The temperance movement in Victorian St Leonards

Many local branches of national societies urging temperance or total abstinence flourished in St Leonards on Sea in Victorian times. This article gives an idea of the scale of the local movement, and is based on the detailed coverage given each week in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer, which often quoted from speeches, or listed songs and their singers, and other entertainments. Tea was laid on lavishly, of course. Letters were often printed either claiming that alcohol was the road to ruin, or denying that moderate consumption was dangerous.

The 11 September 1881 issue says that the Temperance Union, an umbrella grouping of local movements and societies, had 1300 adult members. At the time the total population of Hastings borough was a little over 42,000.  It probably hurt their cause that the different organisations competed, but sometimes they joined up for local rallies.

The 13 November 1880 issue has most of an entire column advertising a St Leonards mission in St Leonards. The first part of the advertisement is shown below. There were daily activities at the Warrior Square concert hall.

Advertisement for temperance mission, St Leonards, 13 November 1880

The Norman Road Working Men’s Institute refers to the Norman Road Temperance Hall, which was a hall behind the Norman Road Methodist Church, and actually on Shepherd Street. The Institute was specifically temperance.

The Church of England did include those who favoured regulated, moderate consumption, and hence ‘memorials’ for drinking licenses were often headed by Anglican ministers, we are told by newspapers. However, there was an active Church of England Temperance Society, and the St Leonards branch was reported to have 300 members only a year after formation, in the 11 December 1880 issue.

By the 12 May 1894 issue, which reported on the branch’s AGM, at the school on Mercatoria, there were 292 adult members who were total abstainers, 57 ‘general’ (presumably supporters who still enjoyed the occasional tipple), and 183 children.

Other religious organisations included the Wesleyan and Congregational Temperance Societies, and the Rechabites. This was the Independent Order of Rechabites, with its local Hastings Castle Tent 1333, founded in 1881, which by 1886 had 162 members. The name referred to Rechab in the book of Jeremiah, whose descendants were exhorted both to live in tents and to abstain from drink. Its members did not, however, live in tents.

There was a Roman Catholic total abstinence society, the League of the Cross, but it does not seem to have had any local activities in the St Leonards area. Few Primitive Methodists or members of the Salvation Army drank, either.

Other local organisations included the British Women’s Temperance Association, which in 1892 had a St Leonards & Silverhill branch with 215 members; the Hastings and St Leonards Temperance Union; the Hastings Temperance Society; the Women’s Total Abstinence Union; the Independent Order of Good Templars, with St Leonards, Warrior and Bohemia lodges and a ‘Juvenile temple’ associated with the Temperance Hall; and the Order of the Totally Abstinent Sons of the Phoenix, which has overtones of Harry Potter. All this was besides the famous Band of Hope, which had numerous groups within other societies, and which encouraged children to take the pledge.

More of the advertisement for the temperance mission

The St Leonards Auxiliary of the United Kingdom Alliance for the Suppression of the Traffic in all Intoxicating Liquors was made of even sterner stuff, advocating as they did prohibition. It was founded by a Manchester Quaker in 1852, but was not specifically Christian.

The advertisement (another part of which is shown to the left) also offered a chorus of 200 children singing temperance melodies. The Rev. J.W. Tottenham was presiding. John White Tottenham was the headmaster of a private school at what was then called Bannow, on Quarry Road; he died at 14 West Hill Road in 1904. The mentioned Rev. W.F. Whytehead was William Fraser Whytehead, who died at 2 The Mount in 1886. Both were Anglicans.

Some of these organisations had their members wear special clothing and called each other ‘Brother’, perhaps borrowing from freemasonry.

In 1891 there were three specifically temperance hotels in Hastings, as listed in the local directory, although there were none in St Leonards.

As for politics, Tories tended to favour the breweries, but Liberals were more likely to at least favour curbing the granting of new liquor licences. This was probably at least partly due to the large number of non-conformists in their ranks.

So how well did the mission (Christian overtones there) do ? According to the 18 December 1880 issue, in a meeting of the St Leonards branch of the Church of England Temperance Society:

… thousands had heard the temperance cause advocated in the Warrior-square concert room, and hundreds had joined the temperance cause.










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