Alcohol - Health Committee Contents

Memorandum by Dr Phil Withington and Dr Angela McShane (AL 57)



  1.1  This short report considers, as requested, fluctuations in English drinking habits since the middle of the sixteenth century. It falls into five sections. Section 2 provides a chronology of drinking (as gauged by levels of consumption) from c.1550 to the present day. Section 3 outlines the variety of interrelated factors which have influenced drinking habits over the past four and a half centuries. Section 4 lists some of the most obvious continuities connecting present circumstances to the past. Section 5 identifies two of the fundamental discontinuities in the current situation.


  The chronology of alcohol consumption (based on estimates of quantities consumed) can be roughly divided into five stages.

2.1  c 1550-1650

  This (largely neglected) period saw the commercialisation of the domestic brewing industry, leading to the replacement of ale by beer as England's primary staple. Beer was a Dutch import and the establishment of domestic production was in large part due to the influx of Protestant refugees during the 16th C. The period also saw a significant increase in wine imports orchestrated primarily by Dutch merchants acting as trading brokers—they widened the market for French wines and ensured more efficient means of distribution. Early estimates suggest that the quantities of wine imported in the first four decades of the 17th were the highest per head that England has witnessed until the present day, a trend brought to an end by the upheavals of civil and European war after 1640. In a third development tobacco became a commodity of genuine mass consumption from the later 1620s, quickly becoming an accompaniment to existing drinking practices.

2.2  c 1650-1750

  This is the period that, as Jordan Goodman puts it, "Europeans took to soft drugs". Coffee, tea, and chocolate were all successfully introduced into the domestic diet and, over time, began to supplement the role of beer and ale as primary popular staples. The period also saw the beginning of the opium trade and, more noticeably at this stage, the invention of new artificial spirits, ostensibly for medicinal and military purposes and subsequently for popular consumption. The so-called "gin craze" that flared up intermittently from the 1730s to the 1750s can deflect from the more general trend in the decline or at least stabilisation in levels of alcoholic consumption due to the increasing availability of alternative drinks and their absorption into existing patterns of consumption and sociability.

2.3  1750-1850

  Alcohol consumption continued to fall per head during what used to be known as "the Industrial Revolution". Although the production of beer levelled at about 16 million barrels per year from 1750 (compared to 23 million barrels per year in 1689), population grew from six to nine million between then and the end of the century. The consumption of spirits was half that of official mid-century figures by the end of the century. The only drink to increase—and then spectacularly—was tea, which replaced beer in the same way that beer had replaced ale as the popular staple of everyday consumption in the later 16th C. However, into the 19th C even tea consumption declined and in the meantime wine, which had been consumed at a relatively stable level since the end of the 17th C, also declined sharply (from 0.46 gallons per head p.a. in 1800 to 0.23 gallons p.a. in 1850). All of which leads John Burnett to argue that there was 'a dramatic fall in living standards for large sections of the population' brought about by the onset of industrialisation (182).

2.4  1850-1960

  The century of reduced consumption reversed in the third quarter of the 19th century, Burnett noting that "Beer, spirits, and wine in the UK all reached 19th C peaks within a year of each other—spirits in 1875 at 1.30 gallons a year, beer at 34.4 gallons a year (England and Wales 40.5 gallons in 1875-9), and wine at 0.56 gallons in 1876". The consumption of tea also more than doubled. This surge was based on renewed prosperity for larger sections of the populace. It mutated back into the familiar trend of decline in consumption after 1876 as (according to Burnett) "the development of new spending patterns and recreational opportunities was at last beginning to break the hold of alcohol on consumers' time and income" (182).The downward trend in alcohol consumption continued into the second half of the 20th century (eg considerably less wine was drunk in 1957 than 1937 and tea reached an all-time peak of 10.5 lb per person in 1932).

2.5  1960-present

  The general decrease in alcohol consumption that has largely characterised England during the industrial era (ie between 1750 and 1950) has reversed since 1957: the consumption of beer has increased from 151.6 pints per head per annum in 1960 to 175.1 in 1995 (with a peak of 217.1 in 1979); cider from 2.9 pints per head per annum to 15.3; spirits (at 100% alcohol) from 1.25 to 2.25 pints per head per annum; and wine from four pints to a remarkable 25.5 pints per head per annum. It is the immediate juxtaposition between current habits and recollections of a temperate, pre-1960s Britain that makes, perhaps, current drinking habits seem especially disconcerting. This is the more so given the plethora of other intoxicants now available for consumption. Even so, it is well to remember that in 2002 the UK had the 14th highest level of alcohol consumption per head in Europe—lower than France, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and even Switzerland. This was 3 litres per head higher than 1970, when the UK lay 16th in the same table.

2.6  Summary

  In terms of consumption (inevitably crudely measured at times) it can be seen that England experienced a significant rise and consolidation of drinking levels during the "early modern period" (1550-1750). Between 1550 and 1650 there was a commercialisation of "old world" production and distribution plus the introduction of tobacco. The 100 years after 1650 were in turn characterised by the assimilation of, and moral panics about, new commodities, in particular coffee and gin. In the following two hundred years, which coincided with industrialisation and massive increase in population, there was a marked decline in the consumption of alcohol. The post-industrial or post-modern era (post-1960) seems to have returned to the kind of trends in the early modern period: increased consumption—especially conspicuous and public consumption among certain sections of the population—facilitated by powerful business organisations that are extremely competent at managing their relationship with political authority.


  3.1  Clearly to generalise about the causes of these trends, especially over such a long period of time, would be disingenuous and probably misleading. Instead it makes more sense to identity the combination of factors which have influenced English drinking habits over the past 450 years. These factors provide an explanatory framework for understanding modern drinking practices and can be traced back to 1550-1750. This "early modern" period witnessed:

    (a) The commercialisation of English and European beverages and their more efficient production and provision.

    (b) The influx of "New World" substances and commodities and their assimilation into indigenous (English and European) tastes.

    (c) The establishment of global trading networks and pressures that (b) suggests.

    (d) Simultaneous economic and social developments which meant a significant proportion of the populace could choose to spend more income and time on drinking.

    (e) The ability of corporate institutions—eg brewing guilds and colonial enterprises like the Virginia Company and East India Company—to exert political pressure locally and nationally.

    (f) The fiscal exploitation by the state—eg through the control of licensing, import duties and taxation—of the expanding trade and markets that (a), (b), and (c) represented.

    (g) The simultaneous concern of the state—or at least groups and bodies within it—to regulate and police consumption.

    (h) The adaptation of patterns and conventions of sociability by which drinks were consumed, and which encouraged the increase in demand for alcoholic and other beverages.

    (i) Related developments in material culture and the physical spaces of intoxication.

    (j) The close association between the consumption of intoxicants and new forms of cultural production—eg literature and theatre.

    (k) The emergence of moral movements seeking to limit and reform drinking habits: the "puritan" (broadly defined) "Reformation of Manners" from 1547, the "Society for the Reformation of Manners" from 1691, the various temperance movements into the later 18th and 19th centuries.

    (l) The concurrent development of media technology (in the first instance print) and a "public sphere" through which to influence public opinion.

  3.3  Since the 16th century these factors have combined in various ways at the macro and the micro level. Understanding these combinations goes some way to comprehending the history of modern drinking and the place of the current situation within that history. Thus:

3.4  At the macro-level we need to consider

    (a) The political economics of drinking: in particular, the relationship between "big business" (domestic and/or global) and the state, and the balance between fiscal exploitation and social regulation;

    (b) The economics of production and distribution, including the provision of alternative or complementary commodities and the purchasing power (and "taste") of consumer/s;

    (c) The energy, influence, and persuasiveness of reformatory bodies (whether religious or secular);

    (d) Prevailing stereotypes about "worthy" behaviour and the appropriation of those values by different social groups. "Worth" refers here not simply to "rational", "civil", or "moral" behaviour but also behaviour perceived as "modish", "fashionable", or "cool" among different peer groups.

3.5  At the micro-level we can focus on

    (a) The spatial dynamics and material culture of sociability, in terms of sites, their organisation, layout, size, artefacts, and integration or segregation with the wider environment

    (b) The temporality of drinking: before the introduction of tea and other 'soft' drinks (including clean water) alcohol was a source of daily—hourly—nourishment as well as release. Now it demarcates time in the short and the long-term ("cocktail hour", "happy hour", "weekend binge"; the fundamental boundary between childhood and adulthood (as perceived by youths rather than authority)).

    (c) Perhaps most importantly, the codes, conventions and rituals that tacitly or explicitly guide behaviour of individuals and groups, the knowledge and learnt behaviour these requires, and the possibilities of social distinction, inclusion and exclusion they raise (see 3.4.d. above).

    (d) This relates, finally, to the perceived function/s and acceptability of different kinds of drinking and the likely sociology of particular kinds of drinking company—for example, a wine-tasting, civic dinner, or (for example) police Christmas party compared to the nightclub on a Saturday night.


  4.1  Having outlined an explanatory framework for fluctuations in drinking habits over time it is now worth considering two of the major continuities that link the contemporary situation with more general historical trends. The first of these is:

4.2  The "problem" of affluence

  The most authoritative social history of English drinking currently available emphasises that phases of excessive (and antisocial) behaviour and/or heightened moral anxiety have usually occurred in times of what can be regarded as accentuated and asymmetrical affluence. This is an important insight. There is sometimes a tendency to regard the consumption of alcohol in the past, especially in its excessive forms, as social or psychological dependency: ie drunkenness is a means of consolation and escape for the poor and desperate. This is especially the case when the word of social reformers and moralists is taken as social reality, and/or when historians look to use drinking as a means of distinguishing between "elite" and "popular" culture. Clearly there are, and always have been, strong correlations between drunkenness (and any other kind of drug-dependency) and social deprivation. However, the most significant rises in alcohol consumption since 1550 have invariably been related to proportional increases in wealth for significant sections of the populace: conspicuous consumption is driven by wealth, not poverty. This has been in conjunction with cultural developments that make consumption—including excessive consumption—desirable and normative.

4.3  Governmental Responses:

  Even before the 16thC governmental responses have reflected tensions between the desire to exploit drinking practices fiscally and a concern to regulate what were perceived to be (at any given moment) their moral and social implications. Either way the impact has always been significant, though not always in the way intended. At the intersection of these impulses has been the power to tax and to licence. Supplementary policies have also followed a distinct pattern over time, focusing on the timing of consumption and retail; the quantities sold or drunk; the venues at which retail could take place; and the strength of drinks through control of ingredients in recipes. The history of state action has been clouded by the competing political influences of reformatory and business interests. It has also been hindered by the difficulty of shaping drinking cultures "on the ground" and tarnished by degrees of hypocrisy which, again since the 16th century, have seen certain social groups targeted—in particular youth and the lower orders—while professional and elite drinking remains sanctioned and condoned. A further problem has been the implementation of legislation that conflicts with popular conceptions of legitimacy and equity.


  5.1  Sections 2, 3 and 4 have suggested a basic explanatory framework for understanding the phenomena of drinking in England since the 16th century. They have also emphasised the essential continuity of modern drinking practices over time. Much more work needs to be done in order to establish in detail how these factors combined and intersected over time, especially at the micro-level. Indeed a properly comparative study of drinking habits in Britain and Europe since the early modern period—eg exploring the validity and provenance of stereotypical "northern European" and "southern European" drinking cultures—would shed enormous insight on current practices.

  5.2  In the meantime it is worth concluding with two features of the contemporary situation which distinguish the present from the past. Both developments are the product of complex and ongoing historical processes and most people would regard them as social and political achievements. However, both bring new pressures to bear on the micro and macro dynamics of drinking habits.

5.3  The emergence of the "bio-medical state":

  The medical industry now has the technology, knowledge, and incentives (especially commercial) to identify and treat many of the biological consequences of alcoholic consumption. This is in definite contrast to previous centuries, when medicine was more likely to use alcohol as a treatment rather than cure its related maladies, and when the primary impact of medical practitioners was, it seems, to create, legitimise and/or popularise new kinds of intoxicants: eg tobacco in 17th century, opium in 18th century, cocaine in 19th century, heroin in 20th century.

  5.4  The welfare state is expected to insure the provision of medical technology, knowledge, and products for the populace at large. This is true in terms of immediate provision—ie Friday and Saturday nights in Accident and Emergency departments—and long-term treatment for various alcohol-related and alcoholic-specific ailments. This again marks a significant discontinuity with the past and is likely to have important and possibly unforeseen consequences:

  5.5  Since the 16th century at least, alcohol and other intoxicants have been a crucial source of revenue for the state. The very real possibility of successfully treating the consequences of consumption—and the cost that this involves—threatens to reduce the public profitability of intoxication. This is the more so as people enjoy the benefits of medical treatment and so live and drink for longer.

  5.5  Responsibility for behaviour in general and personal health in particular has, to lesser or greater degrees, shifted from the individual person—or, more accurately, families and communities of individuals—to the welfare state. The state feels obliged to consider the health of the nation and its subjects (albeit this kind of discourse can be traced back to the 17th century); and the culture of self-help and self-discipline which, by necessity, shaped practices of consumption before the mid-20th century have been dissipated.

5.6  Gender and Drinking

  One of the recurring characteristics to emerge from the ESRC Network on Intoxicants and Intoxication in Historical and Cultural Perspective ( is that intoxication has traditionally been the preserve of males. Whatever their social and cultural standing—ie Ugandan "youths", medieval knights, the Victorian urban "poor"; 20th century "post-modernists", 16th century "wits", Somali village elders—drinking, 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 the process.

  5.7  The significance of this discontinuity is the more apparent because it follows a relatively long period of time in which the possibility of "respectable" females drinking in public—especially women alone or accompanied only by other women—was severely circumscribed. That this period of increased differentiation between masculine and feminine behaviour—ie between c.1750 and 1950—coincides with the main phases of decline in alcohol consumption (see above) is clearly suggestive. Yet even before the development of the modern family template—in which (ideally at least) the feminine household became a domestic and private retreat from the travails of work and public life—"honest" women did not engage in the kind of sociability tacitly expected of men.

  5.8  Increased female consumption of alcohol may go some way to explaining the increases in general consumption since the 1960s since half the population was tacitly barred from drinking before then. Whatever the ultimate limits of gender equality in contemporary Britain there can be no doubt that, from a historical perspective, there has been a revolution in gender relations. Women now attend university like men, apply for many of the same jobs as men, have disposable incomes like men, and, it seems, participate in the same kinds of leisure culture as men (if surveys emphasising "Binge Britain" are to be believed). The full implications of this transformation do not seem to be properly understood but they are certainly fundamental to the current situation.

Dr Phil Withington

University of Cambridge

Dr Angela McShane

Victoria and Albert Museum

April 2009

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