Lady Somerset Speaks Out

Lady Henry Somerset (1851-1921) was a major campaigner for women’s rights, and a leading exponent of the temperance movement in Victorian England.

Her interest in temperance was born of a personal tragedy when a close friend of hers committed suicide whilst under the influence of alcohol.

In 1890, she became the president of the British Women’s Temperance Association, a position that is still remembered by this lovely statue that can be admired in Temple Gardens, just off London’s Embankment.

The memorial to lady Henry Somerset shows a barefooted young girl holding up a bowl.
The Lady Henry Somerset Memorial.


One thing that concerned Lady Somerset – as indeed, it concerned many Victorian philanthropists – was the amount of child drunkenness that had become endemic to the streets of London, and in particular to the streets of the East End of London, throughout the latter half of the 19th century.

In early January, 1889, Lady Somerset became a member of The Independent Order Of Rechabites, a friendly society that had been founded in 1835 with the avowed intent of promoting and encouraging total abstinence from alcoholic beverages.

Her initiation speech was published by several newspapers. amongst them The Pall Mall Gazette, which published the following transcript of it in its issue of January the 8th, 1889:-


One day last week Lady Henry Somerset, a very earnest and eloquent champion of total abstinence, was initiated at Hereford into the Order of the Rechabites, and in a long speech she spoke out frankly about drinking at Whitechapel.

“A week or two ago, on a Saturday night,” she said, “I was walking down Whitechapel-road, and as I went a great longing came into my heart that I could take some of the leading men of our land down into the midst of that scene.

Oh! the misery, degradation, and sin that were there, all springing from the feet of this awful drink traffic, which flaunts its brazen head in undisguised iniquity on all sides, house after house vying with each other in leading men and women into deeper sin.

How they make downfall easier and more certain!

A photograph of Lady Henry Somerset.
Lady Henry Somerset. From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, January 21st, 1893. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Not contented with the ordinary public-house, they have now invented a new method, that of having an archway in the open street, with only a counter, over which drink is served to the passer-by, so that the public need open no door they pass.

All these places are served by young girls.

Your hearts would have sickened if you could have looked on those young faces.

I say shame on us as a nation.

A group of Victorian Eastenders drinking outside a pub.
People Drinking Outside A Pub On Whitechapel Road.


In America the amount of drinking is enormous.

But there is all honour to the nation in one respect: their feeling about children and young girls does not exist in England. You never find a native-born American girl serving as a barmaid in the States.

On all the land over which wave the stars and stripes you will not find young girls placed in positions of such temptation and danger.


I cannot describe the horrors of that scene in White-chapel, the streets illuminated by the lights of gin palaces. There is the low theatre, which is doing the devil’s work six days out of seven. These theatres are now being licensed to sell drink on Sunday; as if six days were not enough!

How can I put before you the sin and the misery of that scene?

To see the children flocking out of those dens of sin! I state no exaggeration, no overdrawn picture. You have only to read the police reports.


Last year you will find, in London alone, 500 children under ten years old were taken up dead drunk, and there were 1,500 under fourteen, and 2,000 under twenty-one.

Oh! as I walked down the street it seemed as if He, called the Man of Sorrows, was by my side; and I prayed that there, in the midst of that sin, He should be able to say, “She hath done what she could. “