On one side of the River Irwell, the People’s History Museum is hosting an exhibition on the Temperance movement. On the other, the empty beer kegs are stacked up on the quayside, as though deliberately juxtaposed by the curator.
The exhibition takes us back to a time when pubs proliferated to a barely imaginable degree, and alcohol rations even formed part of the salary in some workplaces. Drunkenness, particularly amongst the working classes, became seen as a real problem.
A response came in the formation of temperance societies, appearing from 1829 onwards, soon followed by the first usage of the term ‘teetotalism’. Temperance bars soon sprang up offering a social environment devoid of alcohol-based temptation, and the museum features a mock-up of such a place in-situ (although you can visit a real-life example in nearby Rawtenstall).
The exhibition invites us into a peculiar world of medals, processions and ceremonial banners, and the use of moral, economic and nationalistic arguments to encourage people to try alternatives to getting battered after work every night.
There are also all manner of fascinating propaganda prints, from a near-hysterical sequence showing the inevitable linear progression of drinking (you will drive your family into destitution and murder your spouse), to the more reasonable ones, like the one attacking notion that beer has a high nutritional value.
The temperance movement went into decline after the failure of prohibition in the United States
It’s only a one-room exhibition, and difficult for even the most interested person to stretch out to more than a half-hour visit. There are, however, other permanent exhibitions to see, and the building itself is worth a look in its own right being a former Edwardian pump house (of water, not beer – it wasn’t that prevalent).
The progression into modern times is not explicitly covered by the exhibition except by the timeline on one wall. The temperance movement went into decline after the failure of prohibition in the US, and temperance bars across the UK closed down. But the problems that alcohol can cause didn’t go away – it’s not like everyone stopped drinking or anything.
As if to prove the point, Liverpool dry bar The Brink made a public-led recovery of the temperance bar concept when it opened in 2011. There were no moralising campaigns and banner–waving this time round. But the fundamentals – a recognition of the problems alcohol can cause, and a desire to offer a realistic alternative – remain the same.
Demon Drink? Temperance and the Working Class runs in Manchester (UK) until the 24th February 2013. Various complementary events are also planned, including a debate and curator-led guided tours.