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Thursday, 4 August 2011

'As Temperate a Body as Could be Found' - The United Kingdom Railway Temperance Union

I got it into my head that I should write a blog post about railway temperance this week as I will be traipsing off to the Great British Beer Festival at Earls Court, twice. So, perhaps it is my subconscious, or my liver, trying to tell me something.

Temperance was one of the key principals of railway employment in the 19th century, ensuring that individuals’ who were in safety critical positions, such as enginemen, firemen, porters, signalmen or guards, did not have impaired judgements when undertaking their duties. The London and South Western Railway’s rule book from 1845 stated that ‘any engineman or fireman found drunk whilst on duty, or on the company’s premises, will be instantly discharged, and visited with the severest penalties of the law.’[1] By 1912 this had not really changed and the Railway Clearing House’s rule book of that year stated that railway employees were not allowed into station Refreshment Rooms and any found drunk on duty would be dismissed ‘without notice.’[2]

Nevertheless, Jack Simmons pointed out that the greatest extension of the railway network between 1850 and 1876 was accompanied by the massive rise in national alcohol consumption.[3] In 1831 nine Burton-upon-Trent breweries produced 50,000 barrels of beer. By 1868 twenty-six breweries produced 1,755,252 barrels and in 1888 thirty-one breweries produced 3,025,000 barrels.[4] Thus, given the increase in alcohol consumption, some railway workers formed temperance unions to promote the cause. Yet, prior to 1882 these organisations were small, uncoordinated and operating independently.

In 1882 thirty-two unknown railwaymen,[5] feeling that a ‘principal of cohesion and expansion’ was required,[6] formed the United Kingdom Railway Temperance Union (UKRTU) with backing from the Church of England Temperance Society. The CofE’s temperance union was particularly active at the time. In that year there were 339,687 members in the 20 national diocesan branches, as well as 14,352 individuals in the seamen’s temperance union. The formation of the ‘Railway Temperance union’ was simply part of a policy of expansion to spread the word of temperance.[7] However, the railway union always had the unique perspective in that abstinence from alcohol was always linked with the safe operation of the railways.

The first meeting of the UKRTU was held at Exeter Hall, on the Strand, on Wednesday 11th October 1882. The president of the new society was Rev. Cannon Ellison.[8] The growth of the railway temperance union had a difficult start. However, by 1908 there were 300 branches nationally with 37,947 members[9] and branches were established by workers from most main line railway companies.[10] Membership particularly expanded in the early twentieth century. For example, in 1905 the London and North Western Railway union’s membership was only 4,777, whereas in 1908 it stood at 17,536.[11]

Members could pledge allegiance to the union in two capacities, following the practice of the CofE’s own temperance society. Category A members pledged total abstinence from alcohol and promised ‘by example and effort’ to promote the union. Category B members had this similar aim, but for whatever reason chose not to abstain totally.[12]

The organisation was carried on by volunteers who ran activities that could be broadly split into two categories; spreading the message, and events. Spreading the message was a big part of the union’s purpose from the start and the union used a system of ‘catch-my-pal,’ where members would induce their friends and neighbours to join. He would ‘talk and argue and persuade until that object was achieved.’[13] Furthermore, branches held meetings daily at meal-times where individuals would listen and talk about temperance message. On the social side, concerts and lectures were held in winter time and excursions would be run to the seaside and resorts in the summer months. Additionally, by 1911 the union owned a number of halls which were used as reading rooms ‘or institutes where a game of billiards may be played.’ The union’s halls at Crewe could also boast of a rifle range. Competition between branches also occurred, whether through football or between branch choirs.[14] Lastly, the Great Western Railway temperance union members established the company’s staff magazine with the tag-line the ‘Temperance Union Record’ in 1888.[15] These practices continued up until the First World War and beyond.

Overall, the question that could be asked is whether work of the UKRTU actually reduced intemperance and ensured safety on the railway? But in reality that is not the issue. At the point of the union’s establishment no example was cited where alcohol had directly caused an accident. Furthermore, an expansive article in The Quiver from 1911 on the union did not cite one accident where an intoxicated individual had been involved. The truth was that temperance among railway workers, while not absolute, was well established by 1882 through the companies’ own rules and regulations. In January 1885 the South Western Gazette, the London and South Western Railway’s staff magazine, reported on the first meeting of that company’s Exeter branch. The Bishop of Exeter stated that the organisation was ‘very peculiar and very striking’ as ‘it could not be said that railway men as a general rule were tempted to drunkenness,’ and that they were ‘as a body were as temperate a body as could be found.’[16]

Thus, because generations of railway workers had had drilled into them the notion temperance by railway companies’ managements the UKRTU was in fact quite irrelevant to the issues of safety. This is re-enforced by the fact that the great concerns of safety campaigners rested not with the alcoholism of railway workers, but with matters of technology and railway worker’s lengthy and tiring hours. Therefore, the formation of the UKRTU was simply an extension of the national temperance movement, which was part of a religious groundswell at the time, and it only used the issue of ‘safety’ as a cover to push its own religious message of service to God through abstinence.


[1] London School of Economics [LSE], HE 1 (42)/4391845, Rules for Enginemen and Firemen, 1845, Rule XXIV, p.20

[2] Author’s Collection, London and South Western Railway Rule Book, 1st November 1912, Rules 9 and 12, p.8-9

[3] Simmons, Jack, ‘Temperance Movement,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997), p.503

[4] Goruvish, T.R. and Wilson, R.G., The British Brewing Industry: 1830-1980, (London, 1994), p.91

[5] Blyth, Gregory, ‘Temperance on the Line,’ The Quiver, Vol 46, No 6, (April 1911), p.581

[6] Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday, October 14, 1882; Issue 6761

[7] Daily News, Wednesday, April 26, 1882; Issue 11241

[8] Jackson's Oxford Journal, Saturday, October 14, 1882; Issue 6761

[9] Raynar, Wilson H., The safety of British railways; or, Railway accidents: how caused and how prevented, (London, 1909), p.92

[10] Blyth, ‘Temperance on the Line,’ p.582

[11] Raynar, The safety of British railways, p.92

[12] McKenna, Frank, The Railway Workers: 1840-1970, (London, 1980), p.47

[13] Blyth, ‘Temperance on the Line,’ p.584

[14] Blyth, ‘Temperance on the Line,’ p.582

[15] Great Western Magazine and Temperance Union Record, November 1888, p.1

[16] South Western Gazette, January 1885, p.6


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