Fundraising Blog: ‘Go Sober’ historian, Jennifer Wallis, reflects on ‘secret drinker’ parents and the off-licence

Following Dr Jennifer Wallis’s fundraising for Sobertember last year, on behalf of Nacoa, she has decided to go a whole year with no alcohol to raise further funds. She is a historian and lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London, whose work focuses on medical and psychiatric history.

Over four blog instalments, Jennifer will be writing about the experience of abstaining from drink for one year, her research, and reflecting on alcohol and the family from her unique historical perspective.

To visit and donate to her JustGiving page, please click here. We are a small charity but make a big difference—every penny goes a long way!

The Secret Drinker and the Off-Licence

I imagine many children of dependent drinkers associate their parent’s drinking with a particular place where they got their alcohol: the large anonymous supermarket, the local corner shop, friends who continually arrived bearing ‘gifts’.

For me, it was a corner shop that sat on the edge of a Bradford council estate, run by a wonderful family who would occasionally indulge me with free penny sweets. I suspect they saw their fair share of alcohol dependency while running that shop, but had they been doing so 100 years ago they may also have found themselves dealing with the accusation that they were actively aiding and abetting alcohol consumption.

From 1861 grocers were able to get licences for the sale of spirits in bottles for consumption off the premises (hence the ‘off licence’). In the 1870s grocer’s licences came under fire from several quarters, such as the Church of England Temperance Society who published a pamphlet on the subject, A Cloud of Witnesses against Grocer’s Licenses: The Fruitful Source of Female Intemperance. Concern stretched beyond the temperance camp too. In 1877 medical journal The Lancet printed a declaration signed by several doctors that denounced the grocer’s licence:

‘We believe Women, Servants, and Children of respectable households, who could not, or would not, procure intoxicating drinks at public-houses, are encouraged to purchase and use … liquors by the opportunity offered when visiting the Grocer’s shop for other purposes’.

The grocer’s licence was, they said, a ‘direct incentive to secret drinking’. A Select Committee on Intemperance, reporting two years later, backed up The Lancet’s concerns. They said that the danger of grocer’s licences lay in ‘familiarizing the general community with the sight and sale of spirits in shops, as if they were articles of daily and indispensable use’.

Like the new department stores of the 19th century, grocer’s shops ‘glitteringly displayed’ their wares as well as – some claimed – forcing them upon the customer. The grocer was imagined as a kind of ‘pusher’ of alcohol, but what also concerned critics was the often unsettlingly close relationship between grocers and their customers. In several publications protesting against the grocer’s licence, it was alleged that women colluded with their grocers to fiddle the accounts.

Husbands, mystified by the amounts of tea and sugar consumed in their houses, would discover that the ‘tea’ and ‘sugar’ written on the bills was in fact covering up the purchase of bottles of whisky or wine. This subterfuge was disturbing not only on account of women’s involvement in financial affairs, but also in regard to the suggestion that wives had an illicit relationship with a man outside the home. Some men resorted to placing adverts in newspapers, notifying local businesses that their wives should not be served (and their purchases thus charged to the household account).

Of course the grocer’s licence simply allowed many of those with an increasing disposable income to drink in a way that the upper classes had always done in the privacy of their homes. Not everyone was convinced that the local shop had become a den of inequity. The British Medical Journal suggested that many tales were mere urban myth and gossip (‘Mrs A knew a lady named B, who had a female friend named C.’), and the image of the woman drinker and the wicked grocer was a titillating story for late-Victorian journalists.

But again, as I’ve noted in other posts for Nacoa, I find myself half laughing at the near-hysteria of the Victorian press and half resigned to the fact that there was likely some truth in what they said. Our corner shop was, I quickly learned, a very convenient place for an alcoholic. You could constantly run out of things – bread, milk, cat food – that required a trip to the shop, and if you happened to come back with a four-pack of extra-strength lager as well, then you were just ‘treating yourself’.

No one forced you to buy it, though, and this is where the Victorian commentators seem to miss a trick: dependent drinkers are brilliant at seeing and using an opportunity to get their bottle of whisky or their can of lager, with very little prompting from outsiders. As much as I understand that dependency is an addiction, I honestly still have trouble applying that logic to my own parent in order to forgive them, or indeed have anything to do with them. It’s very difficult to overlook the secrecy, lying, and outright harm that seeking out that next drink did, but I am working on it.