The temperance movement in Wales

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The drinking of alcohol has long been an important and interesting feature of Welsh life. The village pub, the drovers' inns, the coaching houses on the main transport routes – they all played a part in forming Welsh society.

Gathering together in the evenings after the day's work on the farm or great estate was over, standing around a roaring log fire and drinking beer was, for many years, an important part of the social intercourse of the people.

However, in the early part of the 19th century the consumption of beer and spirits in Wales reached new and significantly high – not to say dangerous - levels. This was particularly the case in the newly created industrial regions of the country where iron workers and coal miners, parched after a day of hard physical toil, eagerly sought refuge in the pubs and beer houses of the town.

Growth of temperance societies

For many single, unattached men in these industrial areas there was no other place to meet and little else to do but drink. It was inevitable that the country should see a sudden rise in drunkenness.

This was something that caused serious concern – to the employers who quickly understood the detrimental effects of drink on their workforce, and to the wives who saw hard earned money being wasted on alcohol when it could and should have been spent on food for the family. As a result the first half of the 19th century saw a rapid increase and growth of temperance societies.

Temperance society

Temperance was not a new phenomenon. Long before the 19th century there had been pamphlets and broadsheets, often from the religious elements of society, complaining about drunkenness. However, in the main, these writings rarely advocated total abstinence. And even when the temperance societies began to grow in size and strength, it was invariably spirits that they complained about.

Beer was often felt to be a good and necessary beverage for hard-working men and, besides, the quality and quantity of water was severely limited in places like Merthyr and Swansea. At least by drinking beer men were not filling their insides with parasite-infected liquid.

The first temperance hotel was opened, not in Wales but in England, by Joseph Livesey in 1833 and the British Association for the Promotion of Temperance was established in 1835. The movement spread quickly and by the end of that year there were no fewer than 25 temperance societies in Wales, all offering meeting places, an abundance of soft drinks and lectures or debates on the evils of drink.

Moderation not abstinence

Interestingly, in those early years of the movement, it was still moderation and not abstinence that was advocated. Groups such as the Ebbw Vale Temperance Society, existing and working in the midst of the burgeoning iron industry, even allowed its members to drink two pints of beer a day – a practice that eventually ended when it transpired that some men were saving up their allowance in order to drink 12 or 14 pints each Saturday.

Faced by such trickery, many temperance societies soon began to campaign for total abstinence; the United Kingdom Alliance, led by John Gough, was particularly virulent on the subject. The first teetotal society in Wales was created as early as 1835 but this was a rarity. However, it was a stance that grew more prominent as the years went on.

T -t-t-total abstinence

According to legend, the name teetotal originated with Richard Turner from Preston, a great supporter of Joseph Livesey. He had an unfortunate stammer and when asked what he stood for, would reply “T-t-t-total abstinence”.

Throughout the middle years of the 19th century the temperance movement grew in strength. Even the old legends of Wales were subsumed into use by the abolitionists with the story of the lost lands of Cantre'r Gwaelod quietly changed to place the blame for the inundation of the 16 cities on the drunken lock keeper Seithennin rather than the maiden Mererid.

As the Encyclopaedia of Wales states: “A vigorous temperance sub-culture came into existence with periodicals, meetings, songs, orders, ceremonies, hotels and pledges and by 1850 teetotalism had been absorbed into the moralistic system of the Noncomformists".

The closing of public houses

The demand, right across Wales, to prohibit alcohol became, effectively, a political tool and when someone like Lady Llanover closed down all the public houses on her lands it was clear that this was a political message with bite. Politicians were quick to jump onto the bandwagon, many of them campaigning on the issue for years.

The Sunday closing of public houses in Wales, something that sustained pressure from the members of the temperance movement achieved in 1881, was perhaps its greatest moment. There was little further success, however, until the Defence of the Realm Act in 1914, at the outbreak of World War One, when pub opening hours were limited and the beer on sale was watered down – measures that had little to do with the moral issues but considerably more with helping the war effort.

In the years after the war the temperance movement began to decline in popularity and influence as it quickly became clear that drinking of alcohol was only one of many possible causes of poverty. The Depression years were hard in Wales and nobody was going to begrudge an out of work miner the odd pint or two – provided he did not let his family starve.

The temperance societies were not unique to Wales but, with the country's enormous industrial heritage, they were a significant part of Welsh life for a large part of the 19th century.

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