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Last Updated: Friday, 2 December 2005, 18:15 GMT
The Victorian binge drinkers
By David Cannadine

David Cannadine
The British fondness for alcohol is sometimes seen as a sign of the nation's modern malaise, but the country was awash with drink when it was one of the greatest powers in the world, says historian David Cannadine in his weekly opinion column.

Now that we've reached the month of December, we're definitely entering the festive season. But it's equally appropriate to say that we've reached the drinking season - or, perhaps, more accurately, the climax of what's enjoyed or denounced as the year-long drinking season.

In the run up to Christmas, wine merchants and supermarkets constantly urge us to buy more bottles, clink more glasses, and consume more booze. Newspapers are full of advice as to how to avoid getting a hangover or how to cope with one if you do, while the police exhort us to drink less, or to drive less, or both.

The drink debate is nothing new
And the government hedges its bets - on the one hand insisting that it deplores anti-social behaviour, especially when it's fuelled by alcohol; on the other letting pubs stay open for longer, and claiming that this will reduce the amount of binge drinking, not increase it.

It's not easy to make sense of that argument if you're drunk, and it's virtually impossible to do so when you're sober.

Nowadays, alcoholic excess is taken by some as a sign that Britain is unprecedentedly degenerate and self-indulgent and even self-destructive - as embodied in the life and death of George Best.

But drinking was already a central activity in this nation when it was one of the greatest powers in the world. During the first half of the 18th Century, London was swept by a craze for gin, which was memorably depicted by Hogarth in his engraving "Gin Lane".

When the British army was fighting - and beating - the French, the Duke of Wellington described his troops as "the scum of the earth, and men who have enlisted for drink".

The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed not only the greatest age of British global expansion, but also the zenith of the temperance movement, which was inspired by the fear that a once-great nation was floating to its ruin on a sea of alcohol, a fear repeated in our own day.

One thing that has changed is that today our political leaders drink less than their predecessors did.

William Pitt the Younger habitually drank several bottles of port a day. Gladstone may have been the leader of the temperance-minded Liberal party, but he was himself no abstainer.

Asquith was regularly under the influence, and used to sway on his feet when speaking or answering questions in the House of Commons. And Winston Churchill, the very embodiment of Britishness and of the bulldog breed, was renowned for his consumption of brandy and champagne.

Winston's wit

During the inter-war years, he once mischievously invited a party of Mormons down to Chartwell for lunch. They duly attacked the fizzy water and the orange juice with their accustomed gusto, while Churchill imbibed something stronger with equal vigour.

At some point, the chief Mormon turned to his host, and observed: "Mr Churchill, the reason I do not drink is that alcohol combines the kick of the antelope with the bite of the viper."

Churchill fixed the Mormon with his most beatifically wicked smile, and replied: "All my life, I have been searching for a drink like that."

These days, such opinions and such behaviour would scarcely pass muster in British political life, where it's considered deeply irresponsible and inappropriate to drink while on the job.

Duke of Wellington
Wellington feared his troops' love for drink
Someone like George Brown, who was Harold Wilson's second in command for much of the 1960s, and who was often and euphemistically described as being "tired and emotional", would find it very hard to attain high office these days; and Charles Kennedy has been more criticized than celebrated for his alleged liking of a glass or two.

But alcohol is not the only drug which comes in liquid form and to which the British have been addicted across recent centuries - and indeed, still are addicted today.

Consider the case of tea. What, at first glance, could be more innocent or more wholesome than the four o'clock cuppa? But tea is, in its own way, a powerful narcotic, for it's full of caffeine, which artificially perks us up.

John Wesley condemned it for being "extremely hurtful to persons who have weak nerves", yet the British Empire was in many ways built around tea, which was exported from China and India to Britain and America.

One consequence of this was the Boston Tea Party that took place in 1773, when the American colonists challenged British imperial authority by throwing that precious cargo of leaves into the sea, an event which helped set off the American Revolution three years later.

Coffee and drink are what used to be called uppers and downers
Even more powerful than tea is coffee, which contains about double the amount of caffeine. In the 18th Century, the British drank coffee as thirstily as they drank alcohol, and I don't think it's coincidence that as pubs and wine bars have proliferated here in recent years, so too, have branches of Starbucks, Café Neroes and Costas.

Like our forebears, we drink coffee in the morning to get us started at the beginning of the day, and we drink alcohol in the evening to get us relaxed at the end.

As such, coffee and drink are what used to be called uppers and downers - they're non-prescribed and easily-available. They co-exist and complement each other; and not just in terms of what we consume, but also where we consume them.

Take a walk down London's Kingsway, heading towards the BBC's Bush House. On either side, the street is filled with coffee bars and wine bars, almost exactly alternating between each other. As Anthony Trollope might have said, it's the way we live now; or, at least, it's the way we drink now.


Of course, there's a difference between caffeine and alcohol. For caffeine doesn't fuel anti-social behaviour in the way that alcohol does: it doesn't make people vomit or urinate in the streets or beat each other up.

But caffeine does make people twitch and twang and become hyper-active, and while alcohol may calm some people down, it makes other people unusually and sometimes uncharacteristically aggressive.

Indeed, it's been suggested that one of the reasons why the British were so good at conquering and annexing such a large a part of the world during the 18th and 19th Centuries was that their troops were tanked up on a heady mixture of caffeine and alcohol - which may, in fact, have been just what the Duke of Wellington meant.

As he put it on another occasion, when describing his army: "I don't know what effect these men will have on the enemy, but by God, they terrify me."

Tony Blair
Blair's predecessors liked the harder stuff
Today, the young drunks causing such mayhem in the city centres and market towns of Britain can't be sent overseas any more, they can't do national service, and it remains to be seen whether ASBOS will keep them in check.

In the long context of British history, this is just the latest version of a perennial problem of too many young people drinking too much. But from a transatlantic perspective, it does seem rather strange.

In America, the consumption of alcohol was prohibited by law during the 1920s, and today, it's illegal in public places for people under the age of 21 and in some states in private, too, which means that kids of college age can drive, but they can't drink.

To be sure, the law is not always observed: yet the intake of alcohol by Americans between the ages of 18 and 21 is much lower than it is by Britons, and that habit of abstinence stays with many Americans all their lives reinforced for some by a strong religious culture of temperance.

One reason why so many middle Americans still admire George Bush is that he is both a born-again Christian and a reformed alcoholic. And while it's still acceptable to drink wine at a business lunch here in London, such indulgence is deeply frowned on even in New York.

'Be moderate'

So should we be drinking less in Britain? Probably yes: and not just less alcohol, but probably less caffeine too. Yet while this might be an admirable outcome, it would fly in the face of our nation's long history of collective imbibing.

It's possible, as the government insists, that keeping pubs open for longer may reduce the incidence of binge drinking. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Oscar Wilde once observed that he could resist anything except temptation, and the greater the temptation that is placed in our way, the more of us are likely to succumb to it. So, as Christmas approaches, beware and be moderate. Have one drink, but no more, on me: especially if you're in a pub called the Duke of Wellington.

Your comments:

Your entertaining and informative article reconfirmed something I have suspected for some time, coffee and alcohol aren't new inventions and as such have been abused by the great British public for generations, perhaps now however, we should be a little more grown up about it and cut back on the media hysteria that seems to surround these issues!
Helen, Portsmouth

As recently as Victorian times, water, in many areas, was unsafe to drink. Beer, in the weaker brews of the times, did not carry the same pathogens. As to the extreme hardships of soldiers in age, Frederick the Great once said the following: "It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country as a consequence. Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war."
Huw, Virginia Beach

Interesting spin on Wellingtons concerns- in actual fact Wellington was far more concerned about methodists (tee-totallers) spreading their faith through the ranks. British soldiers were issued 1/2 pint of rum or 2 pints of wine a day as rations.. not something a commander worried about his mens alcohol intake would do.
Peter, Nottingham

As a historian myself, i found the article very interesting and with some degree of hilarity, although it depicts a fair image of British Society. It is also true that in some countries of the world, alcohol is becoming a serious concern. Here in Mozambique for instance, young people but not only, engage themselves in binge drinking. This happens almost everyday. Maybe there are different reasons for this kind of behaviour, from the one in Britain but it is true that we are sharing similar concerns. The best thing that could probably be done to reverse the situation, would probably be a gradual improvement of the social policies that shape societies.
paulo, Maputo, Mozambique

Very intelligent concerning culture and human behavior. As an American living here, I have been dumbstruck and amazed at the level of violence and abusive behavior as a result of alcohol. We Americans generally have an impression of the British being dignified and culturally aware and to see grown people falling into the road and urinating as well as vomiting in public is a shocking disappointment in people that we admire. Thanks for your balanced thoughts on the subject.
sandra culme, lewes, United Kingdom

I'm a Brit living in Japan. The Japanese have bars that are open as long as you sit in them, but many people that I know tend to have a drink with their meal, get quite drunk and then finish drinking earlier (say 10pm). There doesn't seem to be an argument about antisocial behaviour caused by drink in Japan. More people comment about the high calories in beer. This is something that I never even considered when I lived in the UK - I just checked the alcohol content of a drink. Recently, I've cut down on beer drinking and lost 5 kilos in 5 months - this is nothing spectacular perhaps, but I've done no extra exercise and I've not changed my diet.
Simon Humphries, Udono, Japan

I enjoyed this article as an American who actually admires a more relaxed -- though not excessive -- attitude toward alcohol in Europe. I think the U.S. has gone to an extreme toward abstinence but then again, I live in an area of the country with less public transportation and therefore the problem of drinking and driving. I think having a healthy, moderate attitude toward drinking benefits all. Not too much in either extreme.
Kathy, Houston, USA

Just like to add from a historical point of view that each soldier in the army was traditionally issued with rum or an equal alternative like carrack when not available. Also due to the lack of suitable water supplies (issues of cleanliness) people in the eighteeenth and nineteenth century were used to the isssue of small beer (low alchohol) for consumption at breakfast (midday) ie we are talking about different times here and perhaps that could be acknowledged.
shona, Evesham UK

Binge drinking in the UK started long before the Victorians - according to Peter Ackroyd's 'London - the Biography' thirteenth century London was notorious for 'the immoderate drinking of the foolish'. The English have always been renowned for their propensity for alcohol, though in earlier times it was weak ale, which even children drank (water, especially in populated areas, could be dangerous, but the process of brewing made it consumable), alcohol became a major problem in the 18th century with the arrival of cheap gin - London had 17,000 'gin-houses' in the 1750's and the effects, especially on the poor, were the equivalent of recent crack addiction in the US. Maybe alcohol is 'hard-wired' into our systems. Mentions of English drunkenness go back to the time of Bede.
Peter Dixon, Newcastle

A very insightful story...I enjoyed the reading and learning. As a Brit living in a dry county in Texas I do enjoy a tipple myself occasionally! Cheers David! David
David Bradbury, Dallas, USA



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