Today in London history: War is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes, 1917.

Immediately after the outbreak of World War I, Parliament passed the Defence of the Realm Act  (on 8th August 1914) criminalising anything they could think of that could impede the war effort. A notable section of the Act restricted licensing hours in pubs, to reduce drunkenness, hangovers and nipping off work early for a swift one impacting on war production… Before the war, pubs could open from 5 am in the morning to 12.30 pm at night. The DORA slashed licensing hours in cities and industrial areas, which could only now open 12.00 noon to 2.30 pm and 6.30 to 9.30 pm. (However, in most rural areas, people could continue to buy alcoholic drinks throughout the day. Mostly cider, presumably.)

Other governments involved in the conflict were also worried about this problem. In August 1914 Tsar Nicholas II outlawed the production and sale of vodka. This involved the closing down of Russia’s 400 state distilleries and 28,000 spirit shops. The measure was a complete failure, as people, unable to buy vodka, produced their own. The Russian government also suffered a 30% reduction in its tax revenue. Attempts to reduce alcohol consumption were also made in Germany, Austria-Hungary, France and Italy.

This drastic reduction in British opening times was only the beginning of a campaign against alcohol that was to last throughout the war. “David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, led the campaign against alcohol. He had been told by shipbuilders and heads of war factories, that men’s wages had gone up so much that they could earn in two or three days what would keep them in drink for a week. A Newcastle shipbuilder complained that double overtime on Sunday meant no attendance on Monday.” In January 1915, Lloyd George told the Shipbuilding Employers Federation that Britain was “fighting German’s, Austrians and Drink, and as far as I can see the greatest of these foes is Drink.”

This campaign was to reach absurd proportions.

“Lloyd George started a campaign to persuade national figures to make a pledge that they would not drink alcohol during the war. In April 1915 King George V supported the campaign when he promised that no alcohol would be consumed in the Royal household until the war was over. Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War and Richard Haldane, the Lord Chancellor, followed the king’s example, but [Prime Minister] Herbert Asquith, who was a heavy drinker, refused to take the pledge. The National Review commented: “The failure of the Prime Minister to take the King’s Pledge has naturally aroused comment.” Asquith retorted angrily that Lloyd George had “completely lost his head on drink.” Not in that way, I mean, he’s gone over the top on the sub- oh forget it, poor me another one. Lloyd George being a welsh chapel lad was a teetotaller anyway, so it wasn’t exactly a stretch…

With mass enlistment from young men, to be followed (as the first wave of recruits died en masse in France and Belgium) by mass conscription, women were recruited in large numbers to work in many industries where male workers had previously rigidly excluded them (often through the trade union structures), as well as particularly in making munitions and other war materiel. This was to open up all sorts of opportunities to women, sparking social change that shot off in all sorts of directions. However, one that most bothered the government, pro-war press and the Daily Mail-reading swivel-brained, was that the wages these women workers were al of a sudden receiving gave them massively increased spending power. And they liked to spend it on drink:

“The government was particularly concerned about the amount of alcohol being consumed by female munition workers. A survey of four pubs in London revealed that in one hour on a Saturday night alcohol was consumed by 1,483 men and 1,946 women. Newspapers claimed that soldiers’ wives were “drinking away their over-generous allowances”. The Times reported that “we do not all realise the increase in drinking there has been among the mothers of the coming race, though we may yet find it a a circumstance darkly menacing to our civilisation”.”

The moral outrage sparked by women living it up gathered pace. The Liverpool Echo – under the headline “Light on the ways of women drinkers” – reported in 1916 that “the great increase in the number of women visiting public houses during the past year has demanded drastic treatment”. Press reports and letters from the public talked about “the army of women crowding the public houses”, that the amount being drunk by women was “abnormal”, drinking the pubs dry so that and that male workers heading home from work were “unable to obtain any refreshment”.

Women drinkers were compared to prostitutes; a new scare warned soldiers would return at the end of the war to “find their wives dishonoured and drunkards”.

The bizarre range of measures thought up to “eradicate this blot” included banning women from pubs, selling licences to BUY drink, fitting clear windows to pubs, removing “partitions, snugs and other obstacles likely to facilitate secret drinking”.

In October 1915 the British government finally fell off the edge, announcing a number of several measures to enforce further reductions in alcohol consumption. “A “No Treating Order” laid down that any drink ordered was to be paid for by the person supplied. The maximum penalty for defying the Government order was six months’ imprisonment. The Spectator gave its support to the legislation. It argued that it was the custom of the working-classes to buy drinks for “chance-met acquaintances, each of whom then had to stand a drink to everyone else” and believed that this measure would “free hundreds of thousands of men from an expensive and senseless social tyranny”.

It was reported in The Morning Post on 14th March, 1916: “At Southampton yesterday Robert Andrew Smith was fined for treating his wife to a glass of wine in a local public-house. He said his wife gave him sixpence to pay for her drink. Mrs Smith was also fined £1 for consuming and Dorothy Brown, the barmaid, £5 for selling the intoxicant, contrary to the regulations of the Liquor Control Board.”

Ernest Sackville Turner, in his book, Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: “In Newcastle police reported a licensee who, with his manager, had sought to evade punishment by causing a customer who had ordered eight drinks to consume all of them. As time passed the Order began to be flouted, to the relief of bar-room scroungers who had been having a thin time, but the police fought back. In Middlesbrough fines on innkeepers went as high as £40. The licensing authorities had powers to close public-houses which allowed treating and occasionally exercised them.” 

The government also increased the level of tax on alcohol. In 1918 a bottle of whisky cost £1, five times what he had cost before the outbreak of war. This helped to reduce alcoholic consumption. Whereas Britain consumed 89 million gallons in 1914, this had fallen to 37 million in 1918. Convictions for drunkenness also fell dramatically during the war. In London in 1914, 67,103 people were found guilty of being drunk. In 1917 this had fallen to 16,567.”

Another effect of the war on drinking was a huge increase in prices. However wages were also increasing. Price and wage inflation rocketed during WW1. Prices had scarcely increased since the 1850’s, in some cases actually having fallen. In four years of war, they doubled. Pre-war the average weekly wage varied from 26s. 4d. per week to 34s. 4d. Half the women employed were paid from 10s. to 15s. per week. In 1917 London bus drivers were earning 60s. per week, cleaners, never the best paid, were getting 40s. By 1918 even agricultural labourers, the lowest paid manual workers, were earning 60s. to 70s. a week. Munitions workers earned considerably more – from £6 (120s.) to as much as £10 (200s.) or £20 (400s.) per week.

So drinkers had, for the most part, plenty of money to afford the higher price of beer, but the problem was a limited supply of beer available. Pubs were allocated a ration of beer based on their pre-war sales; however in some areas the population had increased dramatically – for instance where there had been an influx of munitions workers. In some places, there was just not enough beer to go around. And this caused trouble. Shortages encouraged publicans and brewers to raise prices; this narked their customers, but when some landlords couldn’t resist breaking agreements to put up the price of a pint across a neighbourhood, all sorts of aggro broke:

“The Price of Beer Yesterday – Threatened Strike of Publicans. —- BATTLE OF THE BAR.
Weekly Dispatch, April 8th 1917

There were some remarkable fluctuations in the price of beer in London yesterday, with a tendency to go back to the old prices.

At the Black Dog in Shoe Lane, London, bitter was only 3d a half pint – 2d. less that the price fixed by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society London: at the Temple in Tudor Street the charge had also gone down to 3d.; at the Mail Coach in Farringdon Street it was still at 5d.; at Gatti’s Restaurant in the Strand itt was 4.5d.; at the Wellington Restaurant, Fleet Street, 5d.

In South London, in Camberwell and Peckham, there has been a battle of the publicans ever since Monday last. At a meeting it was agreed to put up the prices, but when the time came a minority did not do so. The news spread quickly and the old-price houses were beseiged. Another was held and again an agreement to raise the price was reached, but this time a few of the publicans had a vendetta against the men who played the trick on Monday. One man in Peckham Road put outside his house a notice stating that as other publicans in the district had been disloyal the old prices would be charged until further notice. Many others are doing the same. Yesterday in these old-price houses, it was fighting room only. In Manchester a boycott of formidable character is taking place.

In Manchester and Salford yesterday pickets were stationed near many beerhouses in the industrial areas, and the takings of hundreds of licensees decreased by over 50 per cent.

In Liverpool the boycott also continues. There has been a great drop in the trade and, contrary to expectation, the workmen have shown no sign of buying beer at the new price. At Sunderland the premises of one publican who declined to advance the prices and charged 4d. a pint were crowded to the doors, while people intending to enter premises charging 6d. and 7d. were assailed with cries of “Come out, you blacklegs” from pickets.

A strike was threatened by publicans in Chatham and Rochester yesterday. The licensed victuallers and beerhouse keepers there have decided to accept no further supplies of malt liquors from the brewery until they reduce their rates to the prices prevailing in the greater
part of the county of Kent. According to present arrangements the public is henceforth to pay 10d. a quart for its mild ales and 1s. 6d. a quart for bitter ales.

PROHIBITION BY PRICE.
“It’s prohibition by price – so far as beer is concerned.” said a London publican yesterday. He said that his sale had dropped by 50 per cent since the prices were increased in his establishment last Tuesday.

Old walked in and asked for “a pint of bitter,” and when told the price had been raised to tenpence walked out without touching the drink – a remarkable example of self-denial but typical of the kind of protest the British workman will always make when he feels, rightly or
wrongly, that he is being badly imposed upon.

The new rise in the price of beer in a consequence of the war, which to many men is a more startling fact than the inflation in the prices of foodstuffs or luxuries. Twopence on on tobacco was serious, but as one ounce lasts the average smoker two or three days he did not feel the
call on his pocket so much. But tenpence for the morning pint every morning has come as a brutal shock. Mild ale is only 7d., but to a man accustomed to bitter the change is extremely distasteful.

SPIRITS AS ALTERNATIVE.
But the consequence of the prohibitive price would not be serious if it simply compelled a man to become a total abstainer.

The truth is that beer drinkers are not becoming total abstainers; they are becoming addicted to spirits.

The other day a man walked into a well-known buffet in Fleet Street and ordered a small bottle of Bass. At the same time the man standing next to him asked for a Scotch whisky. For the Bass the barmaid demanded the new price, 7d.; for the whisky she turned to the other customer and said, “Fourpence, please.”

The beer drinker hesitated, then looking at the whisky, said: “Will you change the Bass for a Scotch?” The barmaid said that she could not do that, and the convert to whisky grunted, “Well, this is the last bottle of beer I’m going to buy. I shall save threepence by drinking spirits.” At the same place a customer had two glasses of mixed vermouth and they did not cost him any more than a pint of beer.

A manager who controls many public-houses, both in the City and the East End, said yesterday that there had been a very sharp rise in the consumption of whisky.

“Several men I know,” he said’ “who for years have had a pint of beer every morning, which was their only intoxicating drink for the day, and never touched spirits, now call for a ‘double Scotch.’ It costs them twopence less than the beer.”

He says that the same habit is also growing among the dockers.

The publican, of course, refuses to condemn these customers for giving way to what is a bad habit merely because the country’s food peril makes it imperative that the brewing of beer should be drastically cut down. The publican’s attitude is that beer is a very important food to a numerous body of workers, whose constitutions have become so habituated to the drink that they feel ill without it.

OLD STOCKS AT OLD PRICES.
A curious situation created by the new prices is that many public-houses which have large cellars and a considerable supply of barrels bought at the old price have not yet raised their charges. The result has been a migration, temporary, of customers from a new-price house to an
old-price house close by.

The new scale of prices as fixed by the Licensed Victuallers’ Central Protection Society of London is:

half pint ______Glass
Mild ale ______3.5d. _____-
Bitte ________5d. ______4d.
Stout ________5d. ______5d.
Burton _______6d. ______5d.
Mild and Bitter _4.5d. _____3.5d .
Stout and Mild __5d. ______4d.
Mild and Burton _5d. ______4d.

Other prices: Small Bass 7d.; Guinness 8d.; London stout (screws) 5d.; pale ale (screws) 5d.; barley wine nips 6d.; lager, light or dark, 8d.

It has been pointed out on behalf of the brewers that the existing large stocks of malted barley, sufficient to brew the 10,000,000 barrels of beer authorised for this year, are useless for any other purpose.

This has been denied by Dr. Saleeby, who says that malt cake is an admirable food for cattle, and can be turned directly into meat an milk, and that if the cakes were supplied to farmers they would release for food the unmalted barley, oats, and sedes now being used as food for cattle.

In any case the public have got to make up their mind that, high price or low price, there is not enough beer to supply the old demand, or anything like it, and a good many people have got to do without it.

It is stated that a dozen or more metropolitan brewers have decided to offer their customers (or “tied” houses) the old “four ale” at 90s. a barrel and a trade discount, which will enable the publicans to sell at 3d. a half-pint and make a reasonable profit. These brewers have always maintained that 100s. per barrel, the present price, was more than the circumstances warranted. There is a feeling that the present prices for beer will come down before the end of this month.”

Many licensing laws and restrictions introduced during World War 1 remained on the stature for decades. Because social control during wartime tends to become entrenched. Wars are very useful for that.

The above article was nicked from here…

Other bits were taken from here (sure the telegraph was somewhere there slagging women off for drinking back then)

And here.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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