Monumental musings - Temperance Hall, Derby

The former Temperance Hall for Derby in Curzon Street

The former Temperance Hall for Derby in Curzon Street - Credit: Archant

Peter Seddon takes a dry look at the history of the Temperance Movement

Vintage view of Derby Temperance Hall - posters make the message clear

Vintage view of Derby Temperance Hall - posters make the message clear - Credit: Archant

January is upon us. That means New Year resolutions – or carrying on regardless. And after the excesses of the festive season the most common dilemma is the perennial favourite – continue to imbibe or go alcohol-free?

In recent years this age-old debate around abstinence has gained renewed traction through the jauntily-titled ‘Dry January’ campaign. Throughout the country those who ‘like a drop’ will be encouraged by the health and welfare lobby to abstain from alcoholic beverages for a full 31 days.

Like the much older ‘Temperance Movement’ it has laudable intentions. The benefits of ‘going dry’ are powerfully promoted – and should a month extend to permanence then so much the better. At least that’s what we are told. Yet millions will either fail to sustain their pledge or decline to bother at all. That suggests a polarity of attitude – one well worth pondering.

In the spirit of our ‘Monumental Musings’ series an appropriate starting place is one of Derby’s most striking but not universally-frequented buildings. The former Temperance Hall on Curzon Street – later Conservative Party HQ, Churchill’s dance hall, and now the Derby City Church – stands as a ‘monument to sobriety’ from an age when temperance advocates first gained momentum.

Playing on the conscience - Derby Temperance Society 1916

Playing on the conscience - Derby Temperance Society 1916 - Credit: Archant

The imposing edifice was opened on 27th March 1853 – built to a design by prolific Derby architect Henry Isaac Stevens. With its red brick and painted stucco façade, and some curious interior features, the building displays hints of exoticism quite at odds with Derby’s more traditional Victorian structures. It would not be out of place in Rome or Athens. In 1998 it was Grade II listed for its ‘architectural and historic interest’.

The building needed to be ‘different’ to attract patrons – for dances, lectures, musical and theatrical performance, exhibitions, all manner of entertainment and education…but not a single drop of ‘the evil drink’. Forget raucous taverns and bawdy music halls – they were for the fallen. By contrast the Temperance Hall offered self-betterment and a route to salvation – a place for ‘good’ citizens to remain so, and ‘bad’ ones to redeem themselves. Cups of tea all round.

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This resonant message had been mounting for some time. In 1751 the English artist William Hogarth had published his shocking print ‘Gin Lane’ depicting the squalor, despair and debauchery of lives destroyed by an addiction to cheap spirits. Men, women and children – none were spared.

But Hogarth hadn’t gone the whole hog. For it is sometimes forgotten that he also issued the companion print ‘Beer Street’ – this actually promoted the meritorious alternative of healthy souls downing good old ale. The message was clear – ditch gin, stick to beer, and life will be fine.

But while not advocating total abstinence, Hogarth’s graphic offerings sowed a seed. ‘Gin Lane’ was not a destination to aspire to. This stark realisation provoked debate – and in the latter part of the 18th century some sage thinkers began to realise that action was urgently needed.

From this grew the Temperance Movement. But advocates of such caution faced a monumental task, for across the centuries the culture of drinking had become firmly embedded in the lives of all social classes.

Taverns and inns were at the heart of existence in both town and country. Derbyshire, with a long tradition of brewing, had more than its share. Hostelries were convivial social spaces where meetings of all kinds were held – auctions, inquests, payment of wages, rent collection – and all manner of age-old festivals were a cue for routine revelry. Reducing drinking at all would be an uphill battle – let alone banishing it completely.

That didn’t stop the ‘powers that be’ trying. But this was no ‘nanny state’ intervention – advocates of temperance were for the most part ardent individuals, often with deep religious convictions, who espoused the cause under their banner of choice convinced they could make a difference and ‘save souls’.

The earliest Temperance Societies began to be formed in the 1820s with a view to encouraging ‘moderation’. But extreme arms of the organisation soon called for the total abstinence initially coined T-Totalism and later teetotalism. The term’s origins are disputed. One theory is that it emphasised the most extreme form of resolve – Total abstinence with a capital ‘T’.

The first teetotal-for-life ‘pledge’ was signed in Preston in 1832 by seven men.

Other towns soon followed suit. The Derby Temperance Society was formed in 1833 by civic leaders on the Whig side.

The earliest extant Derby pledge was signed on 7th December 1836 by five working men and three women described as ‘wives’. The Derby movement attracted some passionate advocates, and it was through their assiduous efforts that the Temperance Hall was erected in 1853.

Countless Derbyshire figures expressed support. Florence Nightingale wrote: ‘I trust that your fight in favour of temperance will be crowned with success.’ Co-founder of the Salvation Army Catherine Booth – a native of Ashbourne – earnestly espoused abstinence as a central tenet of her organisation.

Even purveyors of pleasure laid down boundaries. Melbourne-born travel pioneer Thomas Cook made no provision for ‘Happy Hour’ on his celebrated excursions. How times have changed – now holiday-drinking seems almost compulsory…and Cook’s run ‘wine tours’.

But at the time, as Victoria’s reign progressed and ended, the drive for abstinence did gain converts. Temperance Hotels were part of that response – Brown’s in Matlock gained particular renown for its healthful breaks.

Temperance Bars were also established – the herbal ‘sarsaparilla’ a much-promoted alternative to the evils of beer. One Temperance anthem cheerily counselled the wavering masses: ‘The fangs of the serpent are hid in the bowl – deeply the poison will enter thy soul.’ Convinced yet?

That zealous brand of rhetoric arguably reached a pitch during the First World War when the Temperance lobby garnered unprecedented support from Government circles. Beer prices were raised and strength greatly reduced.

Those in the licensed trade were not impressed – but many survived the squeeze.

In truth The Great War proved a disheartening turning point for the Temperance Movement and countless related societies. In extreme circumstances they had played the ‘guilt card’ – ‘don’t drink while our men are fighting’ – yet their ‘conversion rate’ remained troublingly low.

Human nature seemed to prevail. Faced with extreme pressures, and at a time of great social change, a huge majority of the population simply refused to buy into the abstinence message. And ultimately the sheer relief of victory seemed to tip the balance once and for all. In the final analysis the Temperance Movement had only ever scratched the surface.

The Second World War proved pivotal too. The post-war economic recovery of the 1950s boosted disposable incomes – and with it the licensed trade flourished. As time progressed excessive drinking was recognised as a problem but somehow both ‘tolerated’ and even normalised as ‘the modern way’.

Indeed from the 1960s alcohol consumption increasingly acquired an air of sophistication. Non-drinkers were perceived by much of society as rather dull. Significantly more women joined the drinking ranks – Babycham anyone? – and wine consumption, hitherto confined to the ‘better-off’, began to make tentative inroads into far more family homes. No matter if it was Mateus Rosé in its distinctive round bottle… it was a start.

Then ‘the Brits’ discovered overseas holidays – and better but affordable wines. Now half a century later the supermarket shelves are stacked with hundreds of varieties. Spirits and cocktails abound. The choice of real ales and craft beers is mind-boggling. It is not quite the case that ‘resistance is futile’ – but ‘Dry January’ is certainly a challenge.

That is patently the case in Derbyshire – the county’s restaurants and pubs are justly renowned. The 2018 edition of The Good Beer Guide listed 65 Derbyshire breweries. Derby has claimed the title ‘Beer Capital of the UK’. And just down the road is the ‘brewing capital of the world’ Burton-on-Trent!

Faced with such temptations one might conclude there is no escape. Yet to their great credit many will accomplish ‘Dry January’ and feel much better for it. Others will exercise their choice not to take the pledge. That in itself is no bad thing. But it ought to come with a caveat – that the compromise urged by the earliest Temperance advocates still makes a great deal of sense.

The core message of those pioneers was not ‘total abstinence’ but simply ‘prudent moderation’. Now in today’s ‘advanced society’ – no stranger to scenes chillingly reminiscent of ‘Gin Lane’ – that early cautionary mantra perfectly suits our own excessive times.

But then less moderate voices raised the bar even further. Lest you should still be wavering, consider that first ‘teetotal for life’ pledge from 1832:

‘I do voluntarily agree to abstain from Ardent Spirits, Wine, Ales, Porter, Cider and other intoxicating liquors, and not to give nor offer them to others except as medicine or in a religious ordinance.’

It could stand the odd tweak – like ‘unless Derby County win’ – but against that 1832 pledge ‘Dry January’ 2019 is surely just a breeze. Happy New Year…

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