Temperance and ‘Saint Monday’

The observance of ‘Saint Monday’ as a day of leisure was a common custom in working-class communities during the first half of the nineteenth-century. It petered out by the end of the 1870s linked to the economic demands of industrial capitalism as well as moral and social pressures to conform to a new rational way of working. Research into the working practices amongst working-class communities in Birmingham in the early nineteenth century evidences that the small workshops within the town which centred on metal works continued the practice of Saint Monday long into the century as leisure time was given a high priority. Records of rail excursions, attendance at botanical gardens, theatres shows and visits to the ale-house show that Monday was a particularly popular day for such events.[1]   

The application of steam-power to hardware production in the mid-nineteenth century is considered the point at which the Saint Monday tradition began to seriously erode in Birmingham as hardware work scaled up and followed the cotton industry in its use of steam power. The most economically efficient use of these machines required workers to be disciplined, to attend the workplace regularly and on time, including Mondays. Evidence shows that workers resisted this infringement of their leisure time but eventually the threat of unemployment was a significant deterrent which got them into line. What appears to have sealed the fate of Saint Monday however was the Saturday half-day holiday movement in the 1850s, which was eventually made mandatory through the 1867 Factory Act and saw most factories implement a 1pm or 2pm closure on Saturdays by 1876. [2]  Many employers were quick to support this measure whereby ‘half a day was given in exchange for a whole one’. [3]  In June 1853 the Birmingham Journal reported that John Henderson of the London Iron-works, Smethwick, referred to Saint Monday as an “evil practice” and that:

He believed that everything which was done to induce the working classes to be more steady, to promote temperance amongst them, to spread education amongst them, to give them the means of lawful recreation, must be eventually of advantage to the employer.

John Henderson Birmingham Journal June 1853 [4]

Traditional leisure arrangements such as Saint Monday were now demonised, associated with backwardness and intemperance. The shift towards time-discipline the ideology of “honest labour” and the “rational” use of time became strongly associated with moral improvement and progress. [5]  Temperance was therefore intrinsically linked with the drive for a regulated and disciplined workforce which, as John Henderson spelt out, was fully supported by industry.

A short story featured in the November 1860 issue of the British Workman magazine offers a perfect illustration  of the moral pressure on workers to reform and give up Saint Monday and all it implied.  In ‘What Better Are You for Good Wages?’ two neighbours meet on a Tuesday morning. Clearly hungover from the previous day’s excesses the narrator admonishments his neighbour William for drinking on Monday to which William retorted:

Why it wur playday yesterday, an’ a few of us had a bit of a lark, and I had a drop or two too much.

(narrator) What then you have regular playdays?

(William) Why, yes, I always make a holiday of Monday, when I can. You see it would be a sore hardship to work all the week round; to be at it all the day long from Monday to Saturday night, and that from one end o’ th’ year to the other; it would be no better than slavery. As well go to t’ treadmill at once.     

The British Workman November 1860: 282
‘What Better Are You for Good Wages?’ The British Workman November 1860: 282

The conversation continued with the narrator spelling out the wages lost through ‘52 St Mondays’ the money wasted ‘in drink and folly’ on a Monday, as well as the Sunday excursions and ‘revelry’. Strong advice was proffered to William to renounce his companions and ‘break away from the public house’. [6]

Temperance was a complex political movement and the drive to develop a disciplined sober workforce was not confined to industrialists alone. Social reformers and nascent union organisations realised that temperance was necessary if working people were to be taken seriously in their struggle to achieve suffrage. Sobriety was also considered necessary to achieve a politically organised workforce. Social reformer Richard Cobden described temperance in the 1830s as lying at the ‘root of all social and political progression in this country’. [7] Teetotal supporters in particular were often aligned to other progressive causes including anti-slavery, Anti-Corn Law, the peace movement, Anti-Contagious Diseases Acts, and Chartism.[8]

The thrust for ‘progress’ and the ‘advancement of the working-class’ therefore held distinctly different meanings and objectives depending on political, economic or religious perspectives.

Read about the broader temperance aims of the British Workman and the British Workwoman and the link between tea breaks and temperance.

[1] Douglas Reid ‘The Decline of Saint Monday’ 1766-1876  Past and Present May 1976 :87 Oxford, Oxford University Press.1976, 82.

[2] Reid (1976) 100.

[3] Reid (1976) 101.

[4] Henderson cited in Reid (1976) 87.

[5] Reid (1976) 99.

[6] British Workman November 1860, 282.

[7] Annemarie McAllister ‘Temperance Periodicals.’ In The Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers, eds. A. King, A. Easley, and J. Morton, 342-54. Oxon: Ashgate. 2016. 343.

[8] Brian Harrison Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815-1872. London: Faber & Faber. 1971, 173-4.