Crusade against Drink in Victorian England

Lewis Shiman, Lilian
Date published: 
January 1988

Drink, 'the curse of Britain', was sweeping the land, or so it seemed to many Englishmen in the early decades of the nineteenth century. They held it responsible for crime, poverty and many other ills of the rapidly industrializing towns. A 'moderation' temperance reform organized in 1829 largely under middle class auspices soon gave way to a radical commitment to total abstinence in a great variety of worker self-help groups. When these too failed to change the drinking habits of most Englishmen the temperance movement sought new alliances. In the 1870s and 1880s Gospel Temperance married temperance to revivalist religion. It received the support of both established and non-conformist churches, and millions 'took the pledge'. But many did not; and as religious enthusiasm faded the anti-drink forces shifted their attention to the political arena. After successfully pressuring the Liberal Party to adopt limited prohibition, they mounted a great but unsuccessful campaign in the 1895 election. With this defeat the anti-drink crusade disintegrated, leaving the dedicated teetotallers socially isolated in the safe haven of their drink-free subculture.