My great grandma and the temperance movement

Boak (the baby...) and her great granny, a few years back.
Boak (the baby) with grand­ma and great-grand­ma

My great-grand­ma was born in Step­ney in 1901. Sad­ly, I didn’t real­ly get to know her before she died, so this anec­dote comes via my mum.

Like oth­er chil­dren of that time and place*, my great-grand­ma was often dis­patched to the pub to get some beer for fam­i­ly mem­bers, in this case her grand­ma. How­ev­er, when she was around 10 or 12 (before the First World War, at least) she took ‘The Pledge’ and joined the tem­per­ance move­ment. There­after, she refused to get any beer ever again.

I don’t know why this sto­ry tick­les me – pos­si­bly the fact that some­thing so “Dick­en­sian” as kids fetch­ing alco­hol was actu­al­ly in liv­ing mem­o­ry until recent­ly, or pos­si­bly it’s the idea of pre-teens swear­ing to abstain from alco­hol. Or maybe it’s just the evi­dence of a con­trary stub­born streak that per­sists down the female line to this day…

I’d raise a glass to her, but she’d prob­a­bly turn in her grave.


*OK, I don’t have evi­dence that this was com­mon prac­tice, but Zythophile men­tions a sim­i­lar fam­i­ly sto­ry here, and here Ron has col­lect­ed extracts from Charles Booth’s inter­views in the 1890s with Lon­don pub­li­cans and brew­ers – which is an absolute­ly fas­ci­nat­ing read – which men­tions this on a num­ber of occa­sions.

5 thoughts on “My great grandma and the temperance movement”

  1. The pre-teen absti­nence pledge was part of the Catholic con­fir­ma­tion cer­e­mo­ny in Ire­land until only a cou­ple of years ago. These days it’s usu­al­ly a sep­a­rate cer­e­mo­ny, but I’d say it’s still the norm for most kids.

    And guess what: we have a nation­al drink prob­lem. How strange…

    I like your East End meta­da­ta, btw.

  2. There’s loads of stuff about kids and ser­vant girls being sent for beer. The sup­posed cor­rupt­ing influ­ence of the Pub­lic Bar is why sep­a­rate off-sales entrances were cre­at­ed.

    My mum told me of fetch­ing Mild and Old mixed for her moth­er from the local offie in the 1930’s. And it being sealed. Chil­dren were allowed to buy beer to take out, if it was sealed.

    You can find the tran­scripts of Charles Booth here:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing stuff. I wish I had time to tran­scribe more.

  3. Sor­ry. Missed the link to my Booth page.

    Can’t rec­om­mend it enough, if you’re into social his­to­ry. The inter­views with land­lords and police­men are price­less.

  4. My moth­er-in-law was often sent to buy beer from the Holešovický pivo­var here in Prague dur­ing the war. She was always told to buy 8°, which you rarely find any­more.

    My wife was sent to the pub to buy beer when she was a lit­tle girl in the late Sev­en­ties.

    As I wrote in GBG­Prague, kids are still being sent down to the pub to buy beer in many Czech towns today.

    Liv­ing mem­o­ry is some­times clos­er than we think.

  5. I like this quote, from a police­man in Beth­nal Green in 1987:

    There´s not much harm in send­ing chil­dren to fetch beer. “Absolute­ly none in this dis­trict.” The lan­guage and atmos­phere is no worse in a pub­lic house than what they hear at home. Besides it would not pre­vent chil­dren fre­quent­ing the hous­es. “They look upon them as a sort of par­adise.” It is always to them that they are tak­en by their par­ents for a cake or sweets, they go there from baby­hood. To send them to fetch a pint of beer is no demor­al­i­sa­tion for them or intro­duc­tion to any­thing new and harm­ful. In bet­ter class dis­tricts where par­ents do not fre­quent the pub­lic house it would prob­a­bly be bet­ter not to send the chil­dren. Chil­dren always sip the beer they are sent to fetch, he has noticed it scores of times and often won­ders that any of it reach­es home but he does not think they acquire their taste for beer in this way.”

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