Food and Drink Living gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Living in 1901
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The poor man's drink?
Drinking in public houses was an important social activity for the working classes in 1901. Middle-class observers claimed that the Edwardian working classes often drank to excess. According to one 1900 estimate, every male drinker consumed on average 73 gallons of beer and 2.4 gallons of spirits a year. At 2d a pint, beer could cost as little as milk.

Outside a public house - link to an enlarged version

Drinking was seen as something men did. In The Classic Slum, describing life in turn of the century Salford, Robert Roberts commented that 'men who did not frequent public houses or drink at home were usually sneered at by other males, but not by women, as "tight-fisted", "hen-pecked" or "not proper men at all"'. But women were also drinkers. In Poverty: A Study of Town Life, Seebohm Rowntree records his detailed observation of three York pubs in 1900. He found that a quarter of the customers were women - and just over 10% children, probably fetching jugs of beer for their parents.

In 1900, there were nearly 6,500 breweries operating in the UK, a number that would fall to 142 by 1980. These breweries served 102,000 pubs in England and Wales at the turn of the century, a figure that would drop to 66,000 by 1967.

The poor man's poison?
Between the summer of 1900 and early 1901, an epidemic of arsenic poisoning caused over 70 deaths and was blamed on adulterated beer. The cause was eventually found to be accidental - arsenic had been used in the brewing process.

A Royal Commission on Arsenical Poisoning was set up in 1901, and subsequently recommended a legal maximum of no more than one hundredth of a grain of arsenic per gallon of liquid or pound of food.

Arsenic poisoning of beer - link to an enlarged version

Until the 1880s, it had been common for small brewers and beer-shop keepers to add narcotics, such as strychnine, in small doses to beer to compensate for diluting it with water. By 1900, dilution was the main problem - one in five samples tested had been watered down and sometimes salt would then be added to 'flavour it up' and stimulate thirst.