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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