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September 20, 2013

The perils of drink – but it’s not quite what you think

by quaesitor

It’s Friday, and so that would normally call for some Friday fun. Well, this post more or less qualifies as a bit of fun, but it’s also a bit of seriousness too. So I’ll let it stand on its own merits. Here is a very helpful and salutary public health warning from the great nineteenth century social reformer and polemicist William Cobbett. It has much to teach us. As I’m sure you’ll agree…

One of Cobbett’s lesser known works was a book called Cottage Economy. In this he launched into the devastating effect of drinking on rural society.

It must be evident to every one, that the practice… must render the frame feeble and unfit to encounter hard labour or severe weather… hence succeeds a softness, an effeminacy, a seeking for the fireside, a lurking in the bed, and … all the characteristics of idleness… [Drinking] fills the public-house and makes the frequenting of it habitual, corrupts boys as soon as they are able to move from home, and does little less for the girls, to whom the gossip of the [drinking place] is no bad preparatory school for the brothel. At the very least, it teaches him idleness. The everlasting dawdling about with the slops… gives them a relish for nothing that requires strength and activity. When they go from home, they know how to do nothing that is useful. …to bake, to make butter, to milk, to rear poultry; to do any earthly thing of use they are wholly unqualified. …

But is it in the power of any man, any good labourer, who has attained the age of fifty, to look back upon the last thirty years of his life, without cursing the day in which [drink] was introduced into England?

NPG 1549,William Cobbett,possibly by George Cooke

William Cobbett (poss by George Cooke) NPG

Fair enough, you might think. Rather overwrought and inflated perhaps, but he has a point. After all, only two days ago a policeman was calling for “drunk tanks”.

But here’s the twist. Cobbett is actually railing against the evils of tea-drinking.

Here the social reformer lays into what this wretched practice does for young girls…

the girl that has been brought up merely to boil the tea-kettle, and to assist in the gossip inseparable from the practice, is a mere consumer of food, a pest to her employer, and a curse to her husband, if any man be so unfortunate as to fix his affections upon her.

But here’s the best thing about this whole section of Cottage Economy (sections 32-33). This all forms a central plank for Cobbett’s advocacy of home-made beer (which takes up two chapters)! He’s effectively saying, consider how much better life would be if people drank home-brew instead of Typhoo. But no – the yearning for the dreaded pot drags him back…

To the wretched tea-kettle he has to return at night, with legs hardly sufficient to maintain him; and thus he makes his miserable progress towards that death, which he finds ten or fifteen years sooner than he would have found it had he made his wife brew beer instead of making tea. If he now and then gladdens his heart with the drugs of the public [tea]house, some quarrel, some accident, some illness, is the probable consequence; to the affray abroad succeeds an affray at home; the mischievous example reaches the children, corrupts them or scatters them, and misery for life is the consequence.

So there you have it. The past, as ever, is a foreign country – they do things differently there. But I always sensed Starbucks was a threat to social cohesion and moral decency.


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