by Dr Jack Binns
Chronic alcoholism was one of the most damaging and destructive of many Victorian evils, especially amongst the poorest urban population. The last officially recorded instance of a two-year-old child dying of cirrhosis of the liver was only just over a century ago. Two hundred years ago successive British governments were actually encouraging consumption of beer because it profited farmers.
In 1830, for instance, Wellington’s Tories passed the notorious Beer Act which by allowing anyone to sell beer for a licence fee of only two guineas was meant to wean the nation off gin and please the growers of barley and hops. At that time there were no licensing hours and no age limits on drinkers. For millions alcohol was the chief or even only solace. When a peer suggested Sunday closing the London mob attacked his home and forced him to withdraw the Bill.
Against this parliamentary policy there grew up many kinds of temperance movements, some practising total abstinence, some demanding national restrictions of opening hours and closer inspection of public houses and beer shops. A third group campaigned for the option of prohibition whereby local communities could vote themselves “dry”. From 1847 onwards scores of juvenile abstainer societies were formed under the banner of the Band of Hope and almost every chapel in the land had a temperance group.
Not until the 1870s did Gladstone’s Liberal ministry attempt to deal directly with the liquor problem. In 1872 a Licensing Act daringly imposed a midnight closure on all public houses and forbade publicans to sell spirits to anyone under the age of 16. Opposing the Bill in the House of Lords, the bishop of Peterborough said that “it would be better that England should be free than that England should be sober.” Government attempts to deny beer to under 16s were rejected.
Despite the highly controversial Act of 1872, which still permitted public houses to re-open at 5am to serve early morning workers, consumption of beer in Britain continued to rise until by 1876 it reached an annual maximum of 240 pints per head of the whole population. Since by that year it is thought that there were up to three million who had taken the pledge of total lifetime abstinence, this was an astounding figure. It seems that drinking customs were integral to working-class life – at meal times, at markets and fairs, at the rites of passage, on Saturday nights and Sundays, and even at work where payments were made in beer. On one estimate, out of an average working-class annual income of £80, approximately a quarter was being spent on alcohol.
After the Act of 1872, the issue became party political and electoral. In the general election of 1874 the Liberals were ejected. “We have been borne down in a torrent of gin and beer”, Gladstone wrote ruefully. Nearly every public house and drinking den had become a committee room for Disraeli’s Conservatives who swept into office. Brewers, publicans and drinkers combined constituted a powerful political lobby. It looked as though the Band of Hope, the teetotallers and temperance chapels had been decisively defeated.
Scarborough’s experience was typical of the nation’s. For the past 20 years, no Tory had sat for the borough, but in 1874 Sir Charles Legard, the Conservative candidate, at his first attempt, came top of the poll. Partly because of the issue of temperance, the Liberal vote was split three ways leaving Sir Harcourt Johnstone in second place. Even Thomas Whittaker, Scarborough’s leading temperance champion, was temporarily ousted from his South Ward seat in the Town Hall. Like Gladstone, he too complained bitterly about the corruption of treating electors with drink.
This was the historical context in 1878 when St Mary’s Church of England Temperance Society decided to set up a cocoa house attached to a new mission chapel. Cocoa was to be the church’s alternative to beer.
The chosen location of this latest Anglican chapel was significant. According to St Mary’s vicar, Archdeacon Blunt, who had held the post since 1864, the area bounded by Cemetery (Dean) Road, Castle Road, North Marine Road and Durham Street was “the poorest and most populous part” of his parish. Here lived five or six thousand working class people who were both materially deprived and “spiritually destitute”.
Significantly, there was no reference from the vicar of the success in this impoverished district of nearby St Peter’s Roman Catholic church or even of the Methodist Claremont chapel in Castle Road. The multitude of public houses and beer shops was at the forefront of his mind.
Ironically, the foundation stone of St Paul’s Mission Chapel in Regent Street was laid by Lady Legard of Ganton, wife of the baronet whose seat in the House of Commons owed so much to the town’s drink trade. Also at the ceremony on Saturday September 7, 1878, was Sir Harcourt Johnstone of Hackness, the borough’s other MP. He was an Anglican but also a loyal Liberal so that his presence blurred the political character of the occasion.
As Archdeacon Blunt explained, there would be a working-men’s reading room and cocoa house on the ground floor and upstairs rooms for Sunday services and school classes. He hoped that “the building would be the centre of light, usefulness, refinement, culture and learning, of social family gatherings, and for the advancement of the worship of God in a district which much needed it”.
Within little more than six months, St Paul’s opened on March 25, 1879. In addition to the two-storeys in early Gothic style, the architect, CA Bury, had designed a 60-foot high belltower at the south-west corner. Unfortunately, the ground-floor cocoa house was not ready until the following May. Searching for a gas leak with a naked flame a plumber had caused an explosion which required repairs. Still, St Paul’s first cup of cocoa was sold to the Archdeacon by the Mayoress.
Anyone now looking for St Paul’s Anglican Mission House in Regent Street would be disappointed. In 1968 the building was bought by Scarborough Corporation for £4,100, demolished and replaced by new Council housing. No trace of it has survived. Sir Charles Legard came bottom of the poll in the election of 1880 below two Liberals.