prohibition-great-war-1914-18Prior to the outbreak of the Great War, one of the main political issues in Britain was drink. Convictions for drunken behaviour regularly exceeded 200,000 pa (1) - significantly higher than in more recent times - and local newspapers were full of reports of the misadventures of those who enjoyed more than a drop or two.  In response, groups such as the Band of Hope campaigned against the demon drink and toured the country encouraging men and women to take the pledge and refrain from the evils of alcohol.

One long-term supporter of the temperance movement was David Lloyd George and he was one of the most prominent politicians to give enthusiastic backing to the 1908 Licensing Bill.  Its main purpose was to reduce or at least limit the number of licensed premises in each local authority area and one of its provisions included the banning of women from working behind the bar. Clearly, men were being lured into drunken and immoral ways by the heady combination of beer and barmaids!

Whilst it was planned to compensate landlords who lost their pubs, no similar provision was made for the women who were to lose their livelihoods. Coming at the time of the strengthening campaign for female suffrage, this measure proved less than popular and was eventually dropped. The Bill, after much heated debate and opposition within the House of Lords in particular, was passed. However, neither side seemed satisfied with it: it did not go far enough for hard-line temperance campaigners but was deemed too intrusive for those involved in the brewing industry.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914, the leaders of the suffragette movement called a truce for the duration. Temperance campaigners, by contrast, saw it as a clarion call to arms and there were immediate calls from some quarters for the introduction of total prohibition. Indeed, only a week later, Charles Rothera, a Nottingham solicitor wrote, "This may seem to some folk an inopportune time to refer to the temperance question but can any time be really inopportune?  A well-known brewer, the late Charles Buxton MP, once declared in a memorable sentence that, 'the fight between the temperance forces and the drink traffic is nothing more or less than part of the great struggle which is being waged between heaven and hell'.  And surely other parts of the forces of hell have been let loose this week" (2).

At the end of August, the Government introduced the ‘Intoxicating Liquor (Temporary Restriction) Act'.  This gave powers to any licensing authority that chose to apply for them to drastically curtail drinking hours. Before then it was not uncommon for pubs to open their doors at 5.00 am and to keep them open until midnight.  The new act allowed pubs to be open for a maximum of six hours per day with a compulsory afternoon break.  However, it was never applied universally and Mr Rothera would have been disappointed that it was not implemented within Nottinghamshire for some time.

In March 1915, the Government was so concerned about drinking that David Lloyd George was moved to say, "We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink" (3). Under pressure from Lloyd George, the King took the pledge for the duration of the war, followed by the Duke of Portland - but he was the only Duke to do so.  One strong supporter writing under the pen name of ‘Teetotaller' wrote:

"The king has set a noble example.  He has risen to the high occasion and done the kingliest act of his reign.  He has decided to give up alcohol for the good of his country, for the safety of the Empire. And all honour to the Duke of Portland for prohibiting drink in his household.

"We all know something of the destruction of life and property caused by this war; we have all read something of the houses and farms and crops and towns shelled and burned; we all know something of the awful loss of life, not only of soldiers but of women and children. Yet, tremendous and horrible as is that carnage, it is but a trifle compared with the havoc wrought by drink" (4).

america-us-soldiers-ww1-first-world-war-007This was written before Gallipoli, the battles of Loos, Verdun, Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, etc.  If ‘Teetotaller' ever came anywhere near witnessing those battles, even he or she might have been driven to drink or, at least, they might have revised their opinion!

By late 1915 pubs in towns such as Hucknall in Nottinghamshire were calling for last orders at 9.00 pm  Around half of the country had reduced pub opening times by that stage (5) which, whilst doubtless unpopular with many, actually provided others with their defence against charges of drunkenness.  One such case involved a miner called William Grainger.

At 8.00 pm on 8 October 1915, Grainger had just finished his shift at the pit.  He only had an hour's drinking time left before closing at 9.00 pm, so he wasted no time and drank, probably a little more swiftly than usual, about three or four pints.  A regular drinker, he thought he could manage that without much trouble but PC Whitsed disagreed, charging him with being drunk, causing a nuisance and, possibly his greatest embarrassment, having to be taken home by his mother-in-law.

Grainger duly appeared before the magistrates on 16 October, when he strongly denied being the worse for wear.  As he said, "How is it possible for a man at work until 8 o'clock to be supplied with enough drink before 9 o'clock to make him drunk?" (6) Deputy Chief Constable Harrop said that he didn't know but that he didn't know Grainger's capacity either!  A fine of 12/6d (£0.625) was imposed.

It is worth mentioning at this time that temperance campaigners in Australia managed to get closing time brought forward to 6.00 pm, a ruling that stayed in force for nearly 50 years after its introduction.  This was the origin of the ‘Five o'clock swill', a phenomenon that saw men drinking as much as possible in the time allowed, helping to create the very drunkenness it was intended to prevent (7).

Leif Jones MPAs the war dragged on, reduced opening hours alone were not thought to be an adequate means of control. Duty on beer and spirits was raised continually as the war went on but Hucknall's MP, Leif Jones, wanted it raising higher still.  He was an ardent anti-drink campaigner, known as ‘Tea-Leif Jones' by his fellow MPs and a man described by the Mansfield MP, Sir Arthur Markham, as someone "who would run a mile to get away from the smell of a bottle of beer" (8).  By his thinking, if people could still afford it, they would still get drunk.  In September 1915, he said the nation's drink bill for the first six months of the war was higher than for the corresponding period the previous year.  He was right: between 1914-1916, although alcohol consumption had decreased by 17%, the actual expenditure had increased by 24% (9) but much of that was down to higher taxation.

No government, especially during wartime, was going to turn its back on this kind of revenue - or so you'd think.  The Czar banned the sale of vodka immediately on the outbreak of war, saw the country's coffers decline massively as a result and the Russian people just made their own anyway. It did nothing to improve his popularity and, who knows, might have played a small part in setting off the Revolution!

Although duty had been increased, production had been cut and the alcoholic content of beer reduced, the Government decided more was needed to curb Britain's taste for ale. Measures were introduced that hit at one of the key aspects of British beer drinking culture: the buying of rounds.

Buying your round - or ‘treating' as it was referred to - was considered to be a major factor in people drinking to excess.  ‘Getting them in' was a moral duty as far as the average drinker was concerned but it outraged the moral sensibilities of others and from 25 September 1916 the practice was outlawed across Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Nottinghamshire.  The terms of the new regulations were stringent:

"No person shall either by himself or by any servant or agent sell or supply any intoxicating liquor to any person in any licensed premises or in any club for consumption on the premises unless the same is ordered or paid for by the person so supplied; nor shall any person order or pay for or lend or advance any money to pay for any intoxicating liquor wherewith any other person has been or is to be supplied for consumption on the premises; nor shall any person consume in any licensed premises or club any intoxicating liquor which any other person has ordered or paid for or lent or advanced money to pay for.

"Provided that always such intoxicating liquor is supplied or served for consumption at a meal supplied at the same time and is consumed at such meal the provisions of this regulation shall not be deemed to be contravened if the person who pays for each meal also pays for such intoxicating liquor.

"For the purposes of this regulation consumption on the premises includes consumption of intoxicating liquor in or on any highway, open ground or railway station adjoining or near to any licensed premises or clubs in which the liquor was sold or supplied; and any person consuming intoxicating liquor in or on any such highway, open ground or railway station shall be deemed to be consumed in such licensed premises or club as the case may be" (10).

The Posterngate NottinghamNo-one was allowed to run up a slate - to buy beer on credit - and a practice called the ‘long pull', giving the drinker more than a pint for his money, was also outlawed.  The penalties for contravening these regulations were severe, with offenders liable to six months' imprisonment with hard labour and/or a fine of £100.

It must have been known that the full terms of these new regulations were practically unenforceable - how do you stop someone lending another a shilling before entering a pub? - and so it proved when men came home on leave from the Western Front.

At a meeting of Hucknall Urban District Council on 12 February 1917, Councillor John Slater, the head teacher at Butler's Hill School, bemoaned the fact that some of his old boys who were to address classes were unable to do so because they were drunk.  They had been welcomed home in the traditional manner and treated to more than might have been wise (11), certainly more than was legal.

Easier to police were the opening hours of pubs but even here there were occasional lapses.  At 10.25 pm on 24th November 1917 Sergeant Tomlinson of the Hucknall police passed the Masons' Arms on the High Street and found it full of drinkers, an hour after they should have left.  What happened next was reported as only contemporary reporters could:

"Tasting is Believing

"Joseph Hackett of the Masons' Arms, High Street, Hucknall, pleaded guilty on Wednesday [5 December 1917] at the Shire Hall to supplying intoxicating liquors during prohibited hours on November 24; and Sydney Whyatt, Co-operative Avenue, was charged with consuming beer on the premises during such hours.

"Ald A E Huntsman, who prosecuted, said it was a serious case. A police officer visited the Masons' Arms at 10.25 pm, when he found nearly 40 people in the house.  Whyatt attempted to conceal his glass, and said it contained hop bitters, but the officer tasted the contents and found it was beer. Whyatt, when informed of the offence, said the beer must have been served by mistake. On the approach of the officer the persons in the house appeared to be seized with the pangs of thirst and emptied their glasses.

"Sergt Tomlinson gave evidence as to his visit and its sequel.

"Mr H B Clayton, who appeared for Hackett, stated that hop bitters and bottles of beer were placed on the same shelf, and that was how the mistake must have occurred.

"The Bench considered the cases bad ones, and Hackett would be fined £15 or in default three months; and Whyatt £5 or one month." (12)

Presumably, the sight of a pub full of persons, "seized with the pangs of thirst", knocking back their pints convinced the court that no mistake had been made. Sadly for Whyatt, he didn't manage to dispose of the evidence in the same efficient manner and suffered as a consequence.

But behind such episodes there was real resentment at the measures adopted during the war. One local newspaper correspondent, the appropriately-named Henry Brewin, put it succinctly, "It is both futile and folly to argue this question from the teetotal or prohibitionist point of view. Beer is an Englishman's beverage.  Our forefathers who fought in the past for liberty and freedom were sustained in their vigour by bread, meat and beer, so that I trust the public will never more suffer themselves to be argued into total abstinence" (13).

Prices and taxes continued to rise and, with the introduction of price control in October 1917 for what was now termed ‘Government Ale', a strike was threatened by members of the Nottingham & Nottinghamshire Licensed Victuallers' Association (14). Local breweries were charging their tenants 90s (£4.50) for a 36 gallon barrel of this ‘Government Ale', a price at which publicans said they could not make a profit when obliged to sell it at 4d or 5d (about £0.2) per pint.  It was claimed that Burton brewers sold their beer at 80s (£4.00) per barrel and those in London at 78s (£3.90).  The strike, planned for 5 November 1917, was averted and a compromise was reached.

With beer weaker, more expensive, in short supply and drinkers unable - officially at least - to even buy a friend a drink, this provided fertile ground for another great British tradition, ‘taking the mick'.  In 1917, Ernie Mayne, a popular music hall performer, recorded a song that satirised the changes to beer brought about under Lloyd George's premiership.  Its lyrics summed up the thoughts of many and form a neat conclusion to this story.

Lloyd George's Beer

We shall win the war, we shall win the war,
As I said before, we shall win the war.
The Kaiser's in a dreadful fury,
Now he knows we're making it at every brewery.
Have you read of it, seen what's said of it,
In the Mirror and the Mail.
It's a substitute, and a pubstitute,
And it's known as Government Ale (or otherwise).


Lloyd George's Beer, Lloyd George's Beer.
At the brewery, there's nothing doing,
All the water works are brewing,
Lloyd George's Beer, it isn't dear.
Oh they say it's a terrible war, oh law,
And there never was a war like this before,
But the worst thing that ever happened in this war
Is Lloyd George's Beer.


Buy a lot of it, all they've got of it.
Dip your bread in it, Shove your head in it
From January to October,
And I'll bet a penny that you'll still be sober.
Get your cloth in it, make some broth in it,
With a pair of mutton chops.
Drown your dogs in it, pop your clogs in it,
And you'll see some wonderful sights (in that lovely stufo).


Lloyd George's Beer, Lloyd George's Beer.
At the brewery, there's nothing doing,
All the water works are brewing,
Lloyd George's Beer, it isn't dear.
With Haig and Joffre when affairs look black,
And you can't get at Jerry with his gas attack.
Just get your squirters out and we'll squirt the buggers back,
With Lloyd George's Beer.


(1) ‘Nottingham Guardian', 2 May 1914

(2) ‘Nottingham Guardian', 11 August 1914

(3) David Lloyd George, quoted in Cornell, David, "Beer, The Story of the Pint", p.184.

(4) ‘Hucknall Dispatch', 15 April 1915.

(5) Cornell, "Beer, The Story of the Pint", p.185

(6) ‘Hucknall Dispatch', 21 October 1915.

(7) Brown, Peter, "Man Walks into a Pub. A Sociable History of Beer", pp.127-128, MacMillan, London, 2003.

(8) CLAUSE 1.(Restriction on Delivery for the Purposes of Home Consumption of Immature Spirits.) HC Deb 17 May 1915 vol 71 cc1997-2086.

(9) DeGroot, Gerard, "Blighty.  British Society in the Era of the Great War", p.205, Longman, London, 1996.

(10) 'The Nottingham Evening News', 18 September 1916

(11) ‘Hucknall Dispatch', 15 February 1917.

(12) 'Hucknall Dispatch', 6th December 1917.

(13) ‘Hucknall Dispatch', 6 September 1917.

(14) ‘Mansfield & North Nottinghamshire Advertiser', 2 November 1917.


Article and images contributed by Jim Grundy.

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