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. To support this, it highlighted court proceedings concerning drunkenness which, it said, ran at 207 per 10,000 people the city, compared to a national average for sea ports of 88. Rowntree was also keen to use the city as a bad example, quoting the sale of two pubs on Scotswood Road as prime illustrations. On July 1 1896, The Crooked Billet on Scotswood Road, directly opposite the Armstrong works, was sold at open auction. Rowntree observed that "the value of the house was quickly demonstrated by the keen competition which characterised the bidding". Following a tumultuous auction, the house finally sold for pounds 15,800. Forty years previously - since when the pub had seen no major changes - it had sold for a mere pounds 900. What is perhaps more surprising is that the price achieved for the West End 19 From pub, which benefited only from having a liquor licence and proximity to Armstrong's, was the equivalent of pounds 7,502,830 in today's money. The Crooked Billet was by no means alone. Its near neighbour the Ord Arms, also on Scotswood Road but this time located near the entrance of a proposed new Armstrong's yard, sold in 1898 for pounds 28,100 a sum afterwards acknowledged by the auctioneer as being "20 times its value without the license!" Again to put this in context, the Twizell Estate in Northumberland, a mansion and two acres of land, sold at auction in the same week for just pounds 25,000. Clearly the 60,000 or so men who worked at Armstrong's around the turn of the century enjoyed a pint, and brewers and landlords were keen to ensure they were well catered for. It would be wrong to assume that it was only the working Geordie who was keen on a tipple. In the middle of the 19th century, sellers of drink regularly reinforced their roles by providing local associations with large rooms, often without charge, in the hope of generating extra custom. Indeed in 1830s Newcastle, almost every political, music, artistic and scientific club held its meetings in a public house.

In reality, it seems, the Temperance movement was always destined to fail in the city, a point made all the more evident given that of a number of temperance bars established in Newcastle, none have stood the test of time. Even Newcastle Corporation was once the proud owner of five houses. But even if the Geordie has always enjoyed a pint, surely the party city status is something new? Again no. Seemingly Newcastle has always been the destination of choice for the keen drinker. Whilst the stag weekend as we currently understand it may be a relatively new phenomenon, it is worth noting that over 40% of drunkenness proceedings undertaken in the city in 1899 were against non-Newcastle residents. This along with there being 691 licensed premises - or one for every 43 dwellings and every 307 of the population - suggests that people were coming from outside the city walls to enjoy the nightlife. It also seems the quality of the beer on offer may not have improved either.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. To support this, it highlighted court proceedings concerning drunkenness which, it said, ran at 207 per 10,000 people the city, compared to a national average for sea ports of 88. Rowntree was also keen to use the city as a bad example, quoting the sale of two pubs on Scotswood Road as prime illustrations. On July 1 1896, The Crooked Billet on Scotswood Road, directly opposite the Armstrong works, was sold at open auction. Rowntree observed that "the value of the house was quickly demonstrated by the keen competition which characterised the bidding". Following a tumultuous auction, the house finally sold for pounds 15,800.

Forty years previously - since when the pub had seen no major changes - it had sold for a mere pounds 900. What is perhaps more surprising is that the price achieved for the West End 19 From pub, which benefited only from having a liquor licence and proximity to Armstrong's, was the equivalent of pounds 7,502,830 in today's money. The Crooked Billet was by no means alone. Its near neighbour the Ord Arms, also on Scotswood Road but this time located near the entrance of a proposed new Armstrong's yard, sold in 1898 for pounds 28,100 a sum afterwards acknowledged by the auctioneer as being "20 times its value without the license!" Again to put this in context, the Twizell Estate in Northumberland, a mansion and two acres of land, sold at auction in the same week for just pounds 25,000. Clearly the 60,000 or so men who worked at Armstrong's around the turn of the century enjoyed a pint, and brewers and landlords were keen to ensure they were well catered for. It would be wrong to assume that it was only the working Geordie who was keen on a tipple. In the middle of the 19th century, sellers of drink regularly reinforced their roles by providing local associations with large rooms, often without charge, in the hope of generating extra custom. Indeed in 1830s Newcastle, almost every political, music, artistic and scientific club held its meetings in a public house. In reality, it seems, the Temperance movement was always destined to fail in the city, a point made all the more evident given that of a number of temperance bars established in Newcastle, none have stood the test of time. Even Newcastle Corporation was once the proud owner of five houses. But even if the Geordie has always enjoyed a pint, surely the party city status is something new? Again no. Seemingly Newcastle has always been the destination of choice for the keen drinker. Whilst the stag weekend as we currently understand it may be a relatively new phenomenon, it is worth noting that over 40% of drunkenness proceedings undertaken in the city in 1899 were against non-Newcastle residents. This along with there being 691 licensed premises - or one for every 43 dwellings and every 307 of the population - suggests that people were coming from outside the city walls to enjoy the nightlife. It also seems the quality of the beer on offer may not have improved either.