Victorian London - Women - Drinking

    There is, as regards these habits, a consensus of opinion which to my mind carries conviction, that while there is more drinking there is less drunkenness than formerly, and that the increase in drinking is to be laid mainly to the account of the female sex. This latter phase seems to be one of the unexpected results of the emancipation of woman. On the one hand she has become more independent of man, industrially and financially, and on the other more of a comrade than before, and in neither capacity does she feel any shame at entering a public-house. As a rule, when men and women drink together, the man stands treat, but women treat each other as much, and even more than, is the case with men. Thus the social side of the consumption of alcohol is emphasized, and to this may perhaps be ascribed very largely the combination of more drinking with less drunkenness, of which almost everyone speaks. Drunkenness, on the whole, is antisocial. “A really heavy drinker, one who soaks for ten days or a fortnight, without eating any solids, does not sit long over it as a rule, but goes home to come back when ready for more.” Women are far more sociable in this matter. “One drunken woman in a street will set all the women in it drinking. A woman is so often talking with her neighbours; if she drinks they go with her.” Moreover, for men, “pony glasses” have been in­vented to meet the case of “come and have something,” when neither side wants to drink at all, and only does so as a step in some business transaction. Among men who drink more shame is felt than used to be the case at having been drunk. “Much more is drunk than formerly,” says one witness, speaking of some of the rough Irish, “but there is less drunkenness, partly because the beer is lighter, but more because of a change in manners; nowa­days you drink, and the more you drink the better man you are, but you must not be visibly drunk. Outward drunkenness is an offence against the manners of all classes.” The ideal is to “carry your drink like a gentleman.” Of women it is however said, that “they let the whole world know if they have had too much.”
Such is the position, looked at in a very broad and general way, but there are diversities of opinion affected by the point of view of the observer, as well as by the class observed, and once more I offer my readers a patchwork of quotations. They are drawn from the police, from the clergy, ministers of religion, and mission­aries, from schoolmasters and others. Drinking habits and the disorderliness resulting from them could not but be continually mentioned in the course of the long walks taken in all parts of London day after day with the picked police officers who were permitted to assist us during the revision of our maps; and we had the advantage of discussing these and other cognate subjects with their divisional superiors. For the rest, I, of course, attach no names to the opinions I quote, nor do I indicate the precise locality to which they bore reference, but only when needed indicate the class.
As regards women: “Many more women are seen in public- houses; the middle-aged are the drunkards, not the young. Young people do their courting in public-houses, since both sides are rather ashamed of their homes, and like to make themselves out a class above what they are. The young men treat the girls to a glass of wine. No harm comes of it. It is not till they get older that women take to gin and ale and become regular soakers.” Again:
“Girls begin when they first go out ‘keeping company’; neither sex become confirmed soakers before twenty-five or thirty, or with women till after marriage. The drunkards are probably married women.” Another police officer said: “Drunkenness among women is on the increase,” but added that he had never seen a girl under fifteen drunk, and that it was never common before mar­riage. “They take too much at times, but are surprised at their own state. They do not drink for drinking’s sake, and very little upsets them, especially on an empty stomach. That is why so many are noisy on Saturday, when they are paid and let out early, having had no lunch. They take a nip and become hilarious in no time.” And another says: “Factory girls drink, but it is more often the young married women and the middle-aged who indulge too much. Men drink beer; women more often spirits. Women drink more than they used to, perhaps because they earn more.”
“There are various classes of women drinkers: the factory girl who drinks once in a way, the prostitute who drinks in the course of business and very seldom gets drunk, the laundry-woman who drinks by reason of the thirsty nature of her trade, and the married woman who drinks because her husband drinks.” “‘Women have lost all shame about entering a public-house, and as they never drink singly, the evil spreads.” “Public-houses are more attractive than they were; ladies’ saloon bars are to be seen everywhere. Publicans tell you that it is in response to a demand, but it is difficult to distinguish between cause and effect.” Such are other police opinions.
The clergy of the Church of England, Nonconformist ministers, and schoolmasters may be quoted to the same effect, though perhaps in some cases with more of a teetotal bias, or with less sense of proportion. That “drinking has increased enormously among women is heard again and again, and very rarely any­thing to mitigate this opinion, only that it is added, “Young women do not get drunk, unless on Bank Holidays or at mar­riages or funerals.” “Drink worse than ever,” we are told, “especially amongst women”; and this it is felt is “a funny thing in face of all the agencies.” “Women drink to excess more than men. They take to it largely to carry them through their work.” And again: “The women are worse than the men, but their drinking is largely due to their slavery at the washtub.” Of the same class it is said, “Nearly all get drunk on Monday. They say ‘we have our fling; we like to have a little fuddle on Monday.’” And of a yet lower class we hear that they “live on four-ale and fried fish.”
The master of a poor school speaks of the habit of drinking among the women being very general; “even quite respectable mothers, when they come to see him in the morning, nearly always smell of drink.” Two other masters also mention the large proportion of mothers who smell of beer when they come to see them at the schools; while a schoolmistress, “judging from the women who come to see her, infers that nearly all have a morning dram.” “The poorest and most destitute seem,” she says, “to look upon drink as the first necessity of life.” A Board school teacher at school in a poor neighbourhood says that the atten­dance is worst early in the week, while the public-houses are full of women; “the children being at home while the mothers drink.”
The increase of the habit among women still applies as we pass slightly upwards in the social scale. It is said to be “the regular thing for women to go in and have a drink when shopping,” and another witness notices the “marked increase in the number of respectably dressed young women who drink.” They may be respectable as well as respectably dressed. One of the East End clergy told how a woman who had been talking to him on the subject said that “when she was young no one would have dreamt of going inside a public-house. But things have altered. Her son is engaged, and the girl goes with him there sometimes. In earlier years you would have put her down as not respectable, but not so now.” A member of an Anglican Sisterhood put it that “the time had long since gone by for regarding it as a scandal that a woman should drink at the public-house.” And an “old resident,” speaking of the increase of drinking among women, says: “You cannot but see it: respectable women go into public-houses without any compunction, a sort of thing never seen until late years.”
Amongst the better-to-do, also, drinking is stated to be worse than it used to be, “especially among women.~~ “Every doctor will tell you that women have acquired the habit of ‘nipping.’ “ Some (said this witness) accuse grocers’ licences, but he did not him­self attach much importance to them. The real reason was, he said, that the women had so little to do. “All round London are growing up suburbs of small houses whose occupants have just enough to live on comfortably. Women left at home; small ail­ments; immediate stimulus of drink; that is how it begins.” Another agrees that “the habit of drinking among women is most often contracted by young wives whose husbands are away all day.” “Shop girls who marry find the loneliness in the suburbs unbearable after shop life.” Emphasis is also laid by many on the increasing amount of secret drinking among strictly middle-class women, and the taking of morphia and other drugs, as a result, perhaps, of home troubles, and medical men are blamed for not being careful enough when they prescribe stimulants. But the most objectionable drinking is described as being found among retired men of this class who have nothing to do and pass their time in going from saloon bar to saloon bar. Thus do “City habits lead to disaster.”
A parish nurse, working in the East End, said that “as to drink, there is more there among women than among men. They drink beer, or rather porter, not spirits, and always in company. When once inside a public-house, they stay there. For this reason she believed that if a law were passed (she was speaking in 1898) prohibiting children from fetching the dinner and supper beer, it would do distinct harm to East London.
    ... Another of the Church of England clergy, speaking of women, said, “Worry is what they suffer from, rest and hope what they want. Drunken­ness dulls the sense of present evil and gives a rosiness to what is to come. That is why they drink.”

Charles Booth Life and Labour of the People in London, 1903