Memorandum by Dr James Kneale (AL 55)
BRITISH DRINKING FROM THE 19TH CENTURY TO
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.
B. THE AUTHOR
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.
C. ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION
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
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 centuryand
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 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
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
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
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
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"
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.