Exhibition: Temperance in Liverpool

A group of first year undergraduate students in History have put on an exhibition in Special Collections and Archives drawing on their research into food and drink in Liverpool for the module HIST 106.  Having decided to focus on alcoholic drink and the way in which it shaped nineteenth-century Liverpool, they found that the Library holds particularly interesting materials relating to the Temperance Movement.

This is an edited version of the students’ own account of the exhibition:

‘The exhibition includes temperance pamphlets, an 1801 map of the town, the 2011 study published by Liverpool University Press of The Liverpool Underworld and a graph representing the number of public houses between 1860 and 1914 which, displayed together give an insight into the problems the town faced with alcohol and drunkenness.

Reactions from the upper classes to the opening of new public houses which, at the time, were frequented by the working classes, were mostly negative: this can be seen in contemporary sources such as the 1865 Liverpool Life, which describes public houses as ‘very dirty’. The pamphlets show the attempts made to pull the city up from the notoriety it had garnered, while the quotations on the labels give first-hand views on alcohol at the time.  Temperance was a popular movement in Liverpool due to the reputation the city had.  To showcase this reputation we selected a quotation from the Liverpool Review of 1891: ‘In no other town in Great Britain, perhaps, have the evils of drunkenness and immorality been so paraded and so rampantly offensive as Liverpool…’. Another source which emphasises this matter is M. Macilwee’s The Liverpool Underworld Crime in the City, which we opened to display the chapter on ‘The Demon Drink’. We also quoted a passage from the book which both portrayed drunken behaviour but also introduced debates over why Liverpool had developed in this way.

As a contrast with these two items, we found the pamphlet The Direct Veto at Work by the Owners of the Land, which argued for the positive effects of the temperance movement, revealed in quotations such as ‘Within the prohibited area [where drink was not sold] the people are clean and respectable’ and another pamphlet which described the results of the prohibition movement, claiming that these areas are ‘very bright spots’ in the ‘black spot on the Mersey’.


The map shows some of the public houses that existed in 1801.  It doesn’t represent every public house within the city centre but it’s clear that alcohol was important to the contemporary economy.  We emphasised our point by using plastic houses placed on the map; red houses near to important focal points, such as the docks and green houses outside the city centre.  Although there were fewer pubs than there are today, many of them were in locations which are still home to many bars and pubs today, such as Hanover Street and Bold Street.

The graph shows the number of public houses between the years 1860 and 1914.  We were interested to learn that the numbers of public houses proceeded against and convicted correspond with the period in which the temperance movement was launching effective measures against drunkenness.

Overall, the exhibition offers a glimpse of the nineteenth-century temperance movement in Liverpool. Although the movement did not succeed in its aims, it is revealing to identify the nature of its concerns, the way in which it linked alcohol, physical dirt and anti-social behaviour and tried to overcome the latter by eliminating the former.’

The group’s tutor, Dr Alexandrina Buchanan, commented: ‘One of the strengths of History teaching at Liverpool is that it demands primary research through direct engagement with contemporary sources from the first year onwards and encourages students to think about history as a public resource, which can be used to inform debate on present-day issues. Putting on this exhibition has given the students a valuable experience in terms of group work and project management, understanding the practical problems faced by curators and learning how to create a narrative through things rather than words. I am very grateful to Katy Hooper and the staff in SCA for all their work helping the students to put on this display.’