Huge population growth in British cities after the industrial revolution brought with it an increase in the number of public houses. By the turn of the twentieth century British newspapers were heaving with reports of the rise in alcohol-related crime, pauperism and insanity. In Ireland the social problems caused by drunkenness spurred proposed amendments to the Habitual Drunkards Act 1879. The Drunkenness (Ireland) Bill 1906 suggested legal protection for the husbands and wives of drunkards who squandered the family income. In order to reduce the availability of alcohol, numerous bills proposed limiting the opening hours of licensed premises on Saturdays and Sundays and a complete closure on election days. In a further move to control drinking habits, temperance advocate and MP for Bath George Gooch introduced a bill in October 1906 proposing the abolition of barmaids. Gooch argued that this measure would protect young women from the attentions of inebriated customers and ensure that men would not be lured into drinking by attractive servers. A similar ban on employing barmaids had been successfully implemented in Glasgow in 1902.
Complete overhaul of licensing laws proposed
In response to the numerous proposals presented to the House of Commons, the Liberal government agreed to overhaul the entire licensing arrangements across the United Kingdom. A proposed licensing bill (1908) would control opening hours, restrict the number of licences and contained a section effectively banning the employment of women. The bill, drafted in February 1908, contained 40 pages outlining amendments to the Licensing Acts, 1828 to 1906. The main thrust of the proposed bill was to reduce dramatically the number of public houses and transfer licences from breweries in an attempt to virtually nationalise public houses. Almost hidden in part three of this document, under clause 20 (‘Power to attach conditions to the renewal of a licence’), was a section granting local magistrates the power to attach any condition that they saw fit, including ‘the employment of women or children on the licensed premises’. Under this clause a local magistrate could refuse to issue or renew a licence unless a publican agreed not to hire women for bar work.
Clause 20 was welcomed by many religious and temperance organisations, which argued that women were being exploited by the alcohol industry in order to sell liquor. The bishop of Southwark protested that ‘the nation ought not to allow the natural attractions of a young girl to be used for trading purposes’. Senior members of the Labour Party agreed, including Ramsay MacDonald and David Shackleton. The Labour MPs were part of a wider group who published their opposition to women working on licensed premises, insisting that the lives of barmaids often ended in ‘drunkenness, immorality, misery and frequently suicide’.
Churchill was forced to resign as MP
Barmaids were not unionised and previously had no cause to organise themselves. Eva Gore-Booth, now an effective trade union organiser, established the Barmaids’ Political Defence League. She headed a deputation of barmaids to the home secretary, Herbert Gladstone, pointing out the economic implications of throwing thousands of women out of work. Over the coming months the furore regarding the Licensing Bill would reach an all-time high after a dramatic cabinet reshuffle. Ill health led to the resignation of Prime Minister Campbell-Bannerman in April 1908 and Henry Asquith took over. Asquith promoted Lloyd George to chancellor of the exchequer and Winston Churchill to president of the board of trade. Under contemporary law, a newly appointed cabinet minister had to resign his seat and stand for re-election. On his appointment, Churchill was forced to resign as MP for Manchester North-West and stand for re-election in the same constituency. It was common practice that a newly appointed cabinet minister would be returned unopposed at such by-elections. The election was viewed by many as a mere formality. By then, however, Churchill had become a central figure in the barmaid issue and the election was contested. Churchill expected an easy victory. He had secured a majority of 62% over the Conservative candidate, William Joynson-Hicks, in the same constituency in the 1906 general election. Churchill addressed the public in the Coal Exchange in Manchester two days before the election. The Exchange building had a capacity for hundreds, but an unprecedented crowd of thousands arrived. People lined the side of the road when a cortège of black cars adorned with red rosettes and flags of the Liberal Party arrived. Churchill was accompanied by Lloyd George, who spoke in his support. In his speech Churchill addressed the Irish question, backing John Redmond’s campaign for Home Rule. Irishmen spoke in support of Churchill, including a local shopkeeper, Patrick Hickey, described by the Manchester Guardian as a Roman Catholic and a nationalist.
Eva Gore-Booth and her sister, Constance Markievicz, launched an intense campaign in opposition. The women backed the Conservative candidate, Joynson-Hicks, in the by-election. A rather unlikely candidate for their support, he was staunchly evangelical and the Manchester Catholic Herald accused him of being anti-Catholic and anti-Irish. Irish Home Rulers deplored Conservative policies and actively campaigned against Joynson-Hicks. Gore-Booth organised a striking coach, drawn by four white horses, to be driven around Manchester with Markievicz at the whip. When the coach stopped, Gore-Booth and Markievicz took to the roof of the carriage and made rousing speeches. Markievicz was heckled by a man in the crowd, with the inevitable male query, ‘Can you cook a dinner?’ ‘Certainly,’ she replied, cracking her whip, ‘Can you drive a coach-and-four?’ The following day Gore-Booth arranged a mass meeting in the Coal Exchange in support of barmaids. This time Markievicz took the stand, announcing:
‘I have come over from Ireland to help because I am a woman. I am not a Conservative—I am a Home Ruler—but I have come over here to ask everyone to vote for Mr Joynson-Hicks because he, of the three candidates who are standing, is the only one who takes a straight and decent view of the barmaids’ question.’
The polling stations opened the next morning, 24 April. Unusually for the time of year, Manchester was covered in snow and a bitter wind cut through the city. Despite the dire weather, there was a large turnout—10,681 people voted out of a total of 11,914 registered. Churchill spent most of the day driving through the streets of Manchester in an open-topped car accompanied by his mother, Jennie, and the Liberals’ chairman, Sir Edward Donner. Joynson-Hicks drove around the city accompanied by his wife, Grace, in a horse and carriage. At 9.30 that evening a blue flag waving outside Manchester Town Hall signalled the end of the vote count and the victory of the Conservative candidate, Joynson-Hicks. Winston Churchill was defeated by a margin of 529 votes. Weeks later Churchill stood at a by-election in Dundee and was returned as MP in May; he remained in the Dundee constituency until 1922. Gore-Booth continued lobbying against the Licensing Bill. On 13 June 1908 she held a demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, which was attended by over 2,000 people. Gore-Booth delivered her speech on the plinth at the foot of Nelson’s Column. Markievicz later ascended to the plinth, attesting how ‘[we are] told the bar is a bad place for a woman (so it is), but the Thames Embankment at night is far worse’.
Within months, the Barmaids’ Political Defence League overwhelmingly won their campaign. Two hundred and ninety-four out of 355 MPs rejected the bill. During the debate, Liberal MP Horatio Bottomley declared that, under clause 20, local magistrates ‘would be able to say that no woman should be employed on licensed premises in any capacity whatever. The sub-section would reduce law to anarchy and legislation to a farce.’ Conservative MP Wilfrid Ashley questioned whether ‘a body of men elected entirely by men had any moral right to prohibit the employment of women in a certain trade purely on sentimental grounds’. The barmaids’ campaign was an unqualified success. HI
Sonja Tiernan is Lecturer in Modern History at Liverpool Hope University and is secretary of the Women’s History Association of Ireland. Her Eva Gore-Booth: an image of such politics has just been published by Manchester University Press.
R. Blythe, The age of illusion: England in the twenties and thirties (London, 1963).Joint Committee on the Employment of Barmaids, Women as barmaids: with a preface by the lord bishop of Southwark (London, 1905).K. Mullin, ‘“The essence of vulgarity”: the barmaid controversy in the “Sirens” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses’, Textual Practice 18 (4) (2004).