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Trouble Brewing: Asquith's Licensing Bill

Britain’s concerns over binge drinking are nothing new says Luci Gosling, who describes how the brewing industry united to wreck Asquith’s Licensing Bill of 1908.

It is the avowed intention of the Government to introduce a new Licensing Bill of a drastic nature. The details of this Bill have been carefully guarded, but there can be little doubt that increased taxation, either of the brewer or the licensed victualler, and the imposition of a ‘time limit’ on licences already granted, is sought to be imposed.

From a Liberal standpoint, the legislation was firmly grounded in moral responsibility and intended less to weaken the commercial interests of wealthy brewers than to remedy social ills. Widespread drunkenness was an enduring concern to which Victorian and Edwardian social reformers strove to find a solution. The 1870s are regarded as the pinnacle of insobriety, with a staggering average of 40.5 gallons of beer consumed per capita per year. Between 1860 and 1876, arrests for drunkenness had more than doubled, although the population  had risen by only 10 per cent. In the industrial cities of the North, particularly Liverpool and Newcastle, arrests far exceeded the national average, reflecting a clear correlation between the higher earnings of urban workers and the increase in drinking and, inevitably, drunkenness.

The brewers were quick to exploit the opportunities industrialization brought with it. There were a hundred drinking establishments in just half a mile of the industrial quarter of Birmingham, while in Liverpool docks, within a tiny 200 yard radius, a staggering forty-six pubs waited to relieve sailors of their hard-earned wages. As much as a quarter of some working-class incomes was spent on alcohol and, aside from the associated ravaging social effects – domestic violence, crime, disease, slums and premature death – the effects of over-indulgence and temptation impacted elsewhere. The prospect of profits spurred many businessmen to become temperance advocates after experiencing the effects of alcohol in their factories. 

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