2 History |
From the seventeenth century to
the middle of the twentieth
13. Striking images of drunkenness such as Hogarth's
"Gin Lane" have encouraged a widespread belief that
the English have always been a nation of drunks. To examine the
truth of such beliefs we sought written and oral evidence from
a number of historians of alcohol.
Their evidence shows that far from being a story of perpetual
drunkenness, English drinking habits fluctuated widely around
a long term trend which was downward to the mid 20th century before
the extraordinary increase in consumption over the last 50 years.
Dr Nicholls told us that:
It is important to bear in mind that in Britain drinking has had peaks but it has also
had troughs; it has had some very low troughs. My personal concern about this is
that if we overstate the idea that the British just like to drink that may have a negative
consequence in the sense that it reinforces a certain expectation.
Figure 1: Estimated per capita consumption 1800-1935
Source: G. Wilson, Alcohol and the Nation
14. The historians who gave evidence to us differed
slightly in their emphasis but essentially presented the same
picture which is summarised in the box below. We were told that
there was a long decline in alcohol consumption from the late
17th century with a blip in the first half of the 18th century
associated with the gin craze. Levels rose again in the mid-nineteenth
century but fell rapidly and significantly later in the century.
They reached low levels in the inter-war years and remained low
until the 1960s. The last thirty or forty years have seen a significant
shift in these long-term trends, not just because consumption
levels are rising again, but because of the growing popularity
of stronger drinks (wine and spirits).
History of alcohol consumption
|1550-1650: commercialisation of domestic brewing industry; tobacco a commodity of mass consumption and an accompaniment to drinking; increased market for French wineshigher per head until present day 
1650-1750: the period 'when Europeans took to soft drugs', including coffee, tea and chocolate; the intermittent gin craze from the 1730s to the 1750s masks a stabilisation or decline in alcohol consumption over the period. Beer was promoted by many anti-gin campaigners as the patriotic (and sober) alternative to gin. Despite this, beer consumption fell significantly throughout the 18th century, largely due to the increasing popularity of tea, coffee and chocolate .
1750 to 1850: fall in alcohol consumption up to about 1840, particularly wine, increase in tea, which replaced beer as the popular staple of every day consumption.
1850 to late 19th century: large increase in consumption; the 'consumption of beer, wine and spirits all peaked around 1875. The consumption of tea also grew'. These trends were associated with rising living standards.
Late 19th century to mid-20th century: decline in consumption per headassociated with temperance movement, alternative leisure activities, including public parks and libraries.
Mid-20th century onwards: increase in consumption from 3.5 litres per head to 9.5 (with slight falls in the early 1990s and 2005 onwards)
15. Like the myth that the English have always been drunk, the
contrast between English drunkenness and civilised Mediterranean
habits may also be something of a myth. While there is a good
deal of literature in the past complaining about binge-drinking,
the historians pointed out that little is known about the origins
of the modern Mediterranean approach to drinking and it is therefore
difficult to say how far back the contrast can be taken.
16. Within the overall trends, different groups in
Great Britain had very different drinking patterns. People in
the countryside drank less than those in towns. Some groups were
teetotal. According to the historian, James Kneale, it is not
particularly helpful to talk of a 'British attitude to drinking',
as there have always been large geographical variations in alcohol
there has been considerable geographical variation
as well as a good deal of historical change. As noted above
Across the UK urban dwellers tended to consume more alcohol than
their rural counterparts, and areas dominated by trades like mining
and dock work also recorded higher levels. In 1900 the average
per capita expenditure on alcoholic drink was estimated to be
£4 10s 4d a year; the average dock worker was thought to
spend 8s 4½d on drink every week
, nearly five times
as much as the average figure for the country.
17. We asked the historians about the causes of changes
in consumption. They pointed to two main groups of, sometimes
the affordability of alcohol and the liberalness of the licensing
regime have clearly had an impact on consumption: for example,
the 18th century gin craze was linked to the Government's encouragement
of gin production and restriction of brandy imports; the rise
in consumption in the 19th century was associated with rising
living standards. On the other hand, Government can bring about
significant reductions in consumption:
- the First World War, which
marks a significant moment because of the Government's efforts
to control alcohol production and consumptionthe most sustained
attempt to come to grips with drink in British history. Measures
included shorter opening hours, higher duties on beer, and significant
reductions in both the production and strength of beer. The amount
of beer consumed in 1918 was nearly half of the pre-war total,
despite rising incomes, and arrests for drunkenness in England
and Wales fell from 190,000 to 29,000 between 1913 and 1918..
some changes in culture have been encouraged by changes in affordability
and availability, but at other times, changes in culture have
nullified increases in affordability; Kneale observes the decline
in drinking in the late 19th century:
By the 1880s there were many counter-attractions
for working-class consumers (music halls, football, cigarettes,
and holidays); this decline seems to be a question of changing
He adds that in the inter-war years
While the Depression undoubtedly kept demand low
in some areas, the majority of workers saw real wages increase
between the wars. However, spending on alcohol did not increase,
because drink had many rivals now: radios and gramophones, gardening,
cinema and the pools.
From the 1960s to the present
18. Over the last half century there has been a massive
increase in drinking, not just because consumption levels are
rising again, but because of the growing popularity of stronger
drinks, in particular wine and spirits and more recently strong
white cider. As graph one shows, we now drink about three times
more per head than in the years of lowest consumption.
Figure 1 - per capita alcohol consumption in the
UK (litres of pure alcohol)
Source: Statistical handbook 2007 (British Beer
and Pub Association, 2007)
19. The changes of the last half century have been
associated by witnesses with the factors listed below, which are
the same as the factors which influenced drinking in the past,
ie. economics (affordability and availability) and changes in
culture. They are discussed in more detail in the chapters below.
20. Affordability is a key influence on alcohol consumption
and alcohol has become more affordable because of rising incomes,
the failure of duty, notably the duty on spirits, to rise in step
even with general inflation (let alone incomes) and aggressive
promotions and discounts, particularly by supermarkets competing
for business. It has been estimated that between 1980 and 2007
alcohol became 69.4% more affordable, relative to household incomes.
Alcohol has become more available because of the huge growth in
the number of supermarkets which sell alcohol, an increasingly
liberal regime for off-licence sales and a more liberal on-licence
regime. There has also been a change in fashion over the last
40 years; as we have seen, in the 1940s young people preferred
milk bars and coffee bars to pubs. These issues are discussed
in more detail in the chapters below. 
21. We received a good deal of evidence about who
drinks what. According to the Department of Health 10 million
adults drink more than the recommended limits.
These 10 million drink 75% of all alcohol consumed in the country.
2.6 million adults (8% of men and 6% of women) drink above the
higher-risk levels, ie more than double the Government's guidelines
(6 units for women, 8 units for men daily), drinking a third of
all alcohol consumed in the country.
Data on alcohol consumption from the latest General Household
Survey showed that over a third of adults (37%) exceed the recommended
maximum alcohol guidelines on their heaviest drinking day of the
22. One of the biggest change in the last 50 years
has been in the drinking habits of women and young people:
Whatever their social and cultural standingi.e.
Ugandan 'youths', medieval knights, the Victorian urban 'poor';
20th century 'post-modernists', 16th century 'wits', Somali village
eldersdrinking, especially to excess, has been a masculine
preserve. What is striking about current trends in Britain is
that women are now engaging in many of the same drinking practices
as men, and consuming similar if not more amounts of alcohol in
Teenagers drink twice as much as they did in 1990;
The following figure shows the sharp rises in consumption:
Figure 2 - mean alcohol consumption (units) in the
last week, by sex in pupils aged 11 to 15, England, 1990-2006
Source: Smoking, drinking and drug use among young
people in England in 2006: headline figures (Information Centre
for Health and Social Care, National Centre for Social Research,
National Foundation for Educational Research, 2007)
23. Professor Plant, who has been involved in surveys
of 15 and 16 year olds across Europe from Greenland to Russia.,
told us that British teenagers
have consistently reported very high levels of periodic
heavy drinking, very high levels of intoxication, they also report
exceptionally positive views of what their expectations are going
to be about when they go out to drink
In the latest survey UK teenagers reported 'high
levels binge drinking, intoxication and alcohol-related individual,
relationship, sexual and delinquency problems', ranking third
just after Bulgaria and the Isle of Man.
24. The drinking habits of young people of university
age is widely commented on. During the course of our inquiry,
our attention was drawn to reports of student "binge drinking",
particularly during the annual "Freshers' Week" in September.
The most high profile of these reports featured the trial of one
inebriated student that had urinated on a war memorial, while
taking part in a commercially-organised student event. As a result
of this and other controversies, we invited written evidence from
university representatives and student events promoters.
25. The National Union of Students
argued that "students' unions are some of the most responsible
retailers of alcohol". However, it accepted that unions needed
to maintain alcohol sales in order to fund student services, and
that this had led to drinks promotions and consequently binge
drinking and anti-social behaviour in some cases.
Universities UK insisted
that universities "did not have a duty of care for their
students" but it recognised that they had a "significant
interest in their welfare". It accepted that there is "clearly
a problem in some parts of the country with aggressive external
promoters targeting young people".
26. Varsity Leisure Group Limited is the owner of
the "Carnage UK" brand which has become, unfairly or
otherwise, a notorious example of a promoter of nightclub events
for students. Despite the brand name, Varsity Leisure Group told
us that "Carnage UK events are based around collective identity,
meeting new people and having fun". It stressed that there
were no offers on alcoholic drinks at its events, and soft drinks
are provided to students free of charge. Nevertheless, the organisation
concluded that "students are being immersed into a culture
which is focussed around the culture of alcohol. The culture may
need to change; the offering of cheap drinks promotions and alcohol-led
events may need to be addressed".
27. According to HM Revenue and Customs data, since
2004 when consumption peaked, there has been a slight decrease
in alcohol consumption in terms of litres of pure alcohol. UK
per capita consumption rose by 27% between 1995 and 2004, but
then until 2007 fell by 3%. There has not been a clear and consistent
pattern of falling consumption since 2003 as shown in the figure
below. It is unclear whether the recent fall in consumption represents
a watershed or is merely a temporary phenomenon. There was also
a dip in the early 1990s.
Figure 3: Consumption of pure alcohol
Source: Data from BPA handbook but based on HM
Revenue and Customs data
28. The Portman group and industry representatives
state that 29% of the male population drank more than 21 units
a week in 2000, but that the figure was 23% in 2006.
On the other hand, the latest ONS figures show that hazardous
drinking had in fact increased between 2000-2008 from 24% to 28%
in men, and from 15% to 17% in women.
The BMA has urged caution in interpreting the recent figures as
reflecting a real long-term change in drinking habits:
It is important to note that it is not yet possible
to determine whether these recent trends in alcohol consumption
are genuine long-term changes in drinking habits. It may be that
there is an increased tendency to under-report consumption due
to the recent extensive publicity about binge drinking and the
dangers of heavy consumption. Data from future years will provide
a clearer indication of any long-term trends.
Conclusions and recommendations
history of the consumption of alcohol over the last 500 years
has been one of fluctuations, of peaks and troughs. From the late
17th century to the mid-19th the trend was for consumption per
head to decline despite brief periods of increased consumption
such as the gin craze. From the mid- to the late 19th century
there was a sharp increase in consumption which was followed by
a long and steep decline in consumption until the mid 20th century.
variations in consumption are associated both with changes in
affordability and availability, but also changes in taste. Alternative
drinks such as tea and alternative pastimes affected consumption.
Different groups drank very different amounts. Government has
played a significant role both positive and negative, for example
in reducing consumption in the First World War as well as in stimulating
the 18th century gin craze by encouraging the consumption of cheap
gin instead of French brandy.
31. From the
1960s consumption rose again. At its lowest levels in the 1930s
and -40s annual per capita consumption was about 3 litres of pure
alcohol; by 2005 it was over 9 litres. These changes are, as in
past centuries, associated with changing fashion and an increase
in affordability, availability and expenditure on marketing. Just
as Government policy played a part in encouraging the gin craze,
successive Government policies have played a part in encouraging
the increase in alcohol consumption over the last 50 years. Currently
over 10 million adults drink more than the recommended limits.
These people drink 75% of all the alcohol consumed. 2.6 million
adults drink more than twice the recommended limits. The alcohol
industry emphasises that these figures represent a minority of
the population; health professionals stress that they are a very
large number of people who are putting themselves at risk. We
share these concerns.
32. One of the
biggest changes over the last 60 years has been in the drinking
habits of young people, including students. While individual cases
of student drunkenness are regrettable and cannot be condoned,
we consider that their actions are quite clearly a product of
the society and culture to which they belong. The National Union
of Students and the universities themselves appear to recognise
the existence of a student binge drinking culture, but all too
often their approach appears much too passive and tolerant. We
recommend that universities take a much more active role in discouraging
irresponsible drinking amongst students. They should ensure that
students are not subjected to marketing activity that promotes
dangerous binge drinking. The first step must be for universities
to acknowledge that they do indeed have a most important moral
"duty of care" to their students, and for them to take
this duty far more seriously than they do at present.
33. Since 2004
there has been a slight fall in total consumption but it is unclear
whether this represents a watershed or a temporary blip as in
the early 1990s.
34. We now turn to look at how much of a problem
the levels of drinking described in this chapter are. What health
risks are people running in drinking over the recommended limit
or even double the limit?
11 The historians were Dr James Kneale, UCL, Dr Angela
McShane, V and A Museum, Dr James Nicholls, Bath spa University,
Dr Phil Withington, University of Cambridge. Back
Q 67 Back
AL 59 Back
AL 57 Back
AL 57 Back
AL 59 Back
AL 57, AL 59 Back
AL 57 Back
Q 72 Back
Q 66 Back
AL 55 Back
AL 55 Back
AL 55 Back
AL 55 Back
AL 59 Back
Q 26 Back
AL 01 Back
AL 01 Back
AL 57 Back
Q 85 Back
Q 81 Back
The national body representing 600 affiliated students' unions
across the UK. Back
AL 82 Back
The representative organisation for the heads of universities. Back
AL 83 Back
AL 64 Back
The e-mail was sent from the BPA to our adviser, Dr Nick Sheron
by Mark Hastings. Back
AL 35 Back
ONS, Drinking: adults' behaviour and knowledge in 2008,
Opinions (Omnibus) Survey Report No. 39, 2009, table 2.1. Back
BMA, Alcohol misuse: tackling the UK epidemic. February