Sunday, 27 September 2020

Underage drinking in WW II

The prevalence of underage drinking seems to have varied massively in different periods.

Obviously, if you go back to the 19th century there was a stack of it, as there was no minimum drinking age until 1886. Even then, legal age was a pretty liberal 13. The current age of 18 was only introduced during WW I.

Between the wars there seems to have been little underage drinking. Which may have had as much to do with the economic situation as it did with a desire to stick to the rules.

While during my youth, it was rampant. Pretty much everyone I knew was drinking in pubs by the age of 15. There seemed to be an unwritten rule that you could drink in pubs from around the age of 16 or so, as long as you didn't behave like an idiot. I was never once refused s drink while underage.

WW II changed the interwar situation. And money seems to have been one of the key factors driving youth to drink.

"Drinking Among the Young
A letter in The Times of 23rd February, signed by the heads of six famous London settlements, urges licensees not to serve boys and girls under 18 with intoxicants. Here is an appeal that will not fall on deaf ears. We may be sure that licensees will be sympathetic. Indeed, they will be encouraged by this letter in the hope that support will come from unexpected quarters. Nobody likes the common informer. But if the skilled and humane staff of these settlements would collaborate in what is a truly serious problem by giving licensees a hint that this or that boy or girl is trying to buy intoxicants, nothing but good could emerge.

For, indeed, this is one of the plagues of a publican’s life. The young have money burning in their pockets; they have been working side by side with grown-ups; they want a fling and they mean to have it. In understaffed and overcrowded houses the fling may well be easy, at least once or twice—but perhaps not again. Anyone who shops nowadays or uses a garage or any trading establishment knows that he will probably be served by a child; but whether that child is seventeen and three-quarters or eighteen and a quarter only a birth certificate could show. And now that girls of 16 or 17 dress to look three or four years older, now that hair is neither “up” nor “down,” it must be recognized that the overworked publican requires a genius for discrimination. A recent report from Liverpool contained an example of the other side of the problem : “I heard of one young woman who was several times refused alcoholic drink and was later found to be a married woman of 34 with the appearance of a girl of 16.”"
The Brewing Trade Review, March 1943, page 64.

The trouble of correctly the age of girls is just as true today.

It was probably the first time that the bulk of Britain's youth had some disposable income. The irony being that there was bugger all for them to spend that cash on. With pretty much everything either rationed or in short supply, options for spending were limited.

While they might have been loud down the pub, the underaged weren't pissheads:

"Recent reports from a dozen great provincial centres agreed that drinking among th

e young, however noisy, was not the same as drunkenness. Miss Violet Markham’s Report on Amenities and Welfare Conditions in the Three Women's Services confirmed an absence of drunkenness. In four strikingly original articles in The Times Educational Supplement Dr. Macalister Brew recorded the result, in her search after knowledge of how the young spend their leisure, of a 100 visits to public houses. She concluded that they went to the public house for sociability rather than drink. They went to talk—“ and how they talk!” She analysed the subjects: the most popular was “some aspects of rationing (including clothes), the next most popular was “ religion (how to lead a good life, general aspirations, etc.).”

Yet the absence of rival peace-time distractions, the novelty of wages without knowledge of the value of money, and the sheer desire for a lark have placed a heavy new burden on the licensee. And in his efforts to avoid serving the under-aged with intoxicants he needs sympathy and help. The letter in The Times points the way."
The Brewing Trade Review, March 1943, pages 64 - 65.

Was religion really that popular a topic of conversation among the young? I struggle to believe that.

The pub has always been as much about sociability than getting plastered. Otherwise, why not just sit at home with bottle of cheap vodka?.


Michael Foster said...

This is one of the most fascinating blog posts I've ever read in my life. When I first visited the UK at age 14 I had no difficulty being served alcohol (perhaps this was helped by the fact that I was with my mother), and when I lived in the UK in my 20s I never saw anyone carded despite rather frequent trips to pubs. I don't know if things have gotten stricter since then.

What is particularly interesting is the THES publishing a rather sympathetic description of youths drinking responsibly without disturbing others too much. Whether that is true or not, both THES and Violet Markham wanted to give that impression to people. I'd expect the opposite. From her wikipedia entry (, Markham seems like a really odd person. A well-bred feminist who was anti-women's suffrage and ran for office as a Liberal? How can you be a woman opposed to women voting and run for office? Maybe for Markham beer was what sweetness and light was for Matthew Arnold: something to throw to the miserable working class to keep them at least a little happy sometimes?

The Flat Hat said...

Having talked to my in-laws, born 1926 and parents born 1930/33 the religion thing isn’t hard to believe. I recall with some disgust mother. In law describing the relationship between her sister and her later husband as “just heavy petting”. All three were big church goers.

My first pub pint was draught Guinness in 1972 in school uniform aged

Marquis said...

Like most other people in my age group then, (late teens) drinking under age was considered one of the rites of passage when growing up.
But there was always a mix in the pub, if we young lads caused a fuss a few older dominoes players would give us the look. They were not going to have their peace disturbed by a group of callow youths.

Anonymous said...

In the US I think the fact that a lot of boys were enlisting at 16 during WW2 also led to relaxed attitudes toward letting kids drink.

For that matter, it was awfully common for kids to get married at 16 back in the 40s in the US.

Phil said...

I don't think the world needs to know about your problems guessing the ages of teenage girls, Ron - keep it clean!

When I was drinking in Purley in the mid-70s, there was one pub where you could go from about 14 without any hassle, and another - called the Wagon Wheel and in shop-front premises, a 'bar' before its time - where the joke was that the upper age limit was 14. It's hard to get my (grey) head around how different things are now. The first time I went to a pub with my son I tried to get him a pint (he was 17 at the time) and was genuinely surprised how quickly and firmly I was refused. (For younger readers, there were no 'cards' back in the 70s, but - perhaps more importantly - if there had been kids would have been getting served all the time, in some pubs at least, after accidentally leaving theirs in their other coat (etc). Zero tolerance was not a thing.)

I don't imagine The Kids were talking about religion per se in those wartime pubs, so much as The Meaning Of Life and What It's All For generally - and I guess the thought that it could end any minute would make those questions seem more relevant. Even so, second most popular topic is a high placing.