staggering forty-six pubs waited to relieve sailors of their hard-earned wages. As much as a quarter of some working-class incomes was spent on alcohol and, aside from the associated ravaging social effects--domestic violence, crime, disease, slums and premature death--the effects of over-indulgence and temptation impacted elsewhere. The prospect of profits spurred many businessmen to become temperance advocates after experiencing the effects of alcohol in their factories.

But the image of an inebriated Britain was hardly an unusual phenomenon. The Victorian drink problem arguably stemmed from an extraordinary piece of legislation in 1830 intended to counteract the evils of the eighteenth-century gin culture by encouraging people to drink weaker alcoholic beverages. The Act reduced beer tax and allowed a massive 40,000 new public houses or beer houses to spring up around the country under a laissez faire system of granting licenses, but far from discouraging drunkenness, it plunged Victorian Britain into a deeper state of alcoholic stupor as brewers bought up huge numbers of properties and opened up more and more drinking establishments.

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Counter-measures began with a series of Acts in the mid-nineteenth-century that saw the pub's opening hours gradually reduced. Provincial outrage at the 1872 Licensing Act, which allowed pubs in London to stay open until midnight while those in the rest of the country had to close an hour earlier, contributed to a resounding Liberal defeat in 1874; 'borne down', admitted Gladstone, 'in a torrent of gin and beer'. …