In this week's Eye on Millig column, Leslie Maxwell and Alistair McIntyre continue their look at attempts in the 19th and early 20th centuries to curb excessive drinking in Helensburgh and the surrounding area.

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HELENSBURGH and District has close links with the alcohol industry, from licensed premises of all kinds to illicit stills in places like Smugglers Glen at Rhu.

In the 19th century the area embraced the early Temperance Movement, but in 1920 there was a majority vote in the burgh to continue licensing premises.

The first temperance society in Great Britain was formed in 1829. The launch of the movement reflected growing awareness that society was being blighted by a culture of excessive drinking, and that grassroots action was desperately needed.

Local historian and Helensburgh Heritage Trust director Alistair McIntyre has researched the local links to the movement, and I am grateful to him for the details which follow.

Initially at least, both the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church had reservations about the movement, although later they came aboard.

The Free Church of Scotland, from its formation in 1843, along with the United Presbyterians and Baptists, showed more enthusiasm from an early stage.

While organised temperance depending heavily on powerful oratory for putting the message across, it was an Irish Catholic priest, Father Theobald Mathew, who is recognised as being the most gifted of all the speakers.

When he came to Glasgow in 1842, vast crowds came to hear him speak, and almost certainly, these would have included people from the Helensburgh area.

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Distinguished historian T.C. Smout has observed that this occasion provided a rare instance where the deep sectarian divide in the city was briefly set aside.

The main thrust of the early movement was geared to weaning people away from alcohol through the power of persuasion. But it was also recognised that inns and pubs constituted the few places where people could go to socialise.

So steps were taken to provide suitable alternatives — among them coffee shops, tearooms and temperance hotels.

The Cranston family were especially notable in Scotland for their efforts in this field. There were many temperance hotels, and Helensburgh and most other communities in the area had at least one temperance hotel.

It can be argued, though it is hard to prove, that provision of amenities like public parks, libraries and community halls could have been influenced by the movement to a degree.

It certainly had a role in encouraging alternative beverages to alcohol, such as soft drinks, with Helensburgh boasting a number of soft drinks factories, such as Lily Springs and Fairy Springs. Pubs began to offer soft drinks to customers from the 1860s.

According to Smout, the movement, praiseworthy though its efforts were, had little measurable impact on the amount of alcohol actually being consumed. He argues that legislation and fiscal policy had much more tangible results.

For example, the Licensing (Scotland) Act of 1853, better known under the name of its main proponent, William Forbes McKenzie, had a profound effect on drinking habits. The Act was strongly influenced by temperance considerations.

A Conservative politician, McKenzie was elected as MP for Peebles in 1837. Noted for his advocacy of Catholic and Jewish emancipation, it was as an MP for Liverpool that he successfully introduced his Licensing Bill in 1853, which overcame the various hurdles before becoming law that year.

The Forbes McKenzie Act brought about changes which survived until the 1970s.

For instance, there was the famous clause that on a Sunday alcohol could only be sold to 'bona fide travellers', causing some to resort to the Clyde paddle steamers in order to quench their thirst.

The hours of pub opening were curtailed, for example being required to close by 10pm on a Saturday. There were restrictions on who could sell alcohol — road toll keepers, for instance, were no longer allowed to have this as a profitable sideline.

What were the results of the Act?

A review in 1858 quoted Lord Melgund as acknowledging that, while the sale of spirits had greatly declined, it was his belief that this was due to a considerable rise in duty on spirits.

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The number of licensed premises in Glasgow had gone down from 1,900 to 1,600, though his Lordship said this had led to a great increase in illicit trade.

On the other hand, Greenock advocate and temperance societies founder John Dunlop argued that the Act had worked well. Cases of drunkenness in Glasgow had fallen from 71,648 in 1851-53 to 53,146 in 1854-56, a decrease of 18,502.

A letter to the Dumbarton Herald in January 1858 commented favourably on the effect of the Act on drinking in Helensburgh.

The 1853 Act was followed by the Methylated Spirits Act two years later, aimed at removing the temptation for drinkers to turn to this alternative form of alcohol.

Other measures were aimed at disrupting the illicit manufacture of alcohol, including greater police powers, and better resources for excise officers.

The net result was that by the later decades of the 19th century, places like Smugglers Glen no longer formed the habitual haunt of those operating “sma’ stills”.

Statistics confirm that alcohol consumption did fall away significantly during the course of the 19th century — so it might be supposed that the movement would have gradually withered away, its purpose being redundant.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Despite some progress, countless lives continued to be ruined by the misuse of alcohol, with the need for action seemingly as great as ever.

Temperance, in fact, evolved and adapted over time, to the extent that its core philosophy was taken aboard by many organisations and structures from the later Victorian period onwards.

What happened in the Helensburgh area was a microcosm of what was taking place nationally.

By 1844 the umbrella body was the Scottish Temperance League. As well as providing a central framework, the League operated locally through various local abstinence societies.

A Scottish Temperance League register of 1862 offers a glimpse into how this was organised.

In Helensburgh, the society president was the Rev James Troup of the Congregational Church; vice-president Thomas McEwan, mason, Sinclair Street; treasurer Colin Campbell, mason, Colquhoun Street; and secretary Andrew Provan, bookseller, Princes Street.

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Names of other members are given as well, along with occupations, offering a useful insight into the sorts of townspeople who were involved.

Perhaps surprisingly, these included several ladies — this at a time when female emancipation was still a distant dream. In fact, all the local societies included lady members.

At Arrochar, the president was Robert Stewart, Inland Revenue officer; at Cardross, Major J.T. Geils; at Cove and Kilcreggan, which had more members than Helensburgh, James Roy; at Rosneath, William Clow, sawyer.

The League maintained a local presence until 1924, when, after amalgamation with another organisation, the name was changed to the Scottish Temperance Alliance, and under that banner, it was still functioning at the outbreak of World War Two.

In 1939, the Helensburgh Council, as it was termed, had as president the Rev W.D. Bruce of the Congregational Church. But by 1956 the Temperance Movement was a more or less spent force.

Another significant temperance initiative was the British Women’s Temperance Association. It was founded in 1876 and there was an Edinburgh branch two years later.

The basic aim was to stop men drinking. It called for total abstinence, and it was influenced by the Gospel.

Women had no political voice, yet where alcohol abuse is concerned, it was undoubtedly women and the children who were usually the first to suffer.

The author Elspeth King quoted from a report from a Glasgow missionary worker: “Saw in several houses the effects of intoxication. In one house, found a man almost in a state of insanity by ardent spirits.

“His wife, quite a young woman, was sitting crying, and the blood flowed copiously from a wound, inflicted by him on one of her eyes.

“In another house, met with a woman intoxicated. In a third, found a man in a beastly state of intoxication — all cut in the face, caused by falls.”

Another worker reported: “Out of the 12 families I visited today, not more than one woman was at peace with her husband.

"The men are all drunkards, and they abuse their poor wives when under the influence of strong drink.

“These poor decent women said they could not live with their husbands; that rather than be murdered by them, they were thinking of separating from them, even though they should have to beg their own and their children’s bread.”

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Such horrors were not confined to the big city. Places like ‘The Barracks’, in Helensburgh’s James Street, witnessed some sad and sordid scenes, and doubtless various other places as well.

A branch of the BWTA was in existence in Helensburgh by 1907, which does seem quite late, but local women did have a voice in the Scottish Temperance League.

However, having a body that focussed heavily on women and the family must have meant that their priorities would have exerted real influence on the local debate.

Annual meetings were held at the Victoria Hall, and there was a significant membership base — in 1929, when the president was Mrs R.G. Service, local membership stood at 500. There was also a juvenile section, known as the ‘Little White Ribboners’.

When voting took place twice in the 1920s on whether or not Helensburgh should become a “dry” town, it might be expected that the BWTA would have been extremely pro-active.

It certainly was active, locally and nationally, in 1916, when Parliament was being petitioned to prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcoholic liquor.

Under the terms of the Licensing (Scotland) Act, 1913, communities were first empowered in 1920 to vote on whether they wished to remain as they were, seek to restrict licensing, or even make their area free from the sale of alcohol — the so-called “Veto Poll”.

Some 584 communities stepped forward, having surmounted the first hurdle, which required that 10 per cent of the electorate sign a requisition asking for the opportunity to vote on the matter.

For the first time, women over 30 took part.

In October 1920, Helensburgh voters presented the town council with a requisition for a vote. With a registered electorate of 4,309, voting was: votes cast 2,941; votes for “No Licence” 1,332; votes for “Limiting Licenses” 109; votes for “No Change” 1,500. The status quo was thus maintained.

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Elsewhere, only around 40 communities were successful. Typically, these were small towns like Kilsyth, Kirkintilloch and Lerwick, along with middle-class city areas like Kelvinside and Pollokshaws.

Another vote was carried out in Helensburgh in 1923, but again the result was “No Change”. For any vote for change to be valid, 35 per cent of those on the electoral roll had to vote, and for local prohibition, there had to be a majority of 55 per cent.

On the outbreak of World War Two, the president of the Helensburgh branch of the BWTA was Miss McMillan of Rhu, secretary Mrs Robert Leary, West Princes Street, treasurer Mrs Orr, William Street, and superintendent was Mrs William Wilson.

But, as for the Scottish Temperance Alliance, a town directory of 1956 makes no mention of the BWTA, and the local branch can be assumed to have folded.

To be completed next week...