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Fears over women drinking

In the summer of 1916, the Birmingham White Ribbon Band, a teetotal Christian group, sent complaints to the Home Office’s Restrictions Committee regarding the increased number of women drinking in public houses. The group alleged that fewer women were choosing to be ‘total abstainers’ and suggested that the women newly employed in munitions factories had begun to exhibit some of the drinking routines of male workers.

To support their claims, the group organised a petition which advocated that no girl in the Birmingham district under the age of 21 should be served ‘intoxicating liquor’ or should even be allowed in a licensed premises until after the end of the war. It was signed by over 37,000 women and girls.

Keen to investigate if public order or productivity was under threat, the Restrictions Committee sent representatives to look into the matter. The committee compiled detailed lists of over 2,000 licensed houses and requested evidence from dozens of people. The Chief Constable of the local police force responded with scepticism; suggesting that teetotal groups may ‘tend to exaggerate’ and ‘confuse rowdyism with intoxication’ if unaccustomed to the scenes they may have experienced in licensed houses.

While instances of drunkenness were found by the committee, they concluded that drinking in factories or to excess was a rare occurrence and that many of the accusations made in the petition could not be confirmed. The committee proposed that the increase in drinking was likely to be a result of societal changes rather than lapses in morality, observing that society no longer condemns ‘a young woman for having a glass of beer or stout’.

Intriguingly, the report observed that the instances of drunkenness found tended to be among the women who were already accustomed to consuming alcohol before the war – namely those who had easier access to alcohol through increased incomes, or ‘the absence of the controlling influence of the husband’. It also suggested that greater improvements needed to be made to the conditions of public houses, that better education regarding alcohol was necessary, and identified a need for more ‘wholesome’ centres of social life and recreation.

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