Popular drink histories and the pandemic: learning from ‘learning from the past’

Three years ago today the Morning Advertiser, the publican’s trade newspaper since 1794, ran a story written by Emily Hawkins entitled ‘Lessons to be learned from the past.’ British pubs, like other public and working places, had been closed for five weeks in response to the coronavirus pandemic, in what would turn out to be only the first of several lockdowns. Perhaps conscious of its claim to be the oldest newspaper in the world, the Morning Advertiser asked: had pubs ever had been closed in this way before? Could the licensed trade learn from earlier crises? Was the pandemic really unprecedented, in other words?

Interestingly, the story focuses on two brewers, Hall & Woodhouse and McMullen’s, and the firms’ experiences of World War I and the ‘Spanish Flu’ influenza epidemic that followed it, and on the reflections of an East Sussex landlord who had taken over his pub just before the the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. I was also called upon to provide some context, as ‘a historian,’ though I wanted to make it clear that this was not something I’d done that much research on – and of course all of the research I then carried out, rather quickly, had to make use of my books and digital sources, because archives and libraries had also been closed.

The brewers noted that their firms had not had to close their pubs during either of the World Wars, drawing clear contrasts with the response to coronavirus. I suggested that pubs might not have had to close during this earlier pandemic, or even fallen under any new controls or supervision, because they were already subject to the stringent and far-reaching war-time discipline of the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic), or CCB. Other places of public resort, like cinemas, were subject to the Public Health (Influenza) Regulations, 1918, and the Public Health (Influenza) Regulations (No. 2), 1918, institued by the Local Government Board. These restricted the duration of public entertainments to three or four hours at most, allowing cinemas and theatres to be properly ventilated before being re-opened for another three or four hours. The effects of these restrictions were duly noted in the reports of local boroughs’ Medical Officers of Health; in Hackney, for example, the managers of four of the twelve cinemas in the Borough were fined for not closing for thirty minutes to air the building (1919, 33-34).

It seems likely that pubs did not need new regulations of this kind because the CCB had already drastically reduced the opening hours of pubs, partly by instituting what became known as an ‘afternoon gap’ between lunchtime and evening opening. By the beginning of 1917, the CCB’s regulations applied to 38 million of the 41 million people living in England, Scotland and Wales, covering all but the least populous rural areas. Pubs were allowed to open for only two and a half hours at lunchtime and three hours in the evening from Monday to Saturday; on Sunday pubs were also closed at luncthime in England and all day in Scotland and Wales. Before the war, London pubs had been able to open for nineteen and a half hours a day, with pubs elsewhere open for at least sixteen hours. Additional restrictions to curb the transmission of influenza might have been seen as superfluous; cinemas and theatres were simply being brought into line with pubs. The 1921 Licensing Act that rescinded the CCB’s regulations retained the afternoon gap while suggesting a return to more liberal opening hours; the gap would survive until 1988.

The idea that pubs were unfairly targeted during the pandemic persists, but other insitutions fared worse in 1918-19. The landlord of the Sussex pub consulted by the Morning Advertiser noted that the pandemic would test two apparently eternal British institutions, the pub and the church. While worship moved online in 2020, this was obviously not an option for churches during the influenza epidemic. In fact there was consternation in Rhondda in 1918 when Sunday Schools were closed by government regulations while pubs and cinemas remained open, for the short periods mentioned above at least. The Urban Council considered the suggestion that “if it was right to close one public place it was equally right to close all public places.” The Rhondda Leader reported that one councillor said that if it had been within the Council’s powers he would also close cinemas and public houses.

One thing that made pubs distinct from cinemas and Sunday Schools, though, was the issue of hygiene. All of these places needed ventilation, but only places selling food and drink also had to worry about infections being passed on dirty glasses, or the cloths used to clean and dry them. In 1919 the Abergavenny Chronicle warned its readers to ‘Mind that cold!’ –

Where glasses are used, as in confectioners’ shops restaurants, and public-houses, the usual procedure of cleansing after the customer drinks is a hasty dip into tepid, dirty water, a hasty rub with a dirty towel by a person with dirty hands and finger nails, who then places the glass upon a shelf to be used by the next customer. After the washer-up has finished with it there are usually more germs than those which might have been left by the customer drinking from it just before.

Abergavenny Chronicle, 14th Nov 1919, p3

This concern for hygiene and the cleanliness of bar towels continued during World War 2; in 1942 Mass Observation devoted a file report to ‘Towels for drying glasses’ as part of its work for the Ministry of Information.

The Morning Advertiser’s 2020 story did not have space for these kinds of details, or for a sense of the wider context that identified pubs as a particular threat to public health, different to some kinds of public places but similar to others. That’s entirely reasonable – the paper and its readers had much more pressing issues to cope with.

But what this story did show was a more nuanced sense of pub history than the usual myth of the British boozer as a timeless icon. Here were brewers and publicans talking about earlier threats to pubs, at a time when the twenty-first-century version was facing a significant challenge, with more nuance than you would find in many political discussions of the value and role of the pub. For example, Tom McMullen, director of McMullen’s, suggested that the government took “a rather relaxed approach to the flu” in 1919, though again I woud say that was because it was already as tightly controlled as any other place of entertainment would be. Pubs remained open, but for two short periods each day. He also noted, though, that the firm’s profits rose by 47% in the financial year ending September 1919, despite an estimated death toll of 136,000 people from the influenza pandemic in England and Wales between October 1918 and March 1919. Mr McMullen acknowledged that this “material recovery” “probably disguised the impact of the flu.” That’s a perceptive reading of the firm’s records. Robert Duncan’s study of pubs and drinking in World War I (Pubs and Patriots: The Drink Crisis in Britain during World War One, Liverpool University Press, 2013) concludes that many brewers had a ‘good war’ financially, despite the strict regulations and reduced supply of beer.

Not only is that a very different outcome to the coronavirus pandemic, but it complicates the idea that the pub is simply timeless, an idea that ignores the role of the state, economic conditions, the actions of groups and individuals, and much more. These popular histories also extend a sense of continuity into the future. Anthony Woodhouse, of Hall and Woodhouse, connected the firm’s culture of “all being in it together” in wartime with its support for its tenants in 2022, cancelling rent and suspending loan repayments. Woodhouse made a similar comment when the firm returned to profitablity last year. His sense of the firm’s history seems to inform contemporary decisions as well as a sense of the future. Similarly Tom McMullen returned to the firm’s archives to learn from the conservative business strategy that had helped the firm survive earlier crises, noting that “people will remember how we acted during this time.

I think it’s really interesting that these firms have referred back to their own histories to generate that sense of permanence and resilience. Of course these are both family firms, with their own archives and perhaps a stronger sense of paternalism in their dealings with tenants and other staff. Similarly, I don’t know to what extent these reflections have been prompted by the historically-minded stories run by the Morning Advertiser during lockdown, but that might well have helped. The paper continued in this reflective vein in an excellent article on the paper’s coverage of the disruption caused by the World Wars by journalist and pub historian Phil Mellows, published the following day (May 6th 2020), and Stuart Stone contributed an interesting piece on the links between medicine and the pub on the 7th, drawing on online records. It’s a really welcome stimulus for reflections on pub pasts, and one that perhaps deserves more attention from drink historians.

James Kneale

‘The virtual realities of technology and fiction: reading William Gibson’s cyberspace’ (1999)


It’s probably not a good idea to post a twenty-year-old book chapter online. Especially one which really confirms the old gag about nothing dating faster than the future. This chapter on virtual realities and cyberspace was written on a big beige box PC with Windows 95. Getting online at this point meant wheezy dial-up. Not much of a consensual hallucination, in other words.

On the other hand, cyberpunk appears to be trendy again (do we need a special issue on this, people?) so maybe this might be of interest. The edited collection it was published in is probably fairly hard to track down now, and snippet views of the book are a pain in the neck, so I thought I’d re-publish it anyway…

So here’s the pre-published version of what became this chapter:

‘The virtual realities of technology and fiction: reading William Gibson’s cyberspace’ (1999) Crang, Crang, and May (eds.), Virtual Geographies: bodies, spaces and relations (Routledge), 205-21.

Kneale Virtual Geographies 2019 

James Kneale

Happy death-day, Father Mathew!

Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856), from the frontispiece to volume II of Winskill’s ‘The temperance movement and its workers’

“On the 8th of December, 1856, a wail of sorrow in the crowded streets of the city of Cork told that one fondly loved, yea, almost idolized by the people of every creed and party was now no more. Not Ireland alone, but all Christendom mourned the loss of a hero in Father Mathew — the “Irish Apostle of Temperance.” (Winskill, 1891).

Winskill’s description of the death of Father Theobald Mathew (1790-1856) captures something of the ambivalence surrounding one of the most important nineteenth-century temperance workers. A handsome and charismatic Capuchin Friar, Mathew launched a teetotal crusade in Ireland, Britain, and the United States in the 1830s and 1840s.  The first reformer to make a significant impression on Irish Catholics often wary of temperance’s Protestant roots Mathew’s appeal crossed sectarian lines, though it proved impossible to separate his campaign from Daniel O’Connell’s simultaneous agitation for the repeal of the Act of Union. Mathew claimed to have issued millions of pledges, but he foundered in the 1840s as the Famine threw Ireland into disarray. A series of financial and personal setbacks also undermined Mathew’s authority. And for many in Britain and elsewhere, his tremendous success in promoting teetotalism was always going to be qualified by his Irish Catholicism; popularity was one thing, but being idolized was quite another.

Born in County Tipperary, Mathew trained for the priesthood at Maynooth before withdrawing to become a Capuchin friar in Dublin. Mathew was sent to Cork in the autumn of 1814, becoming popular with the poor of the city for his preaching and charity. There were teetotal and temperance societies near Cork in the first decades of the nineteenth century, some of them Catholic, and by 1830 it was probably the strongest centre of Irish temperance outside Ulster. Encouraged by the Quaker William Martin, who had established Cork’s total abstinence society in 1835, Mathew signed the pledge in April 1838 with the words “Here goes, in the name of God!”

With Mathew as president the Cork society became the biggest in Britain and Ireland. By the end of that year 6,000 had joined; thousands traveled to see Mathew, and his visits to Limerick and Waterford in 1839 were received by crowds in the tens of thousands. Thousands took the pledge each week as O’Connell and other supporters of Repeal gave their support to Mathew’s meetings in Galway, Dublin, and elsewhere. By June 1840 Mathew claimed to be the leader of two million teetotallers in Ireland. He  visited Scotland in 1842 and England in 1843 (Beckingham, 2009), partly to get away from O’Connell’s Repeal agitation. Many Irish men and women supported both campaigns and Mathew feared this would blunt the effectiveness of his own efforts. It seems likely that Mathew supported Repeal but thought temperance more important; Quinn argues that O’Connell — teetotal from 1840 — sought to harness temperance for his own ends but also thought it demonstrated the discipline and virtue of the Irish. However Mathew was unable to persuade everyone in England that he had no connection to the Repeal movement. The English drink trade’s opposition to his religion and his teetotalism ensured an angry response from elements of the English press. London was the first place to receive Mathew with any degree of real hostility and a violent crowd interrupted his Bermondsey meeting.

By 1843-44 it is estimated that Mathew had recruited nearly six million people in Ireland, from a national population of around eight million. However the momentum of his crusade was lost as Famine relief took much of Mathew’s energy from 1846. Like other temperance workers he criticised the use of grain for brewing and distilling when it could have been used for food, and temperance writers continued to blame drink — rather than the British state — for Irish dearth. But Mathew’s crusade had already peaked before 1845, and he faced a number of pressing problems of his own.

Elizabeth Malcolm suggests that Mathew’s crusade was both messianic and millenarian; the faithful made pilgrimages to take the pledge in Cork and miracles were attributed to Mathew. The sale of medals to pledgers also smacked of idolatry; the Reverend Dr. John Edgar, a leading moderationist in Belfast, claimed Mathew had earned hundred of thousands of pounds this way, and others suggested that he was a “cunning Jesuit,” with temperance “a mere blind to carry on some deep-laid political scheme.” Despite Mathew’s desire to avoid sectarian divisions, the Catholic trappings of his mission worried many Protestants. Queen Victoria later admitted that while she admired his crusade she did not wish to be the patron of anyone who relied upon ‘superstition.’

Mathew’s charitable nature and poor grasp of finances created enormous difficulties. Many of those who signed the pledge were too poor to pay for their medals, and Mathew gave thousands away for nothing. By 1845 he owed £5,000. English supporters encouraged Lord John Russell to offer Mathew an annual pension in 1846, but he turned it down because the sum — £100 — was insultingly small. Desperate, he wrote to Russell in 1847 and was granted £300 a year. When Mathew was then chosen by the priests of Cork to be their new Bishop, he was blocked by the Catholic hierarchy; it seems likely that his ecumenicalism, Anglophilia, and a British pension counted against him in Ireland and Rome.

Mathew took his mission to the United States between 1849 and 1851 and was well received by temperance groups, Catholics, liberals and Irish Americans, though some of the latter criticised him for taking a British pension. He created new controversies along the way, too. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison knew that Mathew had signed the Anti-Slavery Address to Irish Americans in 1845, and expected Mathew to speak out against slavery while in the US. Mathew refused, wishing to concentrate on temperance, which lead Garrison to publicly denounce him. Mathew visited twenty-five states, though he left physically exhausted and no better off financially.

Broken by these efforts, Mathew made few public appearances in the last five years of his life and died of a stroke in 1856, aged 66. In many ways Mathew’s campaign was enormously successful, but because it was a ‘flat’ mass movement lead by one charismatic individual without the support of a wider organization it was hard to translate this into something more permanent. The Famine did not help, and neither did Mathew’s ecumenicalism. Later Catholic temperance societies in Ireland and England, like Cardinal Manning’s League of the Cross, were better organised and less ecumenical. While Mathew may have been ‘an apostle of modernisation’, in H. F. Kearney’s words, he still had to contend with equally modern currents of sectarianism and nationalism.


Beckingham, D. (2009) ‘The Irish question and the question of drunkenness: Catholic loyalty in nineteenth-century Liverpool,’ Irish Geography, 42: 2, 125—144

Kearney, H. F. (1979) ‘Father Mathew: Apostle of Modernisation,’ in Cosgrove and McCartney, eds. Studies in Irish History Presented to R. Dudley Edwards. Dublin: University College.

Malcolm, E. (1986) Ireland Sober, Ireland Free: Drink and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Quinn, J. F. (2002) Father Mathew’s Crusade: Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland and Irish America. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press.

Winskill, P. T.  (1891) The temperance movement and its workers, vol II, London: Blackie.


Some of the material in this post is based on a short piece I wrote some years ago, though it is quite different to the published version. The publisher failed to deliver what was promised in the contract, anyway.

James Kneale

Happy Deathday, Joseph Mortimer Granville!

(Wellcome Library)

A few years ago I published a paper (available open access here) on the anti-temperance writings of Joseph Mortimer Granville (1833-1900), a Victorian doctor and writer who died on this day. Granville was a peculiar man, and his work included both useful contributions to medicine and outrageous quackery and self-promotion. He wrote/edited the report of the Lancet’s Commission on Lunatic Asylums in 1877, but he was also a London ‘Society physician’ with clients like Stafford Henry Northcote (then Conservative leader in the Commons, later first earl of Iddesleigh). He wrote many letters to the papers, as well as a series of self-help books suggesting cures for sleeplessness, the common cold, and excessive dreaming. (A selection: Minds and Moods: Gossiping papers on mind-management and morals; ‘Fish as food and physic’; ‘Dreams and the making of dreams’; ‘The wooing of sleep.’) The idea that wearing a night-cap could keep dreams away tickled Funny Folks:

Funny Folks mocks Granville’s peculiar cures with some other ‘Queen Anne-Tidotes’ (1884)

In 1891 Granville wrote to the Times to argue that the British public were not drinking anything like enough alcohol, and that moderation was making them sick and shortening their lives. Given the tone of contemporary arguments about licensing and drinking, Granville’s letter provoked considerable debate. I was interested in where this decidedly unfashionable opinion had come from  – I would argue that mainstream medical opinion was much more likely to promote moderate drinking at this point. I set out to look at the different ways in which Granville had encountered, worked with, and written about alcohol throughout his life. This suggested that his quackery was partly the result of a need to find alternative sources of income in a society where there were too many doctors – his first practice had ended in failure, after all – and that his antipathy to temperance was at least partly influenced by his politics (he described himself as “a Tory in Science as in Politics” in 1885). Granville’s 1891 attacks on temperance chimed with popular prejudices, and as the Devon and Exeter Daily Gazette noted:

“Whoever comes out of this controversy badly, it is certain Dr Granville will not suffer. … [Society] will flock to a medical man who will not cut off their liquor, and presumably also reduce their other enjoyments, as is now the custom of most of our great doctors. … Dr Granville will become a most popular doctor after this bold disclosure of his.”

Granville’s name appeared in newspaper ‘puffs’ or blurbs advertising port, where he suggested that it was a suitable drink for invalids if drunk from the wood, not the bottle. Elsewhere he argued that cider made from the right kinds of apples would be good for rheumatism and digestion. The suggestion that everyone should be drinking a bottle of champagne a day was just an extension of this line of reasoning. Conservative publications like Punch were predictably delighted:

The first part of Punch’s response to Mortimer’s attack on temperance, in limerick form

However despite Granville’s notoriety, he is unfortunately better known for something he didn’t do: the internet thinks he invented the vibrator in order to treat women’s hysteria. This idea, first suggested by Rachel P. Maines and amplified by Tanya Wexler’s film Hysteria (2011), has taken root so firmly across the internet that it may now be impossible to dislodge. Historian Fern Riddell has done her best to eradicate it but it keeps reappearing. This makes it harder to research the historical JMG, and really I probably shouldn’t even be writing about him.  But while there are many things I don’t like about the historical Granville, I prefer him to the internet-historical version. He did invent a ‘percuteur’ to treat neuralgia between 1877 and 1881, but he was not really interested in hysteria, as this passage from his Nerve-vibration and excitation as agents in the treatment of functional disorder and organic disease (1883) makes clear:

“I should here explain that, with a view to eliminate possible sources of error in the study of these phenomena, I have never yet percussed a female patient, and have not founded any of my conclusions on the treatment of hysterical males. … I have avoided, and shall continue to avoid, the treatment of women by percussion, simply because I do not want to be hoodwinked, and help to mislead others, by the vagaries of the hysterical state or the characteristic phenomena of mimetic disease.” (my emphasis)

Maines interprets this as a sign of Granville’s nervousness about the morality of treating women in this way; I think he meant that “the vagaries of the hysterical state” in both men and women made it hard to diagnose. We might now say hysteria proved rather difficult to ‘medicalize’, and that Granville was trying to stay well clear of the topic for that reason rather than any qualms about its use as a ‘vibrator.’ ‘Hysteria’ and ‘hysterical’ appear precisely ten times in this 128 page book; neither term is included in the index. Sometimes a massager is just a massager, as Siggy might have said, and Granville’s massager was squarely aimed at men.

And finally: no, I have never seen a source for that image of Granville google throws up. And I am pretty sure he didn’t look like Hugh Dancy. Maybe if we checked our sources more carefully we’d be a little clearer about what we did and didn’t know about the nineteenth century…

Geographer MPs

Dan Hicks shared a graph breaking down MPs’ Brexit/Remain voting in terms of the subjects they studied at university, taken from this LSE blog post. Here it is:


MPs with a first degree in geography turn out to be more or less as remain-y as the sample of MPs as a whole (and more remain-y than MPs with degrees in law, politics, natural science, economics etc.)

Dan was interested in the Arch and Anth MPs; I wondered who the geographers were. There were nine when the referendum took place, and after a good deal of research by , Stephen Taylor, Oliver Duke-Williams, NUGEOG, Ruth Craggs, Mary Gilmartin, Jon Swords (thanks all) we have identified eight MPs.


  1. Theresa May (MP for Maidenhead; Oxford)
  2. Claire Perry (MP for Devizes; Oxford)
  3. George Freeman (MP for Mid Norfolk; Cambridge)
  4. Dr Matthew Offord (MP for Hendon; NTU, PhD KCL)
  5. Karl McCartney (MP for Lincoln, until 2017; Lampeter)


  1. Matt Western (MP for Warwick & Leamington; Bristol)
  2. Ruth Cadbury (MP for Brentford & Isleworth; Salford)
  3. Heidi Alexander (MP for Lewisham East, Deputy Mayor of London from May 2018; Durham)

Labour MP Laura Pidcock, (NW Durham) has an MSc in Disaster Management and Sustainable Development from Northumbria University. However she has a first degree in politics from MMU and only became an MP in 2017, and doesn’t count either way.

So we’ve established eight of the nine MPs who were geographers in 2016. One lost their seat and one gave theirs up since then; I’m not sure if any new geographer MPs have been elected since.

What does it all mean? No idea. But now you know.




Time capsules at the National Temperance Hospital (1873-c.1986): Alcohol, medicine and temperance

Last year I helped Museum of London Archaeology to identify the contents of two time capsules found under the former National Temperance Hospital in London. They remind us that there was much more to temperance than a narrow focus on its political dimension can tell us. And of course there are all the other issues raised by the destruction of the burial ground within St James’ Gardens. I was asked to write a blogpost about the capsules, but it doesn’t appear to have ever been published. So here it is (slightly tweaked).

One of the time capsules found under the National Temperance Hospital, London, 2017.

In the summer of 2017 contractors working on the High Speed Rail link project (HS2) discovered two time capsules under the former National Temperance Hospital. Deposited under the memorial stones for the East and West Wings in 1879 and 1884 respectively, the two sealed glass jars contained a number of documents related to the Hospital and the wider temperance movement. The Hospital’s original purpose had largely been forgotten; its name, still visible on the derelict building, confused passers-by and local residents alike. Why was it a temperance hospital? Did it only treat total abstainers, or specialise in the treatment of alcoholics? The capsules remind us of the purpose of the hospital and its importance as an experiment to prove that the sick could be treated without the medical use of alcohol. How might its founders have felt about its demolition in 2017?

The Hospital began life on Gower Street in 1873 as the London Temperance Hospital. It was established by total abstainers to provide an alternative to other hospitals, which followed the prevailing medical opinion of the day that alcohol could be an effective form of treatment. Drink was used as a stimulant, to treat some kinds of illness – particularly fevers – or for pain relief, and drugs were given to patients in wine. In 1870, for example, both the Middlesex and University College Hospitals spent more on spirits, wine and beer than they did on bread and milk for their patients. Patients in workhouse infirmaries and asylums were also given daily rations of alcohol. Medical authorities were still suggesting that children and the elderly could be given alcohol as medicine in the 1870s, though sherry or port were preferred to brandy in these cases. At the Temperance Hospital, alcohol was only to be used ‘in a case of dire necessity’ and this was to be recorded in the Register of Exceptional Cases. The Hospital treated 22,000 patients in its first twelve years, but alcohol was used only three times, and always as a last resort (in fact all three of those patients died). The records of the hospital – clearly showing that its patients did as well as, or better than, those treated with alcohol elsewhere – provided evidence for those doctors involved in ‘medical temperance’ in their struggle with the medical establishment.

The Hospital prospered and the directors looked for a site on which to build a larger institution. Raising money from donations, they found space on Hampstead Road next to St James’ Church and built the first two wings of the new hospital. The list of guests invited to the laying of the first memorial stone in 1879, found in the first capsule, illustrates something of the character of the temperance movement. There are many Liberal MPs associated with the UK Alliance, the premier political temperance organization of the day, but also representatives of the Conservative, Labour, and Irish Nationalist parties, advocates of pacifism, women’s suffrage, and popular education, as well as critics of Empire and slavery, alongside the wealthy manufacturers we think of as the typical advocates of temperance. The time capsules remind us that temperance was a broad movement composed of many different groups, some (but not all) of them connected to wider liberal or radical social and political currents.

Over time other buildings were added to the hospital before the Insull Memorial Wing – still standing at the time of writing – was opened in 1932, and the institution was renamed the National Temperance Hospital. In 1946 it became part of the National Health Service, and it ceased to operate as a hospital in the 1980s. Remaining within the NHS estate, it was closed sometime in the 1990s, and in 2015 the site was sold to the Secretary of State for Transport to enable HS2 to be built at Euston. HS2’s demolition of the hospital revealed the time capsules, which has prompted some discussion of the original purpose of the hospital in the media.

The HS2 site on Hampstead Road today. The Insull Building can still (just) be seen on the right, under its wrapping.

I think we’ve forgotten the Hospital’s original purpose because medicine has moved much closer to the convictions of its temperance founders. Doctors, the press, and other commentators condemned alcohol-free treatment as a dangerous and radical idea in the 1870s, but by the turn of the century other hospitals in London and elsewhere had begun to reduce their dependence upon drink. The amount spent on alcohol per patient halved at nineteen London hospitals between 1884 and 1904, and only two (Poplar and Westminster) increased their spending on drink. One supporter of the hospital – James Clark, of the famous shoe-making family – described the hospital as “an institution for educating the medical men,” and it does seem to have been partially successful in that aim. While mainstream medical opinion would never adopt the total abstinence principles of the Hospital’s founders, the influence of medical temperance and the Hospital’s records clearly played a part in establishing that moderation was safer than heavy drinking. New understandings of the effects of alcohol on the body and developments in drug treatment further undermined the association of alcohol with good health in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ironically this success explains why the Hospital seems strange to us now. Its archives, and the time capsules, tell us that while some patients were suffering from what we would now call alcoholism or ‘alcohol-related harm,’ the Hospital treated both drinkers and abstainers in roughly equal numbers in its first dozen years. The Hospital was not designed for abstainers or alcoholics but for everyone, and what had seemed radical in the late nineteenth century is quite uncontroversial today.

As it disappears forever it is worth reminding ourselves of its founders’ hope that “this great building will stand as a visible and permanent memorial of the vitality and determination of the struggle” to abolish drinking entirely. They might have been unhappy that the Hospital and the wider movement had not achieved that aim, and they would surely mourn the loss of the institution they had worked so hard to build, but they would have been glad of the opportunity, provided by this discovery, to contribute to contemporary discussions of the relation between drinking and health.

Thanks to MOLA, Magnus Copps, and UCLH Archives.

James Kneale