In his new book, geographer David Beckingham looks at the rigorous licencing regime that Liverpool’s authorities put in place to tighten their grip on problem drinking in the pubs that proliferated across the city.  Similar attitudes frame today’s perceptions of public and private alcohol consumption.

Public houses lead to drunkenness and drunkenness to crime.

19th-century reformer

“Liverpool had a problem with drink.” With this opening sentence, David Beckingham’s new book, The Licensed City: Regulating Drink in Liverpool, 1830-1920, gets straight to the heart of his subject matter.

Beckingham is by no means the only scholar to look at the history of alcohol consumption in an iconic city. But he takes a distinctive geographical approach. He probes how problem drinking was defined largely in relation to public drinking, and links the increase in recorded drunkenness in police statistics to an emerging negative national reputation.

The Licensed City charts a period in which Liverpool saw phenomenal growth as a booming port with global reach across Britain’s empire. Its population grew tenfold – soaring from just 77,000 in 1801 to 700,000 at the end of the century – as the city absorbed workers seeking employment on ships, in its docks and allied industries.

There were two very different Liverpools in evidence: one the projection of the aspirations of the city’s grandees, their wealth set in stone in some of the country’s finest mid-Victorian buildings; the other the grim reality of insanitary, cheaply constructed housing, with streets that in the popular imagination quickly became “haunts of crime”. The gap between the two, Beckingham argues, became a source of municipal anxiety.

Outlets serving and supplying drink expanded in parallel with poverty, pubs and bottle shops (off licences) clustering in areas that were home to low-paid dock workers and casual labourers. Of these, many were Irish migrants who had fled famine at home, only, in the words of a contemporary commentator, “to find death abroad.” They became easy scapegoats in this city of sanitary disaster.

In the second half of the 19th century, the reputation of the city hit a new low with mortality rates substantially higher than the national average. On 28 August 1866, The Times newspaper (citing a local Liverpool paper) reported that: “Liverpool has been pronounced the most drunken, the most criminal, the most pauper-oppressed, and the most death-stricken town in England.”

To unpack this record, Beckingham’s primary sources are police reports, and minute books of the city council and licensing magistrates, all held in Liverpool Record Office, as well as local newspapers. They reveal how the anxieties of residents and reform-minded politicians – keen to arrest an emerging national sentiment that the city’s leaders were failing in their civic responsibility – were made manifest in public battles against booze.

Many of those calling for reform belonged to different wings of the temperance movement, and were adamant that the city’s problems had their roots in the over-supply of drink. In some streets it was estimated that there was one public house for every 13 people. As one reformer declared: “Public houses lead to drunkenness and drunkenness to crime.” The pub thus became a focal point in the fight to redeem Liverpool’s municipal reputation. 

More specifically, so too did the system that gave them their licences.The licensing of businesses serving and supplying alcohol can be dated to the 16th century. Beckingham profiles how this ancient system, legislated for nationally and dispensed by local magistrates, was adapted to tackle Liverpool’s distinctive urban challenges. 

One such problem for regulators was the use of pubs by prostitutes, keen to solicit the attentions of sailors enjoying leave on shore.  Parliament resisted banning women from pubs, though in 1872 it did legislate that publicans should restrict the time spent in them by reputed prostitutes.  Prosecutions proved difficult, however, because it was not clear when “reasonable refreshment” ended and more dubious behaviour began. 

The magistrates had another tool at their disposal, however, because licences came up for renewal on an annual basis. This gave Liverpool’s magistrates scope to address problem premises because they could review the management of pubs and threaten to cancel licences. In 1909, for example, a licence was renewed on condition that the publican limit the drinking time of known prostitutes to just four minutes – a measure that now seems laughably impractical.

The licensing committee also enforced opening hours and age rules for customers, which were successively tightened across the period, and clamped down on so-called ‘child messengers’ sent to pubs to fetch beer. 

They also used their discretion to manipulate the layout of pubs in order to target problem behaviours. Many of these were associated with women, from prostitutes in pubs to anxieties about effects on families from mothers who drank, even to the degrading effects of bar work on women.

Responses included restricting the numbers of doors to pubs, even the times at which they could be used, so that women drinkers could be spotted by bar staff, police inspectors and even other customers.  Specific features in pubs also came under scrutiny. The cosy corners known as snugs (now much loved today by heritage fans) were notorious for allowing immoral activities to go on undetected, with the connivance if not involvement of barmaids.

Design also became a way that brewers could fight back, with their own attempts to reform and reclaim the reputation of the public house.  Likewise, battles over licensing were later lauded as a central factor in changing Liverpool’s record and reputation for drunkenness.

Liverpool provides a striking case study for debates surrounding alcohol consumption and the limits of government intervention in the social lives of citizens. Many of the themes in Beckingham’s book have much wider relevance – both to other cities and other periods, including our own.

His contribution is to draw attention to perceptions of problem behaviours: Victorian drinking ‘problems’ were often working-class public order offences identifiable because they were easily visible.  Middle-class drinking, behind closed doors, largely escaped official scrutiny. That distinction is both our inheritance and modern licensing’s challenge, he concludes, if it is to respond to today’s definitions of problem drinking.

The Licensed City: Regulating Drink in Liverpool, 1830-1920 by David Beckingham is published by Liverpool University Press.



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