Alcohol - Health Committee Contents

Memorandum by Dr James Kneale (AL 55)



  1.  Contemporary discussions of British drinking often suggest breaks or continuities with the past, but these tend to draw on recent experience. A focus on questions of alcohol supply, for example, reflects the spectacular boom of the "night-time economy" over the last 30 years.

  2.  However there has been a long decline in alcohol consumption from the late 17th century. Levels rose again in the 19th century but fell rapidly and significantly from the late 1880s onwards, remaining low until the late 1960s.

  3.  The last 30 or 40 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).

  4.  These changes are not a simple consequence of the availability of alcohol. Changing levels of prosperity are also significant, but rising income has not always resulted in increased consumption. For this reason it is also essential to consider changing consumer habits.

  5.   Government intervention seems to have been most effective when it has followed the tide of events; free trade policies have had a limited or temporary effect when set against long-term decline and the slow evolution of consumer tastes. Recent growth does not seem to be the result of any particular policy relating to alcohol, though the licensing of supermarkets from the 1960s may have encouraged domestic drinking.


  6.  I am a historical geographer in the Department of Geography at UCL. I am interested in the place of alcohol in 19th and 20th century British culture and have published on the internal organisation of the pub, its role in urban public space, and geographical aspects of alcohol policy over the last century and a half.


The 19th Century

  7.  We think of the century as a time of great drunkenness, particularly in comparison with the 20th, but it represents part of a very long-term decline in the significance of drink for British society. In the 17th century beer was an essential aspect of everyday life (and diet); it has been estimated that consumption reached over 100 gallons per head per year in 1689. Beer drinking declined during the 18th century, and while drink remained important in the 19th century the period between 1800 and 1960 saw consumption fall to its lowest recorded point. This constitutes a decline over more than two and a half centuries, which puts the recent revival of drinking into perspective.

  8.  Between 1830-34 and 1895-99 the annual per capita consumption of beer in England and Wales rose by only 2%—though for the UK as a whole this figure was 44%, reminding us that different places had different drink problems (see 25 below). The annual per capita consumption of spirits rose by around 25% in the UK over the century. The 1830s and 1870s represent peak consumption years for beer, spirits and wine, with the 1840s and late 1880s representing slumps.

  9.  Free trade arguments prompted lower spirit duties in the 1820s and inspired the 1830 Beerhouse Act. There were about 45,000 pubs in the UK in 1830 but by 1838 nearly 46,000 beerhouses had been added to this total under the new Act. Despite the increased availability of beer and lower prices consumption rose only briefly before levelling off again by 1840; spirit drinking also rose and fell between 1825 to 1840. The decline in the 1840s is probably due to hardship as well as changing tastes (competition from tea). Levels of prosperity and changing habits can be just as significant as availability and price.

  10.  The second and more significant peak in the 1870s was the culmination of a slow, steady rise to the century's highest level. This seems likely to have been a reflection of prosperity and rising wages. It has been suggested that working-class consumers saw drink as a "treat"—not as a necessity, as it had been before the 19th century—and as a good way to dispose of rising incomes. This seems to have been short-lived as consumption levels began to fall again in the 1880s despite wages rising until the mid 1890s. 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 tastes.

The 20th Century

  11.  Per capita consumption of beer and spirits continued to decline until the First World War, which marks a significant moment because of the Government's efforts to control alcohol production and consumption—the 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.

  12.  Levels of consumption continued to fall after the war. Britain had become more home-centred, and these homes were often new ones, far from pubs or off-licences. 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. Per capita beer consumption hit what is probably a historic low point in the first half of the 1930s, about half of what it had been in 1900; it rallied briefly after the end of the Second World War, but demand only really began to pick up again in the late 1960s.

  13.  The post-war revival in drinking is extremely significant. It represents a return to levels of drinking last seen before the First World War; but it also shows a significant shift in tastes. The slow rise from the 1960s probably reflects another case of prosperity-inspired drinking; it also reflects the increased participation of women in the workplace, leading to a rise in the demand for wine in particular. Over the last thirty years the consumption of beer has risen and fallen again, but recent falls have been eclipsed by the rise of wine-drinking. The consumption of wine almost doubled between 1985 and 2000, and the 2000 figure of 26.8 litres per person per annum is more than ten times the amount drunk in 1876, the high point of 19th century wine-drinking.

  14.  Twenty-first century wine consumption remains much higher than it was in previous centuries. Despite its democratization wine still tends to be drunk by consumers in the higher social groups; in 2003 71.6% of those who drank wine at least once a week were in social classes AB and C1. In 1997 supermarkets accounted for 61% of all UK wine sales, with other off-licences selling an additional 23%.

  15.  Spirits also increased in popularity after the Second World War, especially in the 1970s; per capita consumption trebled between 1953 and 1990. A small fall in the 1990s preceded higher figures at the beginning of this century, reaching 0.95 proof gallons per capita per head in 2003. Again this seems to be a consequence of rising incomes and changing tastes.

  16.  The change in tastes represented by the return of spirits and the rise of wine is extremely important. Graphs that show consumption levels of drinks in terms of their alcohol content (eg p10 of the Government's Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy, 2004) show that wine and spirits contributed about 40% of the alcohol consumed in 2000. In comparison beer, which accounted for over 70% of the alcohol consumed in 1900, made up less than half of this total.

  17.  While income remains significant, it should be noted that alcoholic drinks make up a much smaller part of household or individual budgets than in the past. At the start of the 20th century it was estimated that about a sixth of working-class incomes went on drink; at the end of the century it was more likely to be under 5% of household budgets (with non-alcoholic drink and food representing around a sixth). This suggests that changes to income or price will not have such a significant influence on consumption as they have in the past.

Numbers of Drinking Places

  18.  The relationship between the number of licensed outlets and the consumption of alcohol is not straightforward. However many commentators have assumed that the recent expansion of the "night-time economy" has been the cause of increased drinking. During the 19th century the drink trade also did very well: breweries consolidated into a smaller number of larger businesses, the production of beer grew steadily and the tied house system expanded, though the number of premises fell behind the rate of increase of the UK's population.

  19.  However historic rises in the number of licensed premises have led to only temporary increases in consumption. As described above (9), while the Beerhouse Act of 1830 doubled the number of places where alcohol could be bought, this had only a limited, decade-long, effect on consumption.

  20  The total number of outlets in England and Wales declines in the late 1830s after this period of growth, then grew again in the 1840s. Considering pub and beerhouse "on" licences together, there were around 85,000 premises in 1840; this total reached a peak of about 115,000 in 1870 and then fell to 96,000 by 1900. The per capita consumption of spirits and beer rose and fell over the same period, with peaks in the late 1870s. The fact that the highest point of consumption coincides with the peak number of premises is sometimes seen as proof that an over-supply of premises promotes consumption. However as we have seen this was also a period where working-class incomes rose significantly, some of this being spent on drink; questions of demand must also be considered.

  21.  Between 1920 and 1939 the number of "on" licences in England and Wales fell by around 10,000 to about 74,000; many licensing authorities forced brewers to exchange several old licences for each new one. Numbers continued to fall until a low of about 69,000 in 1961, picking up again after this and rising faster in the early 1970s.

  22.  The last three decades have seen significant growth. There were about 82,000 "on" licensed premises in 1975 and about 110,000 in 2001, an increase of 34%—though about half of this growth came from restaurants, hotels and private clubs rather than pubs. In 1989 the number of on-licences in England and Wales exceeded the figure for 1900, a significant moment.

  23.  The modern off-licence owes its origins to Gladstone's "grocer's licence" of 1861 which encouraged the development of wine merchants like Gilbeys and Victoria Wine. Like other free trade drink policies this did little to encourage consumption; per capita levels fell after the 1870s and did not grow again until the 1950s. It seems likely that working-class consumers were not yet prepared to change their habits, despite wine's increased availability and lower prices.

  24.  Off-licences have grown faster than pub numbers since 1945; they regained their 1905 level by 1964, suggesting that home drinking grew faster than on-sales. The number of off-licences increased from about 31,000 to 44,000 between 1975 and 2001. Sainsbury's was the first supermarket to acquire an off-licence, in 1962, and this period coincides with the increased popularity of wine (per capita consumption doubled between 1960 and 1970). These off-licences were now able to open in shop hours, rather than pub hours. In 2004 supermarkets and other "multiple grocers" accounted for 65% of the turnover in off-sales.

Historical Geographies of Drinking

  25.  It is not particularly helpful to talk of a "British attitude to drinking" because there has been considerable geographical variation as well as a good deal of historical change. As noted above (8), while the annual per capita consumption of beer rose by only 2% in England and Wales between 1800 and 1900, it rose by 44% for the UK as a whole; Ireland and Scotland had much lower consumption levels. 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 and 4d a year; the average dock worker was thought to spend 8s and 4d on drink every week in 1899, nearly five times as much as this average figure. Maps of arrests for drunkenness must be treated with care because police were keener to prosecute in some areas than in others but Rowntree and Sherwell's map from 1899 clearly shows more arrests per head of population in London, the North-East, North-West, and parts of Wales, and fewer arrests in Southern England. The North West Public Health Observatory's contemporary maps of binge-drinking show a similar north-south divide, "wet" cities and "dry" rural areas.

  26.  Despite these variations the idea that "the British" drink differently from the rest of Europe persists. This sometimes takes the form of a comparison between Mediterranean "wine-drinking cultures" and Northern and North-western European "beer-drinking cultures"; wine is drunk with food, while beer is consumed to get drunk. There are three problems with this:

    — The distinction between British and "Continental" consumption of food and drink is not all that clear, historically speaking.

    — "Wine-drinking countries" may not suffer from the public order problems associated with British drinking but some experience severe health problems.

    — Today's binge-drinking is increasingly "Continental", reflecting a shift away from beer as the main element of alcohol consumption, and a new emphasis on wine.

  27.  Until the 19th century there was a good deal of similarity between Britain and the rest of Europe in terms of the food on offer in public drinking places; the sale of anything more than simple meals like bread and cheese was prohibited in order to distinguish drinking places from inns or taverns. While some 19th century British pubs cooked food brought in by patrons, food became less important, which is why the "improved public houses" of the 20th century made it a central part of their appeal.

  28.  On a related note the most striking difference between British and other European drinking places is the absence of table service in the former, which are also associated with rapid "perpendicular drinking" (ie standing at the bar). However table service remained part of the culture of pubs in the Midlands and northern England until the second half of the 20th century, with some examples surviving today in Lancashire and on Merseyside. The bar counter was also an integral part of the Parisian caf

, often held to be the antithesis of the British pub.

  29.  In terms of contemporary international comparisons, per capita levels of consumption may be falling elsewhere in Europe, but Britain remains drier than many countries. The French consumed about twelve litres of alcohol per head per year in 1996 (the British figure is just under eight litres); in 2002 they consumed nearly three times as much wine as the UK (per capita per year). German per capita consumption of beer was 20% higher than in the UK in 2002; the Irish nearly 50% higher. Health costs of drinking are as unequally distributed as social costs. Countries with higher levels of death from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis than the UK between 1993 and 1995 include France and Germany; Ireland, Greece, and the Netherlands had lower rates. These figures cut across any line we might try to draw between Europe's "beer-drinking" and "wine-drinking" regions.


  30.  Questions of demand (taste and habit) have long been ignored at the expense of issues of supply (production and retail). We need to know why consumption has risen again. Will it fall if incomes do? Or will tastes shift away from drink again, irrespective of income?

  31.  Geography matters. Many of the new residential areas thrown up by 19th century urban expansion did not have pubs, making the area "drier". With the success of drink-driving legislation roadside pubs have become less appealing. And while there is continued concern over "clusters" of licensed premises in urban centres, we should remember the significance of off-license sales, particularly from supermarkets, and high levels of home drinking. There is little research on off-sales and domestic drinking, on the connections between supermarkets and homes.

  32.  The number of teetotal adults appears to be rising; the proportion was estimated at 12% in 1980 and about 18% in 2003. Clearly some drinkers are receiving more than their share of increased consumption, but can we learn anything from the increasing popularity of abstinence?

  33.  Early 20th century reformers argued that the drink problem required far-reaching social reforms as well as public health programmes: decent housing, protection from unemployment, old-age pensions. This is still true today. The poorest members of society continue to suffer disproportionately from alcohol-related harm, but they are not, on the whole, more likely to drink. Eileen Goddard's report on Smoking and drinking among adults from the 2005 General Household Survey noted that

    "…the GHS has shown over many years that there is little difference in usual weekly alcohol consumption between those in non-manual and manual households. Where differences do exist, it has been those in the non-manual categories who tend to have the higher weekly consumption."

  Policies such as minimum pricing will presumably affect only the poorest heavy drinkers, and they need other kinds of assistance. If we are worried about wine, on the other hand, then perhaps we need to consider measures aimed at more affluent consumers, and the role of off-sales.

April 2009

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