2020 - 2021 Modern Volume 15

Celebrating Sobriety: The Victorian Temperance Party Scene

By Cath H Kennedy

The English have been famous through the ages for their binge drinking, but when the government tried deregulating the beer supply to working-class areas, as a means to stem demand for gin in 1830, they badly miscalculated. Accounts of the resulting disorder suggest that the worst Saturday night brawl today would pale by comparison. Trying to engineer solutions to social problems by steering the market for alcohol had led to a crisis, and a Northern campaigning movement emerged with a radical alternative strategy: reduce demand instead of tinkering with supply.

The Sheffield Temperance Society was established in 1831, promoting moderation in drinking. It was one organisation among many. The UK Temperance League was founded in Preston in 1832, promoting total abstinence from alcohol, which became the model nationwide. (Its headquarters moved to Sheffield in 1880). Temperance made very little headway at first. Members’ alleged lack of humour was ridiculed in the press, and their lurid propaganda undermined their credibility. For early Victorians, alcohol was an essential foodstuff and a man’s right. Suggesting he should give it up was an attack on manliness and on enjoyment. However, the video below shows that by the turn of the 20th century, Temperance was mainstream. This reversal cannot be explained by any single factor.

The Temperance youth movement, the ‘Band of Hope’ may have aided Temperance’s acceptance by the working classes. At its meetings, children were entertained and educated in basic household accounting, raising their aspirations. Additionally, in the mid-19th century, men started to be involved in family activities within the home, and women were increasingly active in the public sphere. Temperance was very much a part of this evolution in gender roles alongside other campaigning movements such as women’s suffrage.

However, for ‘tea-totalling’ to have succeeded to the extent that it did, it must have had something truly gripping to offer, and children’s work cannot account for its storming of the mainstream. There had to be more razmataz somewhere. I suggest that Temperance’s secret weapon was something we see today as the most quintessentially British tradition: the tea party, seen in ‘Midsummer Murders’ or ‘Miss Marple’ in what we might call its late, attenuated form. However tame it may seem, when this type of social gathering was invented in the 1850’s, largely in Northern England, it was nothing short of revolutionary.

Prior to Temperance, the social classes almost never mixed. Furthermore, because working class revelry often centred on drinking and gambling (sometimes involving animal cruelty and fighting) it tended to be gender-segregated. In response, Temperance capitalised on tea which, although widely consumed, was rumoured to have similar ‘narcotic’ effects to alcohol and was allegedly socially subversive because it took men away from male spaces and kept them at home. Some conservative doctors wanted it regulated. The temperance leagues were clearly not averse to controversy and understood its marketing value.

Temperance tea parties have been described as ‘mass gustatory spectacles’. For example, in 1832 in Preston, over 500 people gathered around huge tea-urns and tables piled high with breads, cake and fresh fruit distributed freely, and free of charge. The mixing of men and women, and of age groups, was novel at the time, and men who allegedly never missed the races stayed all afternoon and thoroughly enjoyed themselves despite it being race day. In the UK, we forget there was a time before the parish tea party and church fete in the forms we know today, but parties like the one in Preston were where they started. No wonder Lewis Carol parodied them in Alice in Wonderland. They were still going strong when he was writing but he clearly didn’t see the point of them.

Tea parties spread throughout the UK, often including dancing and singing, and sometimes aimed at a particular demographic, but consistently celebrating social mixing, abundance, and an aspirational consumer culture. Through its tea-themed events, Temperance proposed alternatives to alcohol which enabled meeting outside the tavern or beer shop, and whole-family socialising. The Temperance party scene cut across class, gender and age lines in a way which was genuinely new in the English-speaking world, thereby laying the foundation for later campaigning movements such as the Women’s Institute. Despite their broad, long-lasting influence on British society, they are largely forgotten and are under-represented in publicly accessible archives. Because of this, the very different Boston ‘tea party’ has eclipsed British Temperance tea parties in the public record. The mass tea-themed event was very much a phenomenon of its time and could not be replicated today, but it contributed to the improvement in working people’s lives through the late 19th century. As such, it deserves to be better remembered and, dare I suggest, celebrated.

Further Reading (open source)

Anonymous. “Sources for the Study of Sheffield and the Temperance Movement.” 2012 – 17, Sheffield City Council. https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/home/libraries-archives/access-archives-local-studies-library/research-guides/temperance-movement

Erin Blakemore. “Tea Parties for Temperance”. Nov 22, 2020 JSTOR. https://daily.jstor.org/tea-parties-for-temperance/

Stephanie Olsen. “’Happy Home’ and ‘Happy Land’: Informal Emotional Education in British Bands of Hope, 1880 – 1914.” July 1, 2015, Historia y Memoria de la Educación. https://doaj.org/article/d92b9ce44fd049078cd3708715581c8d

Temperance and the Working Class, directed by Annemarie McAlister, UCLAN. http://www.demondrink.co.uk/

Federation of Women’s Institutes website: https://www.thewi.org.uk/