For a quarter of a century the Northern port of Wick had no licensed premises. Dominic Roskrowreports on the
bitter feud that divided the town.
The 28th of May has a special significance in Wick. It was on that date in 1922 that every pub shut its doors and every off licence removed alcohol from its shelves.
And it was that date in 1945 that 25 years of no licence came to an end and the people of the town were permitted to buy liquor one more.
Visit the town today and it’s hard to believe that the folk of this wild and seabattered fishing port turned in on themselves and prohibited the sale of beer and spirits.
Today, with most of the fish long gone and with them the fishing boats, the town’s vast harbour is a desolate and vacant place and the bars nearby are bustle-free. The heart of the town is up at the distillery in the Pulteney area of the town and now they’re proud of their whisky because it provides a lifeblood that stops the town from dying altogether.
How different it was in the first half of the century, when the Temperance Movement, emboldened by an Act of Parliament that had seen scores of other bans across the country, was to impose on the town of Wick a quarter of a century of prohibition – nearly twice as long as the infamous American one that is known about across the world.
The 20th century had begun with a swelling intolerance towards alcohol and a growing view that only total abstention would remove the blight of drunkenness and alcoholism from society. Restrictions on alcohol sales became the norm during the first world war, and many of the traditional excuses for alcohol consumption – the unhealthy state of the water supply in cities, for instance, had all but been eradicated.
And in many areas alcohol abuse was a substantial problem. Drunken violence, particularly in the home, associated child abuse, and widespread neglect, had for long blighted many of Britain’s cities, particularly in larger working class communities such as that in the East End of London. During the second half of the 19th century the philanthropist movement had targeted alcohol as a central cause of poverty and had turned it into a political cause as it attempted to drag the newly industrialised working class out of slum living.
In Scotland the situation was slightly different. A strong protestant element, fiercely opposed to alcohol, brought an edge to the debate that entrenched positions on both sides of the debate.
The Temperance Movement itself had no formal structure as such, and developed in different ways in different parts of the country. The abrasiveness of its tone and the size of its influence were defined by the personalities involved with it. But there were two specific legal developments that would lead to the restrictions in Wick.
The first was the passing of the Temperance Act of Scotland in 1913.
Unusually it gave the power of decisionmaking back to the people, stating that districts and parishes could vote for No Licence. If 35 per cent voted for it, then all sales of spirits in public would cease, and such a ban would stay in place for a minimum of three years before another vote could be taken.
The second development was the passing of the Representation of the People’s Act of 1918, which in recognition of the work women had performed during the war, gave the vote to women aged over 30. When the move to voting on No Licence arose, women, often the victims of alcohol violence and certainly more opposed to drink, were well placed to play a full part in voting for its restriction.
In Wick the Temperance movement was formidable and wealthy, and two halls were built in the town to stage the pledges against demon drink and to rally public opposition to the sale of alcohol. Around the ports pubs packed with fishermen would celebrate the catch, while on the edges of the town, the anti-alcohol lobby looked on disapprovingly.
Perhaps with good reason, for it was not uncommon for fishermen to drink most of their wages away, or for unscrupulous barmen to take their earnings from them – legally or otherwise. When one publican persuaded two drunken fishermen to sign over the rights to their fishing boats, many wives felt that enough was enough. And so the scene was set for prohibition in Wick.
Not that it was prohibition. Or at least, that’s what the Temperance movement said.
A moot point perhaps, but one that initself would see an escalation in harsh and offensive dialogue between those who wanted to drink alcohol and those that thought it in their best interests if they were prevented from doing so. And boy, did the language get harsh and offensive.
Take the initial leaflet and poster campaign aimed at getting the floating voters into the polling days in what was effectively a rare example of a referendum in mainland Britain. This from the ‘No Licence’ lobby: “No Licence aims only at the licensed grocer and the public house, at the drink-shop and soaking bar, which contributes nearly all of the drunkenness which at present degrades our community.
“No Licence will give us a town free of the open sale of drink – will stop the trade in ‘making men drunk for profit.’ It cannot do more than that. Who says otherwise speaks falsely.
“Beware – if you vote in any way but for No Licence, it will be just the same as though you stood at the public house and held the door open for the young men of the town to pass through to destruction. YOU MUST – if there is not money gripping your soul.” Ouch. To which the reply was as follows: “It is as foolish to abstain from nature’s good gifts as to misuse them.
Do not let the Prohibitionist bogies frighten you.
“If there lurked in a glass of beer one thousandth part of the dangers of which Pussyfoot cranks speak the British people would have ceased to exist centuries ago. Be guided by the facts before you, not by the fiction of the Pussyfoot extremists.” Pussyfoot was a reference to W.E.
‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson an eloquent American and a fierce opponent of alcohol. His presence in Wick united the anti-alcohol lobby, who resented foreign interference in their affairs, and at times was the catalyst for violence. During one of his speeches catcalling descended in to brawling, rotten fruit and vegetables were hurled and Johnson attacked by the crowd, which inflicted a severe blow to his eye.
And as the vote approached the language of campaigning became more extreme.
“Mothers, wives and sisters, these Pussyfoot men vilely slander you and your sons, husbands and brothers,” went one pro alcohol leaflet. “These slanderers state because your men take a glass of whisky or ale that your homes are full of wretchedness, squalor and poverty.” They didn’t. Perhaps bolstered by a stupid decision by licensees to lower the cost of drink on voting day and therefore increasing the number of drunks in the town to remind people what they were voting about, more than three quarters of the population, a huge turn out, voted by 62 per cent against about 37 per cent for no licence.
The ban eventually came in and stayed for 25 years. It was challenged four times and every time it was supported by more than 50 per cent, though on two occasions only just.
Not that people didn’t find a way round the rules. As with America, there was a sharp increase in the number of people needing medicinal alcohol. And because alcohol could be bought wholesale groups together to buy stocks, drinking them in secret shebeens and selling excess amounts to others.
As for Pulteney distillery, it was struggling. During the 20s it changed ownership three times and closed its doors in 1930. It didn’t reopen until 1951.
Finally Prohibition ran out of legs in the late 1930s. As servicemen poured in to the region to serve at local air bases and military camps the pubs and hotels in the region outside the town were booming while Wick watched on.
The economic cost of the continued ban had become too great, and even the opponents of alcohol seemed to sense that the time for a ban had passed. In December 1946 the local population turned out in force to overturn the ban and on the 28th of May licences were granted again.
It’s said the party was long and lively.