Victorian pub map of Euston

Here be flagons

The temperance campaigners realised that a picture can achieve more than a thousand words of argument


This article is taken from the June 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“An infernal constellation.” That was how the health campaigner Dr Thomas Nichols described the pubs, breweries and distilleries marked on the eight-foot-square map he displayed at his public talks. As it only covered a half-mile area of London and contained 276 black dots, you can see how visually striking it must have been. But did it, and the other “drink maps” of late Victorian Britain, actually have any effect on the country’s boozing?

Drink Maps in Victorian Britain, Kris Butler (Bodleian Library, £25)

This is the question Kris Butler has set out to answer. His book will certainly appeal to cartophiles, illustrated as it is with the maps of British towns and cities used by temperance campaigners. Indeed their beauty was part of the strategy: inspired by John Snow’s famous “cholera” map of Soho (which plotted cases of the disease, centred around a lethal water pump), the campaigners realised that a picture can achieve more than a thousand words of argument. 

An 1884 meeting, shown maps where licensed premises appeared as red dots, heard that Oxford looked like a city with measles, whilst Liverpool was “a place where fever was prevalent”.

You can see why people were worried. One man became a temperance supporter after stepping over a drunk child when entering a pub, whilst Frederick Charrington sold his shares in the family brewing business after witnessing a woman ask her husband for money to buy bread for their hungry children — the husband knocked her into the gutter and re-entered the pub. Britain’s love affair with the bottle was symbolised by the fact that the country’s first ever trademark was Bass’ red triangle. A third of the government’s total tax revenue came from alcohol; these days it’s about four per cent.

How extreme would the response be? Some, including Queen Victoria herself, believed that total abstinence from alcohol was unrealistic. She was echoing Benjamin Franklin, who had noted that at the Philadelphia printing press where he worked, the men who drank beer with their breakfast could only carry one heavy printing plate upstairs at a time, whilst those who laid off the sauce could manage two. 

Even Franklin didn’t abstain completely — he maintained his love of French wine, “to the point that he powered through his gout”. 

Others, however, went all the way. And their language reflected it. “How many wife-beatings,” asked Joseph Livesey, publisher of the Staunch Teetotaller, “may proceed from a single field of barley?” The text on a drink map of Manchester claimed that “publicans flourish where wives and children starve and pine”. 

A Sheffield map argued that, with fewer pubs, “hearts that are now drooping with drink-caused sorrow and despair would be made to leap and bound with joy and gladness”. Good of them to stick to hearts when it came to the drooping.

The magistrate Sir Wilfrid Lawson was on record as saying that “there is a law against selling drink to anybody under 16 — I would just increase that figure and say 85 years of age”. His stated intention to refuse every licence application put before him, no matter the merits of the case, led Punch magazine to christen him Sir Wilfrid Lawless.

The US state of Maine had banned alcohol even earlier, back in 1851

Did the drink maps achieve their aim? One notable case arose in 1882, in the Lancashire town of Over Darwen. Magistrates examined the document, noting that there were 72 off-licences and refused to renew 34 of them. But those decisions were reversed the following year. Over the next five years, despite dozens of maps being produced across England and Wales, only 46 out of 67,000 public-house licence applications were refused.

As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, alcohol consumption fell of its own accord, owing to improved living conditions and, as Butler puts it, “entertaining distractions such as cycling, gardening, museums, libraries, easier travel and even homing-pigeon societies”. The anti-poverty campaigner Charles Booth noted that people were drinking less partly because women had brought their more restrained behaviour to pubs and thereby influenced the men. The younger ones, at least — “it is not until they get older,” wrote Booth, “that women become regular soakers”.

Butler contrasts the situation in this country with that over the Atlantic: “In true British fashion, a steady stoicism prevailed, and prevented an extremist solution such as the full prohibition of alcohol that Americans suffered from 1920 to 1933.” The US state of Maine had banned alcohol even earlier, back in 1851; Manchester, a hotbed of British temperance campaigning, honoured the state by naming a road after it — which, decades later, would play host to Manchester City FC.

British stoicism prevailing over American extremism? I’ll drink to that. 

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover