Temperance and Work

Temperance and Work: A Relationship Forged Through Industrialisation

BLT19 is a site essentially about how our attitudes to work were spread and fostered by the Victorian media: BLT19 stands for “19th-century Business, Labour, Trade and Temperance periodicals.” It’s pretty clear what Business, Labour and Trade have to do with work – but what about “Temperance”?

In this series of pieces, (What Was Temperance? What has Temperance got to do with work? Saint Monday, The Broader Temperance Aims of the British Workman and the British Workwoman and Everything Stops For Tea) Dr Deborah Canavan explains why “Temperance” is a key aspect of BLT19. As you’ll see, it has strong echoes with substance abuse campaigns of the twentieth century and today. Of course substance abuse (which includes alcohol and smoking) really is very bad for our bodies, but there’s more to it than that.

What was Temperance?

Almost two hundred years ago, concerns about excessive drinking, particularly amongst the working class, developed into an important social and political movement in Britain called Temperance. Earlier decades had witnessed anti-spirits campaigns and a nascent anti-alcohol lobby but it was during the 1830s that the movement took root amongst working-class communities and established a distinct identity. These pioneering temperance campaigners were, in part, inspired by the fledgling temperance mobilisation in America, and their commitment was galvanised following Parliament’s enactment of the Beer Act in 1830. This legislation allowed a new type of beer outlet to the traditional public house which was outside the jurisdiction of the local magistrates and allowed any ratepayer to open up a ‘beer house’ or ‘beer shop’ just about anywhere on the basis of an annual fee of two guineas. Concerned observers of the time commented that the Beer Act had resulted in an exponential rise in beer consumption and declared:

Everybody is drunk. Those who are not singing are sprawling. The sovereign people are in a beastly state.[1] 

While some historians question how much additional beer was actually drunk as a result of liberalising beer regulations [2] there was a strongly held perception that it had increased rates of drunkenness along with its accompanying social problems of domestic violence, crime, poverty and destitution.

Joseph Livesey (1798-1884) was one of the founding members of the Preston teetotalers who were committed to total abstinence from drinking. Most of the dozen or so temperance societies, which mostly supported abstinence were located in the manufacturing districts of the north. [3]  Livesey’s early temperance publication the Preston Temperance Advocate (1834–37) was a weekly paper supporting existing, grass-roots temperance activists by advertising meetings and sharing local knowledge. The periodical’s influence extended beyond Lancashire and its reader updates captured the strength of support as both men and women signed up to take the pledge not to drink. For instance a report from the secretary of the Helmsley, North Yorkshire temperance group reported to the paper in 1836 expressed the success of their local branch as well as their despair for their geographical neighbours:

Figure 1 Preston Temperance Advocate January 1836: 9

Temperance grew into a complex mass movement as the nineteenth century unfolded and  incorporated a broad spectrum of approaches to address the scourge of alcohol. By the 1850s it had become a national movement made up of multiple organisations, with membership levels reaching six million by 1900[4] and had won support from the vast majority of religious denominations. [5]

Members ranged from secular Chartists, abstentionists such as Livesey, prohibitionists (who believed alcohol should be banned) through to Evangelical Christians who advocated moral persuasion to curb intemperance. These viewpoints were reflected in the periodical literature of the time. In addition to Livesey’s abstentionist Preston Temperance Advocate, prohibitionist periodicals included Job Caudwell’s (1820-1908) Temperance Star (1857-1876) and much more moderate religious and temperance supporting magazines such as the British Workman and British Workwoman both featured on this website.

Figure 2 ‘Changes Effected by the Present Remarkable Revival of Religion.  “By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know them”.
British Workman December 1859: 240

What has Temperance got to do with Work?

Everything! Temperance ideas played an intrinsic role in the transition to a regulated and disciplined workforce in the nineteenth century. In fact historians suggest a link between the nascent temperance movement and the growth of textile manufacturing in the textile towns of Preston, Bradford and Leeds. Mill owners and textile manufacturers were seeking a sober and reliable workforce to operate the machinery and ensure continued efficient operations throughout the week. There are examples of mill owners supporting temperance societies as well as their supporting them financially through temperance subscription lists.[6]  Livesey was well aware of the advantages for industrialists. He reportedly addressed crowds at his Malt Lecture on teetotalism with:

Are you CAPITALISTS?… What a comfort to live in the midst of a sober population! The Temperance Society is an insurance for safety of every man’s property. Drunkenness and disorder are sure to drive capital away…

Joseph Livesey Malt Lecture cited in Harrison, 1972: 95

In Livesey’s Preston Temperance Advocate the same sentiments can be found linking employment prospects with sobriety and the important of dependability:

WHAT IS IT THAT MULTIPLIES MACHINERY- Drunkenness! Masters not being able to depend upon the men, in consequence of drinking, are continually investing new machinery, in order to dispense with manual labour. These machines drink nothing but water, and, therefore, they are willing to work every day in the week, and consequently can be depended upon.  

Preston Temperance Advocate May 1836: 39


WHAT IS IT THAT MULTIPLIES APPRENTICES? – Drunkenness! Masters cannot depend upon their journeymen in many trades. Many of them lose Monday, and some of them half the week, and hence they are continually obliged to disappoint their customers.                       

Preston Temperance Advocate May 1836: 39

It is not difficult to understand the advantages for employers and why they sought temperance observing employees. As well as being reliably abstemious such employees were also likely to be blessed with the broader dependable attributes that accompanied most temperance practice. Yet the pre-industrial culture of many working-class communities operated within much more flexible working patterns at odds with the new demands of industry. A good example of this is the working-class cultural practice of observing Mondays as part of their leisure time or, as it was commonly known, as celebrating ‘Saint Monday’.

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

[1] Sydney Smith cited in Brian Harrison. Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815-1872. London: Faber & Faber. 1971, 82.

[2] Harrison (1971) 82.

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

[4] McAllister (2016) 352.

[5] Harrison (1971) 181.

[6] Joseph Livesey’s Malt Lecture cited in Harrison (1971) 95.