Memorandum by Dr Phil Withington and Dr
Angela McShane (AL 57)
FLUCTUATIONS IN ENGLISH DRINKING HABITS:
AN HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
1.1 This short report considers, as requested,
fluctuations in English drinking habits since the middle of the
sixteenth century. It falls into five sections. Section 2 provides
a chronology of drinking (as gauged by levels of consumption)
from c.1550 to the present day. Section 3 outlines the
variety of interrelated factors which have influenced drinking
habits over the past four and a half centuries. Section 4 lists
some of the most obvious continuities connecting present circumstances
to the past. Section 5 identifies two of the fundamental
discontinuities in the current situation.
The chronology of alcohol consumption (based
on estimates of quantities consumed) can be roughly divided into
2.1 c 1550-1650
This (largely neglected) period saw the commercialisation
of the domestic brewing industry, leading to the replacement of
ale by beer as England's primary staple. Beer was a Dutch import
and the establishment of domestic production was in large part
due to the influx of Protestant refugees during the 16th C. The
period also saw a significant increase in wine imports orchestrated
primarily by Dutch merchants acting as trading brokersthey
widened the market for French wines and ensured more efficient
means of distribution. Early estimates suggest that the quantities
of wine imported in the first four decades of the 17th were the
highest per head that England has witnessed until the present
day, a trend brought to an end by the upheavals of civil and European
war after 1640. In a third development tobacco became a commodity
of genuine mass consumption from the later 1620s, quickly becoming
an accompaniment to existing drinking practices.
2.2 c 1650-1750
This is the period that, as Jordan Goodman puts
it, "Europeans took to soft drugs". Coffee, tea, and
chocolate were all successfully introduced into the domestic diet
and, over time, began to supplement the role of beer and ale as
primary popular staples. The period also saw the beginning of
the opium trade and, more noticeably at this stage, the invention
of new artificial spirits, ostensibly for medicinal and military
purposes and subsequently for popular consumption. The so-called
"gin craze" that flared up intermittently from the 1730s
to the 1750s can deflect from the more general trend in the decline
or at least stabilisation in levels of alcoholic consumption due
to the increasing availability of alternative drinks and their
absorption into existing patterns of consumption and sociability.
Alcohol consumption continued to fall per head
during what used to be known as "the Industrial Revolution".
Although the production of beer levelled at about 16 million
barrels per year from 1750 (compared to 23 million barrels
per year in 1689), population grew from six to nine million between
then and the end of the century. The consumption of spirits was
half that of official mid-century figures by the end of the century.
The only drink to increaseand then spectacularlywas
tea, which replaced beer in the same way that beer had replaced
ale as the popular staple of everyday consumption in the later
16th C. However, into the 19th C even tea consumption declined
and in the meantime wine, which had been consumed at a relatively
stable level since the end of the 17th C, also declined sharply
(from 0.46 gallons per head p.a. in 1800 to 0.23 gallons
p.a. in 1850). All of which leads John Burnett to argue that there
was 'a dramatic fall in living standards for large sections of
the population' brought about by the onset of industrialisation
The century of reduced consumption reversed
in the third quarter of the 19th century, Burnett noting that
"Beer, spirits, and wine in the UK all reached 19th C peaks
within a year of each otherspirits in 1875 at 1.30 gallons
a year, beer at 34.4 gallons a year (England and Wales 40.5 gallons
in 1875-9), and wine at 0.56 gallons in 1876". The consumption
of tea also more than doubled. This surge was based on renewed
prosperity for larger sections of the populace. It mutated back
into the familiar trend of decline in consumption after 1876 as
(according to Burnett) "the development of new spending patterns
and recreational opportunities was at last beginning to break
the hold of alcohol on consumers' time and income" (182).The
downward trend in alcohol consumption continued into the second
half of the 20th century (eg considerably less wine was drunk
in 1957 than 1937 and tea reached an all-time peak of
10.5 lb per person in 1932).
The general decrease in alcohol consumption
that has largely characterised England during the industrial era
(ie between 1750 and 1950) has reversed since 1957: the consumption
of beer has increased from 151.6 pints per head per annum
in 1960 to 175.1 in 1995 (with a peak of 217.1 in
1979); cider from 2.9 pints per head per annum to 15.3; spirits
(at 100% alcohol) from 1.25 to 2.25 pints per head per
annum; and wine from four pints to a remarkable 25.5 pints
per head per annum. It is the immediate juxtaposition between
current habits and recollections of a temperate, pre-1960s Britain
that makes, perhaps, current drinking habits seem especially disconcerting.
This is the more so given the plethora of other intoxicants now
available for consumption. Even so, it is well to remember that
in 2002 the UK had the 14th highest level of alcohol consumption
per head in Europelower than France, Germany, Portugal,
Spain, and even Switzerland. This was 3 litres per head higher
than 1970, when the UK lay 16th in the same table.
In terms of consumption (inevitably crudely
measured at times) it can be seen that England experienced a significant
rise and consolidation of drinking levels during the "early
modern period" (1550-1750). Between 1550 and 1650 there
was a commercialisation of "old world" production and
distribution plus the introduction of tobacco. The 100 years
after 1650 were in turn characterised by the assimilation
of, and moral panics about, new commodities, in particular coffee
and gin. In the following two hundred years, which coincided with
industrialisation and massive increase in population, there was
a marked decline in the consumption of alcohol. The post-industrial
or post-modern era (post-1960) seems to have returned to the kind
of trends in the early modern period: increased consumptionespecially
conspicuous and public consumption among certain sections of the
populationfacilitated by powerful business organisations
that are extremely competent at managing their relationship with
3. THE EXPLANATORY
3.1 Clearly to generalise about the causes
of these trends, especially over such a long period of time, would
be disingenuous and probably misleading. Instead it makes more
sense to identity the combination of factors which have influenced
English drinking habits over the past 450 years. These factors
provide an explanatory framework for understanding modern drinking
practices and can be traced back to 1550-1750. This "early
modern" period witnessed:
(a) The commercialisation of English and European
beverages and their more efficient production and provision.
(b) The influx of "New World" substances
and commodities and their assimilation into indigenous (English
and European) tastes.
(c) The establishment of global trading networks
and pressures that (b) suggests.
(d) Simultaneous economic and social developments
which meant a significant proportion of the populace could choose
to spend more income and time on drinking.
(e) The ability of corporate institutionseg
brewing guilds and colonial enterprises like the Virginia Company
and East India Companyto exert political pressure locally
(f) The fiscal exploitation by the stateeg
through the control of licensing, import duties and taxationof
the expanding trade and markets that (a), (b), and (c) represented.
(g) The simultaneous concern of the stateor
at least groups and bodies within itto regulate and police
(h) The adaptation of patterns and conventions
of sociability by which drinks were consumed, and which encouraged
the increase in demand for alcoholic and other beverages.
(i) Related developments in material culture
and the physical spaces of intoxication.
(j) The close association between the consumption
of intoxicants and new forms of cultural productioneg literature
(k) The emergence of moral movements seeking
to limit and reform drinking habits: the "puritan" (broadly
defined) "Reformation of Manners" from 1547, the "Society
for the Reformation of Manners" from 1691, the various temperance
movements into the later 18th and 19th centuries.
(l) The concurrent development of media technology
(in the first instance print) and a "public sphere"
through which to influence public opinion.
3.3 Since the 16th century these factors
have combined in various ways at the macro and the micro level.
Understanding these combinations goes some way to comprehending
the history of modern drinking and the place of the current situation
within that history. Thus:
3.4 At the macro-level we need to consider
(a) The political economics of drinking: in particular,
the relationship between "big business" (domestic and/or
global) and the state, and the balance between fiscal exploitation
and social regulation;
(b) The economics of production and distribution,
including the provision of alternative or complementary commodities
and the purchasing power (and "taste") of consumer/s;
(c) The energy, influence, and persuasiveness
of reformatory bodies (whether religious or secular);
(d) Prevailing stereotypes about "worthy"
behaviour and the appropriation of those values by different social
groups. "Worth" refers here not simply to "rational",
"civil", or "moral" behaviour but also behaviour
perceived as "modish", "fashionable", or "cool"
among different peer groups.
3.5 At the micro-level we can focus on
(a) The spatial dynamics and material culture
of sociability, in terms of sites, their organisation, layout,
size, artefacts, and integration or segregation with the wider
(b) The temporality of drinking: before the introduction
of tea and other 'soft' drinks (including clean water) alcohol
was a source of dailyhourlynourishment as well as
release. Now it demarcates time in the short and the long-term
("cocktail hour", "happy hour", "weekend
binge"; the fundamental boundary between childhood and adulthood
(as perceived by youths rather than authority)).
(c) Perhaps most importantly, the codes, conventions
and rituals that tacitly or explicitly guide behaviour of individuals
and groups, the knowledge and learnt behaviour these requires,
and the possibilities of social distinction, inclusion and exclusion
they raise (see 3.4.d. above).
(d) This relates, finally, to the perceived function/s
and acceptability of different kinds of drinking and the likely
sociology of particular kinds of drinking companyfor example,
a wine-tasting, civic dinner, or (for example) police Christmas
party compared to the nightclub on a Saturday night.
4.1 Having outlined an explanatory framework
for fluctuations in drinking habits over time it is now worth
considering two of the major continuities that link the contemporary
situation with more general historical trends. The first of these
4.2 The "problem" of affluence
The most authoritative social history of English
drinking currently available emphasises that phases of excessive
(and antisocial) behaviour and/or heightened moral anxiety have
usually occurred in times of what can be regarded as accentuated
and asymmetrical affluence. This is an important insight. There
is sometimes a tendency to regard the consumption of alcohol in
the past, especially in its excessive forms, as social or psychological
dependency: ie drunkenness is a means of consolation and escape
for the poor and desperate. This is especially the case when the
word of social reformers and moralists is taken as social reality,
and/or when historians look to use drinking as a means of distinguishing
between "elite" and "popular" culture. Clearly
there are, and always have been, strong correlations between drunkenness
(and any other kind of drug-dependency) and social deprivation.
However, the most significant rises in alcohol consumption since
1550 have invariably been related to proportional increases
in wealth for significant sections of the populace: conspicuous
consumption is driven by wealth, not poverty. This has been in
conjunction with cultural developments that make consumptionincluding
excessive consumptiondesirable and normative.
4.3 Governmental Responses:
Even before the 16thC governmental responses
have reflected tensions between the desire to exploit drinking
practices fiscally and a concern to regulate what were perceived
to be (at any given moment) their moral and social implications.
Either way the impact has always been significant, though not
always in the way intended. At the intersection of these impulses
has been the power to tax and to licence. Supplementary policies
have also followed a distinct pattern over time, focusing on the
timing of consumption and retail; the quantities sold or drunk;
the venues at which retail could take place; and the strength
of drinks through control of ingredients in recipes. The history
of state action has been clouded by the competing political influences
of reformatory and business interests. It has also been hindered
by the difficulty of shaping drinking cultures "on the ground"
and tarnished by degrees of hypocrisy which, again since the 16th
century, have seen certain social groups targetedin particular
youth and the lower orderswhile professional and elite
drinking remains sanctioned and condoned. A further problem has
been the implementation of legislation that conflicts with popular
conceptions of legitimacy and equity.
5.1 Sections 2, 3 and 4 have suggested
a basic explanatory framework for understanding the phenomena
of drinking in England since the 16th century. They have also
emphasised the essential continuity of modern drinking practices
over time. Much more work needs to be done in order to establish
in detail how these factors combined and intersected over time,
especially at the micro-level. Indeed a properly comparative study
of drinking habits in Britain and Europe since the early modern
periodeg exploring the validity and provenance of stereotypical
"northern European" and "southern European"
drinking cultureswould shed enormous insight on current
5.2 In the meantime it is worth concluding
with two features of the contemporary situation which distinguish
the present from the past. Both developments are the product of
complex and ongoing historical processes and most people would
regard them as social and political achievements. However, both
bring new pressures to bear on the micro and macro dynamics of
5.3 The emergence of the "bio-medical
The medical industry now has the technology,
knowledge, and incentives (especially commercial) to identify
and treat many of the biological consequences of alcoholic consumption.
This is in definite contrast to previous centuries, when medicine
was more likely to use alcohol as a treatment rather than cure
its related maladies, and when the primary impact of medical practitioners
was, it seems, to create, legitimise and/or popularise new kinds
of intoxicants: eg tobacco in 17th century, opium in 18th century,
cocaine in 19th century, heroin in 20th century.
5.4 The welfare state is expected to insure
the provision of medical technology, knowledge, and products for
the populace at large. This is true in terms of immediate provisionie
Friday and Saturday nights in Accident and Emergency departmentsand
long-term treatment for various alcohol-related and alcoholic-specific
ailments. This again marks a significant discontinuity with the
past and is likely to have important and possibly unforeseen consequences:
5.5 Since the 16th century at least, alcohol
and other intoxicants have been a crucial source of revenue for
the state. The very real possibility of successfully treating
the consequences of consumptionand the cost that this involvesthreatens
to reduce the public profitability of intoxication. This is the
more so as people enjoy the benefits of medical treatment and
so live and drink for longer.
5.5 Responsibility for behaviour in general
and personal health in particular has, to lesser or greater degrees,
shifted from the individual personor, more accurately,
families and communities of individualsto the welfare state.
The state feels obliged to consider the health of the nation and
its subjects (albeit this kind of discourse can be traced back
to the 17th century); and the culture of self-help and self-discipline
which, by necessity, shaped practices of consumption before the
mid-20th century have been dissipated.
5.6 Gender and Drinking
One of the recurring characteristics to emerge
from the ESRC Network on Intoxicants and Intoxication in Historical
and Cultural Perspective (www.intoxesrc.org) is that intoxication
has traditionally been the preserve of males. Whatever their social
and cultural standingie Ugandan "youths", medieval
knights, the Victorian urban "poor"; 20th century "post-modernists",
16th century "wits", Somali village eldersdrinking,
especially to excess, has been a masculine preserve. What is striking
about current trends in Britain is that women are now engaging
in many of the same drinking practices as men, and consuming similar
if not more amounts of alcohol in the process.
5.7 The significance of this discontinuity
is the more apparent because it follows a relatively long period
of time in which the possibility of "respectable" females
drinking in publicespecially women alone or accompanied
only by other womenwas severely circumscribed. That this
period of increased differentiation between masculine and feminine
behaviourie between c.1750 and 1950coincides
with the main phases of decline in alcohol consumption (see above)
is clearly suggestive. Yet even before the development
of the modern family templatein which (ideally at least)
the feminine household became a domestic and private retreat from
the travails of work and public life"honest"
women did not engage in the kind of sociability tacitly expected
5.8 Increased female consumption of alcohol
may go some way to explaining the increases in general consumption
since the 1960s since half the population was tacitly barred from
drinking before then. Whatever the ultimate limits of gender equality
in contemporary Britain there can be no doubt that, from a historical
perspective, there has been a revolution in gender relations.
Women now attend university like men, apply for many of the same
jobs as men, have disposable incomes like men, and, it seems,
participate in the same kinds of leisure culture as men (if
surveys emphasising "Binge Britain" are to be believed).
The full implications of this transformation do not seem to be
properly understood but they are certainly fundamental to the
Dr Phil Withington
University of Cambridge
Dr Angela McShane
Victoria and Albert Museum