Memorandum by Dr James Nicholls (AL 59)
DRINKING CULTURES AND CONSUMPTION IN ENGLAND:
HISTORICAL TRENDS AND POLICY IMPLICATIONS
1.1 This report provides an overview of
trends in drinking behaviour from the medieval period to the present,
with a focus on the role of policy in shaping consumption. Levels
of alcohol consumption have fluctuated over time, declining in
the late 18th century, rising in the 19th, falling sharply in
the early twentieth century, then rising again from the 1960s
to the present day. Macro-economic factors have played a critical
role in shaping alcohol consumption, as have the availability
of alternative drinks and leisure activities. However, policy
decisionsespecially regarding licensing practice and taxationhave
also been instrumental in organising retail structures and framing
patterns of consumption.
1.2 James Nicholls researches the history
of public attitudes to drinking in England. He is the author of
The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in
England (Manchester University Press, 2009).
2.1 It is often claimed that heavy drinking
among the English stretches back many centuries; however, hard
evidence regarding medieval consumption is limited. Many early
sources, such as William of Malmesbury's description of drunkenness
as a "universal practice" among the English, need to
be treated with caution. A letter from St Boniface to Archbishop
Cuthbert of Canterbury, which claims the "vice of drunkenness
is far too common in your parishes" has been described by
a recent historian as "at odds with the evidence".
Opportunities for heavy drinking among the peasantry would have
been limited in medieval England since ale production was seasonal
and domestic. The late-medieval tradition of church-ales did provide
occasions for drunkenness; however, such events were sporadic.
Wine-drinking was widespread among social elites, but accurate
consumption figures are hard to ascertain. It is, therefore, impossible
to say with certainty that medieval Britons drank more heavily
than their continental neighbours.
3.1 An Act empowering local Justices to
close alehouses was passed in 1494. This was followed, in 1552,
by legislation requiring alehouse-keepers to acquire a licence
prior to trading. While presented as a measure to tackle social
disorder, this was also a means of formally regulating an increasingly
commercialised trade. A small number of writers identified public
drunkenness as a specific social problem. Some claimed it was
a remnant of pre-Reformation festive culture, others blamed the
adoption of continental drinking habits.
4.1 Six Acts were passed between 1604 and
1627, most of which sought to prevent alehouse-keepers from permitting
drunkenness on their premises. Numerous broadsides against public
drunkenness were also published. The number of alehouses did rise
significantly in this period, but there is less concrete evidence
for a rise in social disorder. Both legislation and anti-drink
literature developed in the context of the rise of Puritanism
and widespread fears regarding political instability. Anti-drink
literature commonly identified the drinking of healths as the
primary cause of public drunkenness. Wine was drunk in significant
quantities within elite society. Conspicuous sobriety became unfashionable
following the Restoration, largely due to its association with
Puritanism. Convivial drunkenness became an important feature
of Restoration culture, and the ability to drink was established
as a marker of masculine virtue.
5.1 The consumption of gin increased in
the early 18th century. Annual per capita consumption rose from
around 0.5 gallons in 1700 to around two gallons in
Various causes have been suggested. Gin retailers were not required
to take out a licence until 1729, and the restrictions on production
were lifted from 1690, partly to promote gin as an alternative
to French brandy. Gin was taxed heavily, with excise almost doubling
between 1690 and 1710, but this was not designed to reduce
consumptionnor did it. In 1736, a coordinated political
campaign, driven largely by concerns over consumption among women
and the urban poor, led to legislation which introduced de
facto prohibition through the imposition of £50 licence
fees for gin-sellers. The experiment was a disaster, leading to
widespread public disorder and a general contempt for the law.
The Act was repealed in 1743.
5.2 Consumption declined after 1743, due
partly to an inclusive licensing regime which encouraged responsible
retail, combined with more effective excise controls. Concern
over public drunkenness remained high, however, and a second campaign
led to further legislation in 1751. 1751 Gin Act marked the
end of widespread public concern over gin-drinking, though the
continuing fall in consumption was driven primarily by bad harvests
and lowering real incomes.
5.3 Throughout the 18th century, the rise
of coffee houses and the adoption of politeness by sections of
the middle class popularised the notion that sobriety could be
the guarantor of social progress. This challenged established
practices linking conviviality with heavy drinking. 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.
6.1 In 1825, in an attempt to prevent smuggling,
excise duties on spirits were slashed. Consumption rose sharply,
then levelled. Despite declining beer consumption, concern over
the regulation of alehouses persisted and many magistrates used
their discretionary powers to reduce alehouse numbers in their
jurisdictions. This led to claims of unaccountability which, coupled
with calls to promote beer as an alternative to spirit-drinking
and the development of laissez-faire economics, increased pressure
for licensing liberalisation. In 1830 a Beer Act was passed
which removed the requirement for retailers of beer only to acquire
a licence, replacing it with a single excise fee. Within one year
24,000 beer shops had opened, rising to 40,000 within
three years. Annual per capita consumption of beer, however, fell
over the next three years before rising from 1834. Despite this,
there was a significant outcry against the Act in sections of
the press and Parliament with many claiming the Act encouraged
widespread drunkenness. The Beer Act was amended in 1834, reintroducing
a certificate of character for retailers and creating the first
legislative distinction between on and off sales. The Beer Act
was finally repealed in 1869.
6.2 Consumption of beer, wine and spirits
increased steadily from 1840 to a peak in 1877, as did consumption
of tea and soft drinks. Consumption of all drinks was generally
lower during economic downturns, and higher during periods of
prosperity. Increasing alcohol consumption encouraged the development
of an energetic temperance movement, which incorporated a politically
sophisticated prohibition campaign. The Liberal Party adopted
prohibitionist policies in 1891but suffered electoral damage
after attempting to translate this into legislation. The temperance
movement as a whole suffered from an unwillingness to acknowledge
the rights of moderate drinkers, and it was publicly condemned
on this point by, among others, Charles Dickens and John Stuart
7.1 Alcohol consumption began to fall from
1880. Many explanations have been forwarded for this, including
the increased availability of alternative drinks and the development
of alternative leisure activities including train excursions,
spectator sports, parks, libraries and museumsmany of which
had been facilitated by legislation. Increased taxes were imposed
under Lloyd George's "People's Budget" of 1909, but
these were followed by a levelling of wine and spirit consumption
and a small rise in beer-drinking.
7.2 The early twentieth century also saw
renewed debates over the role of local magistrates in reducing
the numbers of licences in their areas. Policies encouraging the
closure of superfluous pubs were adopted by both the Liberal and
Tory parties, but protracted, and politically consequential, arguments
ensued over the issue of State compensation for the withdrawal
of licences. This debate acquired political significance because
it addressed a fundamental principle concerning the status of
alcohol as a commodity: whether an alcohol retail licence was
a gift from the State, or the administrative restriction of an
otherwise natural right.
7.3 The outbreak of war in 1914 strengthened
the arm of those who favoured more direct State intervention,
and a Central Control Board was established in 1915 to manage
the alcohol trade across most of the UK. Existing restrictions
on opening hours and Sunday trading were tightened, excise duties
on beer and spirits were increased significantly, and the strengths
of both were reduced. The CCB also took direct control of the
whole alcohol trade in Carlisle, Gretna and the Cromarty Firth.
The CCB combined restrictive measures with constructive engagement
with brewers, the improvement of pub environments, and the employment
of salaried pub managers. Alcohol consumption fell dramatically
over the course of the War, as did arrests for drunkenness. Again,
there are competing explanations for this. The CCB restricted
access to alcohol, but also pro-actively encouraged responsible
pub management. Lloyd George sought to position alcohol as a direct
threat to the war effort and strongly backed tax rises. Wartime
austerity may have been a factor, but so too was the enormous
death toll among young men in battle.
7.4 Consumption rose briefly to 1920, but
then declined againremaining low over the next four decades.
There was also evidence of young people seeking alternatives to
the pub. In 1931, a Royal Commission on Licensing wrote that "drunkenness
has gone out of fashion". Two years later the Brewers Society
launched a nationwide advertising campaign to "get the beer-drinking
habit instilled into
millions of young men who
do not at present know the taste of beer". In 1943, Mass-Observation
noted that young people represented the lowest proportion of pub-goers,
preferring to frequent milk bars and coffee shops (Mass-Observation
also recorded that women made up 31% of pub goers in Bolton).
Throughout the 1930s, a significant number of brewers responded
to falling sales by adopting "pub improvement" as a
means of attracting a more affluent clientele, including more
women. Despite heavy investment, and some success in dissociating
pubs from fears over drunkenness, pub improvement failed to bolster
the falling market and was largely abandoned.
7.5 The decline in wine and spirits consumption
continued throughout Word War II, although beer consumption increased.
Around 30 million barrels of beer were produced in 1943 compared
to 18 million in 1933 despite increases in taxation
which led to beer being both more expensive and weaker.
This may have been due partly to the cultural lead given by Government:
whereas Lloyd George had identified drinking as a wartime enemy,
Churchill's government was keen to position convivial beer drinking
as a wholesome, and morale-boosting, aspect of British culture.
8.1 By the 1950s, overall consumption remained
comparatively low. The number of alternative leisure activities
was proliferating, and wartime taxation meant that beer struggled
to compete with non-intoxicating alternatives in terms of both
quality and price. The industry responded with a combination of
aggressive consolidation and the introduction of new drinks, particularly
lager, targeted at the youth market and women drinkers. Over the
following decade, the resurgence of the drink trade was aided
by the expansion of the youth market, increased levels of affluence,
and Licensing Acts in 1961 and 1964 which were explicitly
geared towards the licensing liberalisation. While the 1961 Act
retained the "afternoon gap" for pubs, it allowed weekday
off-sales of alcohol from 8.30 am to 10.30 pm. This
made it easier for the new supermarkets to compete in the drinks
retail business, as well as further blurring the distinction between
alcohol and other consumable commodities. Sales of all alcohol
increased markedly between 1961 and 1980: annual beer production
increased by 54%; spirits consumption increased by 208%; and wine
consumption rose by 346%. However, by 1980 overall per capita
consumption in the UK still remained lower than in eleven of the
countries that now make up the EU.
8.2 Patterns of consumption changed in this
period, with the number of pubs falling slightly, while off-licences
increased by 60%.
In the early 1980s overall consumption levelled, but increased
from 1987 to 1990. It then levelled again before rising significantly
between 1997 and 2004. While these fluctuations mirror periods
of economic recession and growth, relative price is also a factor.
Although alcohol prices increased, relative to inflation, by 19.2%
between 1980 and 2007, it has also been estimated that alcohol
became 69.4% more affordable, relative to household incomes, over
the same period.
Proportionately, beer sales fell, spirits remained level while
wine and ready-to-drink mixers increased considerably. Between
1980 and 2004 beer consumption fell by 25% while wine
consumption increased by 93%.
9.1 In the late 1980s, free-market approaches
once again targeted the monopolistic power of the brewing industry,
which had further concentrated since the 1960s. As in 1830, the
vertical integration of the trade via the "tied house"
system was identified as disadvantaging consumers and skewing
the market. In 1990, following a Monopolies and Mergers Commission
report, the "Beer Orders" were passed. These forced
brewers owning more than 2,000 pubs to sell half their remaining
stock, in principle allowing for the development of a healthy
independent market. In reality, much of the stock was bought by
retail oriented investment groups (colloquially known as "pubcos")
who exploited the fact that exclusive supply agreements with brewers
were allowed in the final version of the Beer Orders. Many brewers
sold their production arms to global producers such as InBev and
9.2 The Beer Orders have been blamed for
initiating the rise of high-street superbars, but there were other
contributory factors. These included the desire on the part of
many local authorities to use the leisure economy as an engine
of urban regeneration. In addition to supporting licence applications
from well-financed pub chains, many city authorities used provisions
under the 1964 Act to facilitate de facto licensing
liberalisation in city centres. By 2003, 61% of city centre bars
were trading beyond 11 pm.
From 1996, licensing magistrates who wished to restrict the number
of pubs in their jurisdiction were stymied by a central Government
directive stating that magistrates should take no systematic account
of "need" when adjudicating licence applications. It
has also been suggested that the drinks trade responded to the
expansion of youth drug cultures by promoting new drinks (such
as alcopops and ready-to-drink mixers) using imagery culled from
the rave scene.
10.1 In this context, the 2003 Licensing
Act was less of a radical departure than may at first be supposed.
While the introduction of 24-hour licensing was explicitly presented
as a harm-reduction measure (based on studies suggesting that
the "11 o'clock swill" exacerbated antisocial behaviour),
in many city centres, it formalised what was already in place.
While consumption increased significantly throughout from the
mid-1990s to 2004, it stabilised from 2004 (General Household
Survey figures agree with this, but the updated method for calculating
units per drink produced a marked increase in estimated levels
from 2006). Arguably, the more historically significant element
of the 2003 Act was the decision to move licensing from magistrateswhere
it had sat since 1552to local authorities. In principle,
this represented a democratisation of decision-making; in practice,
the national guidelines issued to local authorities meant that
their discretionary power to reject licence applications was severely
curtailed. Furthermore, the thrust of the 2003 Act was geared
towards the on-trade whereas the principle expansion of consumption
was driven by the off-trade. As a proportion of total expenditure
on alcohol, purchases from pubs fell 12% between 1998 and
2007, while supermarket purchases rose 18%.
This suggests that increased consumption may be driven by an off-trade
which, until recently, escaped large scale public attention.
11.1 When licensing controls have been eased
consumption and/or alcohol-related harms have tended to increase.
Licensing regulations have historically fallen more heavily on
the on-trade than the off-trade.
Discretionary powers for licensing authorities
should be robust but transparent.
Incentives for well-managed premises
could be considered.
Off-sales can contribute at least as
significantly to alcohol-related harms as on-sales.
12.1 Patterns of consumption have fluctuated
in response to economic, legislative and social factors. Claims
that the British have an inherent tendency to drink heavily are
problematic and risk reinforcing social norms and expectations
which can encourage heavy drinking. However, there is a long history
of positive value being attached to convivial drinking; consequently,
interventions which are perceived as failing to distinguish between
moderate and problematic drinkers have tended to be unpopular
and, occasionally, counter-productive.
Caution should be exercised when making
claims about British traditions of excessive drinking
Economics and legislation can have some
influence on cultural practice
A public debate should be sought on definitions
of "moderate" and "excessive" drinking as
regards both health risks and acceptable social behaviours.
13.1 Alcohol-related problems at a societal
level have often arisen from structural changes to specific areas
of the alcohol market (gin, the retail on-trade in beer, off-licences,
alcopops and so forth). Region, income, gender, the location of
licensed premises, onand off-sales, and beverage choice
are all key policy variables. Where drinks have become more affordable
their consumption has tended to increase, with macro-economic
factors having a significant impact. Tax reductions, which have
translated into cheaper retail prices, have produced spikes in
consumption (eg 1825); however, tax increases have not always
directly resulted in reduced consumptionthough this may
be due to their impact relative to wider levels of disposable
income. There has, historically, been considerable tension between
the on and off trades, with each promoting legislation which backs
their sectional interests.
The off-trade may benefit from strategies
which disproportionately affect pubs and clubs, thus restricting
Targeted approaches (such as minimum
unit pricing or differential taxation according to beverage/strength)
may be effective in addressing specific problem areas.
Dr James Nicholls
Bath Spa University
57 Y Hen (1995) Culture and Religion in Merovingian
Gaul, AD. 481-751 (Brill), 236. Back
J Warner (2003) Craze (Profile), 3; 177. Back
Table 1: G Wilson (1940) Alcohol and the Nation (Nicholson
and Watson) Back
Mass-Observation (1943) The Pub and the People (Victor
Gollancz), 187. Back
A. Tighe, ed. (2007) Statistical Handbook (BBPA). Back
ONS (2008) Statistics on Alcohol, England. Back
Op Cit 4. Back
P. Hadfield (2006) Bar Wars (OUP), 52. Back
ONS (2007) Drinking: Adults Behaviour and Knowledge in 2007. Back