Drunkenness was a huge problem – not just in London but throughout the whole of the country – in the latter decades of the 19th century.
However, thanks largely to the press coverage that tended to focus on the East End of London as being the breeding ground for the majority of the vices that blighted Victorian society – and especially following the revelations on the social conditions in the district that were exposed by the Jack the Ripper murders – much of the reporting on the drunken habits of the poor tended to be about the poor of London’s East End, and of the districts of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and St. George’s in the East in particular.
However, despite this media bias, it cannot be denied that the consumption of alcohol was a blight on the lives of many the poor of the East End, and it is interesting to leaf through the newspaper reports on the subject that appeared in the early 1890’s.
MAGISTRATE ON EAST-END DRINKING HABITS
One person who, most certainly held an opinion on the subject, largely because many of the “victims of drink” appeared before him, was the Worship Street Police Court Magistrate, Mr. Montagu Williams.
The Worcester Journal, on Saturday, 14th November, 1891, published the following article about his opinion:-
“There is no mistake,” said Mr. Montagu Williams in a chat with a contributor to the Strand Magazine, ” about what is the cause of nearly all the crime of the east-end of London.
The curse of all is drink, and I must say that the wives are often worse than the husbands.”
Speaking from his observation and experience as a magistrate at the Worship-street Police Court, Mr. Williams tells us that “the woman often makes the first start towards breaking up the home whilst the husband is away at work. She forsakes her children and domestic cares for the bar of a gin shop to drink with a friend, generally another woman.”
DRINKING IN THE EAST END
Another person who, in his professional capacity, got to see the tragic results of the propensity to drink that was so prevalent in the area, was Wynne Edwin Baxter, the local Coroner.
The Edinburgh Evening News, published the following interview with him, on Thursday 22nd September, 1892:-
Mr Baxter, the London East End coroner, says: “Generally speaking, the question of drunkenness, directly or indirectly, enters into half of the inquests which I hold.
It is treated as a joke, as a rule, for my juries, coming as they do from the working classes, do not appear to think anything of it.
My usual question is, “Was the deceased the worse for drink?”, and the reply (given in an unconcerned tone) is often, “Oh, he had had a drop,” as if it was the proper thing to do.
EAST END WIVES OUT DRINKING
I believe that there are a number of hardworking men who would have good homes if only they had good wives; but the women are never at home to meet them, or have anything ready for them after their day’s work.
In many cases, we have the fact stated that the husband quietly goes to bed when his wife is still out of doors drinking with her friends.
MONDAY IS DRINKING DAY
Monday is essentially a day of drinking. Many men are totally unaware that their wives take their husband’s Sunday clothes on Monday morning to the pawnshop, pledge them, and spend the money thus obtained on drink.
On the Saturday, when the man gets his wages, the clothes are taken out of pledge, but they are returned to the pawnbroker on the Monday.”
NO SMOKING OR DRINKING IN THE MUSIC HALLS
In 1894, the London County Council attempted to tackle the issue by proposing a ban on smoking and drinking in the Music Halls.
Since these establishments were the haunts of the working classes, who liked nothing better than to let off steam by enjoying a drink or a smoke, whilst enjoying a performance, there was an awful lot of criticism of the move in the newspapers.
The following critical article appeared in The Sheffield Evening Telegraph, Monday, 12th February, 1894.
By way of explanation, the “Chadbands and Stigginses” mentioned in the following article is a reference to two characters from two of the works of Charles Dickens. The Reverend Stiggins is a character in Pickwick Papers, who is an avaricious, pompous, drunken and scrounging evangelist; whereas Mr. Chadband is a pompous preacher who appears in Bleak House.
LONDON CHADBANDS AND STIGGINSES
“Having needlessly and wantonly damaged the tramway properties, the Chadbands and Stigginses of the London County Council are once more turning their attention to the music halls.
A POPULAR NIGHT OUT
Those places are popular with many people, because, while watching the performances, they can smoke and drink, and the county councillors cannot imagine how a man can drink of beer without getting blind drunk.
THE RADICAL DRINKING DENS
They judge the frequenters of the music halls by the habitues of the Radical drinking clubs in the East End.
The County Council intends to prevent the drinking and the smoking – not at the Liberal clubs, but at the halls – or they will refuse to renew the licenses to the music halls.”
DRINK IN THE EAST END
THE USE OF METHYLATED SPIRITS
But, it wasn’t just beer and gin that the poor of the East End were drinking in vast quantities, as is evidenced by the following article, which appeared in The Cheltenham Chronicle, Saturday, 8th September, 1894:-
“Men and women who are in the habit of drinking are not usually particular as to what they drink provided it is not water.
Of late, the practice has spread among the poor of the East-end of imbibing methylated spirits, mixed with hot water, lemon juice, and sugar.
People who have tasted this mixture describe it as agreeable but highly intoxicating.
ASKED NOT TO SELL IT
The attention of the police and certain temperance bodies has been directed to the habit, and the result of a recent conference has been to formulate a request to the chemists and oilmen of the districts affected not to serve on Saturday any of their customers with methylated spirits.
Many of the chemists readily acceded to this suggestion.
The oilmen, however, have not been so accommodating. They have refused to follow the example of the chemists.
This is very unfortunate for the sake of the spirit drinkers themselves.
WHY DO THEY DRINK IT?
If, it may be asked, these poor people want to get intoxicants for Sunday morning, why not take gin or other spirits home with them on a Saturday night?
The reason is simple, methylated spirit is much cheaper, and therefore goes further.
If sold by the chemists, it will stand a good deal of dilution with water.
It produces great heat in the body, and if taken regularly, as the East-end people take it, it is likely to produce insanity sooner or later.
FOUND IN THE STREETS
The spirit is a rapid intoxicant, and the police in the districts where it is largely used could, if they chose, tell many a story of drunken men and women being found in the streets who had not entered a public-house at all.”
WOMEN ARE THE WORSE
One fact that emerges time and time again from commentators on the binge-drinking culture of the Victorian East End is that, when it came to drunkenness, the women were far worse than the men.
An article in The Dundee Evening Telegraph, on Wednesday, 14th September, 1898, highlighted this problem:-
DRINK IN THE EAST END
“The London City Mission’s annual report, just out, contains some rather striking passages.
Here is one:- “The testimony borne in recent years to the fact that intemperance is increasing amongst women is again witnessed to by many the missionaries.
One writes:- ‘Drunkenness is spreading terribly amongst women.
At any of the public-houses in my district, go where you will, you will find more women than men, and these, in many cases, are young women, some not over 22 years of age.’
A second reports:- ‘Visiting along a lane in my district recently at eleven o’clock in the morning I met drunken women in three houses consecutively, all being mothers with large families!’
A third states that he has seen, in visiting his district, ‘father, mother, and children dead drunk.’ ‘
Even in the poorest districts, we are told, public-houses thrive.’
One missionary mentions two public-houses in his district which sold for £65,000 and £45,000 respectively.”