‘I wish I could avoid the drink sir, but it’s too tempting’. The Inebriate Act in action in the East End

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Minnie O’Shea was a drunk, an alcoholic with a problem, and when she appeared at Worship Street Police court in May 1899 it was very clear that she needed help. Minnie admitted as much herself, telling Mr Cluer the magistrate that ‘she wished she could avoid the drink; but it was too tempting for her’.

It wasn’t her first time in the dock; Minnie had three previous convictions for drunkenness in the past year alone, and according to police she’d been arrested and charged on least 20 occasions. She was a serial drunk and in 1899 that meant she had made herself liable to a new initiative aimed at dealing with the problem of alcohol abuse in society.

1898 had seen the passing of the Inebriates Act which allowed justices like Mr Cluer to send defendants like Minnie to a reformatory to dry out. A similar scheme had been attempted in 1879 but no funds had been provided for it. If a person was sent to a retreat under that legislation they had to fund their stay themselves. There was no way that a poor woman like Minnie could afford to do that. This new legislation supposedly expected the local authority (in this case the London County Council) to foot the bill.

Minnie was given the option of having her case heard summarily or to go to trial before a jury. Having been told that if she agreed to have the magistrate decided her fate at Worship Street that she would be sent for a home, she wanted to know for how long? If she behaved herself, the justice told her, she’d be out in a few months, so Minnie gladly accepted her fate. She’d get fed and a roof over her head so it wasn’t so bad, she must have thought.

It came as a bit of shock then when Mr Cluer handed down a sentence of three months confinement in a inebriate reformatory, albeit a Roman Catholic one that would suit her cultural background. ‘Three years!’ Minnie objected. ‘Then I’d better not consent, I won’t go’, she told him from the dock. Too late, Mr Cluer countered, ‘you cannot help it now’, and she was dragged out of the court to begin her enforced period of reformation.

Minnie was exactly the sort of person confined under this and the previous legislation.  Victorian society viewed alcoholism as a sort of moral individual failing and associated it particularly with women. Women were viewed as weak in nineteenth-century rhetoric and thus ill equipped with the requisite willpower needed to abstain from ‘the drink’. Minnie seemed to affirm this widely held view telling the justice as we’ve heard that ‘it was too tempting’ to turn to the bottle. In the late 1800s the ‘drunkard was an individual considered to pose a threat to wider society as well as to themselves’ and as Jennifer Wallis has shown this enabled so-called charity workers and reformers to treat alcoholics appallingly.1

Not only were some inmates treated badly the legislation was largely ineffectual. Few local authorities could afford to build reformatories and by 1900 the state hadn’t met demand either. In the first year of the act becoming law just 82 persons were sent to homes, 61 of them in London so Minnie may have been one of that handful. Most were women (for the dubious reason given above) and thereafter nearly all the reformatories that were established (9 from 11) catered exclusively for women.

Alcoholism was a problem in the late 1800s and this was particularly true in poor working class areas like the East End. That is why the Temperance Movement arose and why Police Court Missionaries strove to help those ‘that helped themselves’ by pledging to abstain from ‘the drink’. But it was an uphill battle because life on the bottom rungs of society was desperately hard and for many Londoners drink was a form of anesthetic, muting the pain that they daily felt in their struggle simply to survive.

The middle classes that swelled the ranks of the Charity Organisation Society might have seen drink as a symptom of moral weakness but they didn’t have to suffer the privations that the capital’s poor did every day. They judged women like Minnie O’Shea, I don’t think we should.

[from The Standard, Monday, May 22, 1899]

  1. Wallis, J. ‘A Home or a Gaol? Scandal, Secrecy and the St James’s Inebriate Home for Women’, Social History of Medicine, Vol. 31, No. 4 pp. 774-795

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