Monday, 19 December 2011

Illegal Sunday drinking

Falkirk. I'm getting to know its late 19th-century officials quite well. It's all these newspaper reports of council proceedings I've been reading. Weird that. In a modern newspaper I can't think of anything less likely to attract my attention than the details of a council meeting.

It being the 19th century, beer and pubs crop up quite often. Usually discussing ways to control them and the lowlifes that hung around in them. Often prompted by the temperance nutcases who seemed intent on robbing the poor of any enjoyment they might have. You get much the same thing today, except nowadays it's usually doctors who are the killjoys.

A word of explanation first to explain what they're discussing in this article. The Forbes Mackenzie Act, or Licensing (Scotland) Act 1853 to give it its official name, introduced Sunday closing for pubs in Scotland. It had been pushed by a bunch of temperance loonies who saw it as a way of saving the working classes from themselves. I'm sure those working classes were overjoyed. So much so, that they tried to circumvent it whenever possible. As you'll read below.

"Mr Henderson then submitted the following petition:-

"To the Sheriff of the Eastern District of Stirlingshire, and to the Provost and Magistrates of Falkirk. ' The Memorial of the Committee of the Falkirk Branch of the Evangelical Alliance,

"Respectfully Sheweth, - That, whereas Sabbath desecration prevails to a considerable extent in Falkirk and the vicinity, and whereas several of the forms of Sabbath-breaking involve a violation of the laws of the land, such as the unlawful selling of spirits on the Lord's Day, both in houses licensed and in those having no license for the sale of spirits, and the opening of shops on the Lord's Day for the sale of sweatmeats and fruit; and whereas such offences are fitted to exercise a most demoralising influence on the community,

"Your memorialists would respectfully crave the civil authorities to take all steps competent in the circumstances to check these  these evils and to enforce the observance of the laws which prohibit traffic on the Lord's Day.

"In name and by authority of the Committee,

CHAS. S. GAULD, Chairman."

. . .

The Provost (referring to the petition from the Evangelical Alliance) said the Magistrates and Town Council had no force at their disposal to watch and look after regular public-houses.

Bailie Jones-I think the petition should be laid upon the table and read this day six months. (Laughter.)

Mr Hodge - I think it is our duty, at any rate, seeing these things take place, to paY attention to this petition. I have seen the scum of the population going in at these public-house doors, not for the purpose of taking out spirits, but going in and remaining there drinking.

Bailie Jones - What is the harm of selling a few sweeties ?

Mr Hodge - It is spirts I am talking about. It is disgraceful to see them coming out of public-houses on Sabbath morning.

Mr Baird - It is against the law.

Mr Neilson - It is certainly wrong. I think it is not for us to interfere. It is a matter entirely for the Fiscal. I do not think we can go into public-houses and interfere with them. It is not our duty.

Mr Hodge - It is everybody's duty.

Bailie Jones - Where does that take place, Mr Hodge?

Mr Hodge said when the Commissioners were prepared to take action he was prepared to give names.

Mr Baird - What Mr Hodge has said is true. There is too much Sabbath drinking - too much of that both morning and night.

Bailie MORRISON thought they were not called upon to undertake the watching of public-houses. The scenes in the Corn Exchange on Feeing Thursday* were, if possible, worse, and yet no steps were taken to put them down.

Mr Neilson thought those who kept irregular houses should get a hint that if they did not keep more regular hours their licenses would be withdrawn.

Bailie Morrison - That may do some good.

Mr Hodge - If that is a common practice it should be checked.

Bailie Jones - I think it is the fiscal's business, and not ours.

The Provost - Wherever parties are brought up for violating the law, a conviction is got against them. The Fiscal is bound to bring up every such case, and instruct the police. The magistrates and justices are the parties who grant the licenses, and it is their duty either to diminish or withdraw licenses as they think proper. We have no power in granting licenses; and I think it is more the police or the Fiscal's duty.

Mr Neilson - Have we no power in granting licenses ?

The Provost - O, you know, we were opposed when we asked that. It was not granted

Mr Neilson - I do not think they ever did anything more disgraceful. (Laughter.) It is something very funny, indeed.

The Provost - Can we not instruct our clerk to return an answer to this memorial, stating that the magistrates and Council are quite alive to the evil . referred to, but are not in a position to take steps.

Mr Neilson - l think so.

The Provost  - What is your opinion, gentlemen ?

Bailie Jones - l think we should have nothing to do with it. Let the fiscal and the police take it up. We have plenty to do without being made policemen. (Laughter.)

The Provost  - We are not looked upon as taking any part in spying out such as outrage the law. It is our duty to repress the evil in whatever shape it may appear, but we are not vested with the necessary powers to take action in this matter.

Mr Neilson referred to the evil of Sabbath night drinking in public houses. He thought it should be put down.

The Provost said if they adopted the Forbes Mackenzie Act they must work it out in its purity. He understood there was a class of grocers who allowed drink to be consumed on their premises. This was contrary to law. How many grocers continued to act as they had done before the passing of the Forbes Mackenzie Act he would not say. For himself, he had always obeyed the law since it was law. He defied any one to say that he had supplied parties with spirits to be consumed on the premises. If they would work the Forbes Mackenzie Act they must work it in its purity.

Mr NEILSON said that was quite true. He was satisfied many people who went into these shops went in under the pretence of buying snuff, and yet only went in for drink. (A laugh )

The Provost then referred to that portion of the memorial regarding unlicensed houses keeping open for the sale of liquors on Sundays. He had seen people going about staggering on the Sabbath mornings, which was a disgrace to the town If it could, it should be repressed; but they had no force at their disposal; the police were not under their control. The police were, however, bound to bring before the magistrates all parties committing offences or crimes; although this was true, he did not see how they could cause the police to act under their orders in reference to public houses.

Mr Neilson thought the principles of the Forbes Mackenzie Act were good. The provisions might sometimes be severe, but undoubtedly the general spirit of the act was good. It was meant prevent young people from going to public houses on the Sabbath.

Mr Hodge - It is not likely to be repealed.

The Provost again suggested that the Clerk be instructed to inform the memorialists that the magistrates were of opinion they were not in a position to take action in repressing the evil complained of, having no force at their disposal.

A conversation of the same tenor as that already reported continued for some time, in the course of which the Provost said it was likely there would be some amendment made upon the Forbes Mackenzie Act; and it would be well that some definite party were pointed out to prosecute those who outraged the law. In order to get a conviction, in the meantime, it was necessary for some one to place himself in the position of a common informer. A resolution, in terms of the suggestion of the Provost, was then agreed to. "
Falkirk Herald - Thursday 6 June 1861, page 3.

Let's get this straight. The Evangelical Alliance weren't just against booze being sold on Sunday. They wanted to stop shops selling sweets and fruit. Yes, that's bound to demoralise the working classes, letting them buy fruit on a Sunday. Only the best interests of the masses at heart, eh? The self-righteous bastards.

"I have seen the scum of the population going in at these public-house doors". When I read that I couldn't help picturing Rab C. Nesbitt and Jamesie Cotter disappearing through the front door of the Giblet**.

From the discussion, it appears to have been common knowledge that both licensed pubs were opening illegally on Sunday and that unlicensed premises were also selling booze. The Evangelical Alliance's appeal to the council was meant to force them to enforce the law, something they neatly sidestepped. Very political to tut-tut and say how terrible it was but that they could do nothing. "That's the job of the police, mate. Nothing we can do."

If it was the job of the police to prosecute those breaking the law, it begs the question: what weren't they doing so? If the breaches of the law were so blatant, why did they do nothing? And why didn't the Evangelical Alliance complain to the police? Perhaps they'd already tried that with no success.

The remarks of the Provost (the Scottish equivalent of a Mayor, Bailie = alderman) are fascinating. It's clear that he himself is a licensed grocer. Before the Forbes Mackenzie Act licensed grocers had been allowed to sell alcohol for consumption on the premises. The practice was very widespread. After Forbes Mackenzie licensed grocers were only allowed to sell drink for consumption off the premises. Drinking in grocers' shops was a particularly Scottish phenomenon and did not occur in England.

What does this article tell us? That just because something is law, doesn't mean that it's obeyed.

Incidentally, I've been looking at an 1858 Ordnance Survey map of Falkirk. The town is absolutely packed with pubs. Some tiny alleyways have three. When I've time, I'll go through and count them.

* Feeing Thursday was an annual fair in Falkirk, notorious for rowdy behaviour.

** I realise this reference is meaningless for most from outside the UK. "Rab C. Nesbitt" is a popular televisual entertainment based around the lives of residents of Govan, part of Glasgow. Unlike most British comedies, it's never made it outside the UK. Doubtless because the characters are often barely comprehensible, even to native English speakers.


Martyn Cornell said...

I have a feeling grocers' shops selling alcohol for drinking on the premises were banned in England during the great "gin scare" in the middle of the 18th century, which is why the Irish kept their grocers-cum-pubs (McCarthy's Bar in Castletownbeare - one of my Top 10 boozers. Fabulous place) but those of us east of the Irish Sea and south of Hadrian's Wall lost them.

Gary Gillman said...

A sidelight is that Bourbon whiskey may well have developed via the practice of Kentucky grocers purchasing new make whiskey - corn schnapps basically - and storing it until sale in sanitized (charred) new oak barrels. The charred casks imparted a red colour and delightful taste - ergo Bourbon. Maybe.


P.S. Kentucky is not remiss in introducing another alcohol, closer to our hearts, one of the very few novel beers America ever produced: Kentucky Common Ale. The details are in Wahl & Henius. Unlike California steam beer, the style is no longer extant.