A life destroyed by the ‘demon drink’

temperance-main

Alcoholism is a debilitating addiction than ruins not only the life of the person affected but that of those around them. Since the Second World War most of the attention of the police, courts, and prison service has been on  drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and MDMA (with all the various derivatives and combinations) and with good reason. All these drugs have the capacity to destroy lives as well. But while all of the above are proscribed and subject to sanctions under the criminal law, alcohol remains legal and freely available. Like tobacco, alcohol is recognized as being harmful but is simply taxed, not banned.

In the 1800s the negative effects of drink were well understood; drink was blamed for all manner of society’s problems form unemployment to fecklessness, poverty to mental illness, domestic violence to mental illness and suicide. All of these social issues were linked to the excessive consumption of the ‘demon drink’. In the early years of Victoria’s reign the Temperance movement established itself; from small beginnings in the late 1820s it had grown into a significant lobbying group by the 1850s. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to  get parliament to pass a prohibition bill in 1859 but it continued to promote abstinence by urging working men and women to sign the pledge.

It was recognized from the middle of the century that alcoholism was a disease and not simply a vice. Since it was not merely a weakness of character it was possible to treat it, and cure it and this was the beginning of modern efforts to deal with addiction to all sorts of substances.

Margaret Malcolm was a good (or perhaps ‘bad’) example of the evils of drink. She was brought before the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court in August 1878 for being found drunk and disorderly in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. She’d been carried to the local police station on one of the new Bischoffsheim hand drawn ambulances, being incapable of walking.

That was Friday 16 August and the magistrate fined her 8which her husband  paid to keep her out of gaol. On Monday (the 19th) she was back in court and this time Mr Woolrych fined her 21sand told her she was an ‘incorrigible drunkard’. Margaret pulled out a card to show that she had ‘joined the teetotalers’ and promised that she ‘would never drink again’.

Her pledge didn’t last the day: at around five in the afternoon PC Charles Everett (185B) found her drunk, ‘stopping the vehicles in the street, [and] making a great noise’. When he went to arrest her she threw herself to the ground and refused to budge. It took some time to get her up and into custody and in the meantime a large crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

Back in court before Mr Woolrych she had nothing to say for herself. The magistrate was told that Margaret had been in court on at least fifty occasions previously. Her long-suffering husband had paid nearly £200 in fines in just a few years. To put that in context £200 in 1878 is about £13,000 today. It would have represented almost two years wages for a skilled tradesman, or you could have bought 7 horses with it. Margaret must have had a loving husband (more than many working-class women had in the 1870s) and one who was, whenever possible, determined to keep her out of prison.

He hadn’t always succeeded; she’d been to prison several times when magistrates like Mr D’Eyncourt had refused the option of a fine in the forlorn hope that it would curb her drinking. On this occasion the law continued to be a blunt instrument: with no option available to him to send Margaret for treatment (as a court might today) she was fined 25(£80) or three weeks’ hard labour. The court report doesn’t tell us whether Mr Malcolm dipped into his pocket this time.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 25, 1878]

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