As the festivities of Christmas and celebrations of the New Year have drawn to a close, many people give up drinking alcohol for the month, in what has recently become known as ‘Dry January’. The annual campaign promotes the many health benefits of abstaining, in turn highlighting the negative impacts. There have been many organisations in history which have promoted moderation and abstinence in the use of alcohol, most notably The Temperance movement which arose at the beginning of the 19th century. Did you know that one of the first British temperance societies was formed in Birmingham?
The Birmingham Temperance Society was founded in 1830, acting as a movement against the widespread, destructive drinking of the time. Death rates greatly outnumbered birth rates, with ill heath, crime and poverty prevalent. During the 1820’s, alcohol usage was widespread among all social classes, if not more so among the social groups who could least afford it. Water, when it was accessible, was unsafe and so alcoholic beverages became a primary thirst quencher, even administered by hospitals to patients.
Initially, they did not promote total abstinence, rather objecting to the abuse of hard, potent spirits that were rife at the time, deeming the social use of beer and ciders acceptable, and seen as ‘temperance drinks’. Later on, a vow of total abstinence of any alcoholic drink was adopted by the movement.
William Collins, founding publisher of Collins, Sons & Co. Ltd. and temperance activist, arrived in Birmingham on business, and was disturbed by the heavy drinking of strong spirits prevalent within the ‘Gin Palaces’ of the time. He voiced his concerns during a meeting held on August 30th, 1830, in the Offices of the Mendicity Society which was attended by leading businessmen and Churchmen of the time. The suggestion of forming a Temperance Society was welcomed, and following the signing of a declaration, The Birmingham Temperance Society was formed.
The core beliefs and ideologies of the society are printed in ‘A Manual for Temperance Societies’ [Ref. LS 11/8/28/63233] along with the standard pledge, which all members would sign up to:
‘I do voluntary promise, that I will abstain from Ale, Porter, Wine, Cider, Ardent Spirits, and all other Intoxicating Liquors; and I will not give [out] to others, except as Medicines, or in Religious Ordinance; and I will endeavour to discountenance the causes and practice of Intemperance’ – [Seventh Chapter. The pledge]
‘Temperance Reformation; A Selection of Tracts and Handbills’ [Ref. L 41.9] is an insightful collection of temperance literature, sourced from pamphlets, leaflets, and posters, promoting the ideologies and beliefs of the society. One of the items in this volume, ‘The Wonderful Advantages of Drunkenness stated in 30 Maxims Worth Remembering’, takes on a satirical tone, listing us through the many ill effects of alcohol:
‘If you wish to be always thirsty, be a Drunkard; for the oftener and more you drink of intoxicating liquors, the oftener and more thirsty you will be.
If you would wish to blunt your senses, be a Drunkard; and you will soon be more stupid than an ass.
If you are determined to be poor, be a Drunkard, and you will soon be ragged and pennyless.
If you would wish to starve your family, be a Drunkard; for that will consume the means of their support.
If you would be a dead weight on the community, be a Drunkard; for that will render you useless, helpless, burdensome and expensive.’
In a handbill entitled ‘The Public House’ we are warned of the destructive environments held within:
‘Keep away from the public house – you will derive no advantage from its company. There the drunkard holds his detestable revels – there the gambler entices to the waste of property – there the blasphemer utters his horrible imprecations – there those who are ripe for destruction tempt others to imitate their crimes, and lead the unwary to their ruin.’
An intricate engraving portrays ‘The Temperance Tree’, symbolising the blessings which spring from total abstinence:
‘Abstinence from all intoxicating drinks purifies the blood, preserves beauty, increases strength and assists reason, it intends to make man moral, is an angel to his soul a friend to his pocket, his wife’s joy & his children’s blessing, it elevates man in the scale of society, prepares for the reception of the truths of religion which will make him happy here, everlastingly happy hereafter, he is a friend to his race, who prays for others good health & seeks to preserve his own.’
On the opposite side is illustrated ‘The Drunkard’s Tree’, depicting the many evils which wreak from drunkenness:
‘Drunkenness corrupts the blood, defaces beauty, diminishes strength, weakens the brain & destroys reason, it hardens the hear, is a devil to the soul, a thief to the purse, the beggars companion, the wife’s woe & the children’s sorrow, it degrades man below the level of the brute and exposes him hereafter to divine displeasure, eternal damnation, he is a self-murderer who drinks to others good health and robs himself of his own.’
The society prospered with increased membership, moving premises from Bennetts Hill to the Temperance Hall in Temple Street. The ‘Women’s Temperance League’ branch was formed, as well as ‘The Birmingham Temperance Society Philharmonic Choir’, to promote the social activities of the society.
Tom Kennedy, Archives & Collections Assistant