10.4. Drunkenness

The lower classes of the workers in Manchester found time and money enough, to go to drinking saloons, beer-shops and “dram-shops” (gin-palaces). Benjamin Love reports that in 1840, from own investigation and from a report published by an academic institution, “in all our large towns, the principal taverns and gin palaces have now attached to them spacious saloons, in which, four or five evenings a week, and principally on the Sunday, the operatives assemble in crowds to listen to vocal and instrumental music, generally speaking, of superior character. Those who spend a certain amount in liquor have admission free, so that the expenses, which are large, must, of course, be amply covered by increased custom, i.e. from those who go there for the music and not for the drink.  The number of such places of resort in Manchester and Salford is upwards of fifty, which display themselves in all directions at an average of not more than a quarter of a mile’s distance from each other. Reckoning one hundred persons at a time in each place, would give five thousand, principally young people of both sexes, nightly exposed to these contaminating influences. The nature of the scenes sometimes enacted, and the effects upon the character of those who frequent them, may be readily imagined”. 

(Love, 1842, pp. 144-146).   

These expenses often impacted the family budget: “Beer shots are considered debts of honour.” The operative paid these first, before giving the rest of his salary to his wife, to cover the weekly expenses. One of the mills made the Saturday payment of the week’s salary to the workers in large amounts of small change, so that the worker would not have the excuse to go to the nearest public house “to change the large coins”.

There were a large number of drinking establishments in Manchester:

(Kay, 1832, pp. 34-35)

Mr. George Porter, at the time Secretary of the Board of Trade, gave a presentation to the British Association in 1850, with figures as to the annual consumption in the United Kingdom of spirits, beer, and tobacco; the figures were calculated, taking the taxes collected for each position. The total retail sales amounts were: spirits 20,800,000 pounds, brandy 3,300,000 pounds, beer 25,400,000 pounds, tobacco 7,600,000 pounds. 

We may suppose that the beer was consumed exclusively by the working classes, which were about 19,000,000 persons or 4,200,000 families in the whole United Kingdom. This gives 1.3 pounds per person per year, or 2.3 shillings per family per week. The average income per principal wage-earner was about 14 shillings, so that 16 % of the income went on beer. The physical quantity of beer was 435,000,000 gallons, or 15 pints per family per week. 

This means that, either, the average of the families were able to spend an important part of their income on beer (and some additional amount on gin, brandy, and tobacco), and thus were in very good financial circumstances, or, that the total weekly incomes of the families were higher than are generally supposed. It also means that the “family budgets” that we have are not complete.

(Porter, 1850, On the self-imposed Taxation of the Working Classes in the United Kingdom)

The mill-owners, the Government inspectors, and the local doctors in the textile areas were all convinced that it was a bad idea that a worker had a high income, because he would spend a large amount on drink. Many workers with a median income lived better than the highly paid men, exactly for this reason. There were cases of spinners with a family income of 40 shillings, but who lived in a cellar, because they could not pay a normal level of rent and food. The Poor Law Commissioners (1842) give us a comparative vision of some families, who have the same income, but those in the left column live very badly, and those in the right column live decently.

(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports, 1842, pp. 238-239)

This means that the image that we have of the difficult home circumstances in many cases of the workers, is not necessarily because they were poor, but because they were well-paid.

Mr. Edwin Chadwick, in an earlier official position as Assistant Commissioner to inform on the usages of the Poor Laws, specifically in London and Berkshire, made a number of investigations into the habits and financial possibilities of those persons who were receiving subsidies, and also as to the minimum amounts on which a poor person could live. There is a lot of fraud by the applicants. It is also shown that the poor could live on less money than they are receiving. It is very interesting to read the whole section.

(Extracts from the Information received by His Majesty’s Commissioners as to the Administration and Operation of the Poor Laws; See: Report from E. Chadwick, Esq., Assistant Commissioner, on London and Berkshire, pp. 234-339)

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