Youth, Gender and the Interwar English Public House (conference paper)

Stella Moss, “’Safeguarded From Perils’: Youth, Gender and the Interwar English Public House,” EESCH conference (2008). Trolling the Internet, I recently discovered this old conference paper.

This paper considers various discourses circulated by a range of commentators in the 1920s and 1930s about drinking among adolescents and young people in public houses. During the First World War, English drinking habits were subject to unprecedented control under the Defence of the Realm Act, resulting in significantly reduced levels of inebriation. Throughout the interwar years drunkenness continued to fall, but in many working-class communities there was an increased level of moderate drinking. Female customers in particular came to regard licensed houses as an important source of sociability and recreation, in a trend that has been overlooked by historians who have focussed instead on the pub as a bastion of masculine consumption and leisure. While still provoking disquiet among temperance reformers, this rise in moderate consumption was accepted in many circles as a welcome advance from the widespread inebriation associated with earlier generations. Female drinkers in particular were often singled out as exhibiting the self-control needed to avoid drunkenness.

It is significant, however, that disquiet was raised among social purity campaigners and anti-liquor reformers about drinking among youths. Typically, both boys and girls were regarded as being especially open to temptation and lacking in powers of self-regulation. This, it was claimed, would often lead to excessive drinking and in turn to sexual impropriety and social degeneration. Conservative MP Lady Astor launched a campaign to raise the age limit for public house patronage from fourteen to eighteen years, resulting in 1923 in the successful passage of new licensing legislation. Many politicians considered that girls alone were in need of additional legal restrictions; an assertion that provoked outrage among many feminists and temperance advocates alike. Their intense lobbying on the subject ensured that the new law was based on principles of sexual equality.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, there was continued emphasis among social reformers on the need to keep young people out of public houses, underpinned by discourses which emphasised the inimical effects – both physical and social – of liquor on minors. In conveying their message about the dangers of alcohol, anti-drink commentators continued to draw on themes of moral hygiene and religious purity, as they had done throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, the interwar period also saw a new engagement with emerging psychological and psychiatric discourses as part of the exploration of how the individual might control his or her character and any associated impulses towards alcohol.

The question of youth culture has been neglected by scholars of drink, who have instead focussed largely on the brewing trade and the business histories of the industry. Histories of interwar leisure have often emphasised concerns about the ‘Americanisation’ prompted by new forms of mass leisure, and its allegedly corrosive impact on young people. By contrast this paper considers how the public house – a traditional site of popular culture and recreation – also provoked disquiet about the moral and social welfare of young people. In doing so it draws together a range of important themes relating to the regulation of leisure and consumption, while also contributing to debates about the shifting nature of gendered identities in interwar England.

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