Temperance in Glasgow - Times Past

Posted on 27 September 2023

In partnership with the Glasgow Times​, our archivists are exploring Glasgow's fascinating history. This week, Nerys Tunnicliffe writes about the temperance movement in Glasgow.

Glasgow has many popular historic and fine pubs, but teetotalism is now reportedly on the rise amongst younger people, and ‘dry’ January has become a yearly trend. So perhaps it’s not surprising that in the past Glasgow was home to several leading Scottish temperance organisations, that campaigned for the abolishment of alcohol. Large numbers zealously ‘took the pledge’ to abstain from drinking.

Groups like the Glasgow Abstainers' Union, founded in 1854 and which included around 40 societies in the city, organised regular activities and events as alternatives to drinking, such as street coffee stalls, day trips, mother’s meetings, sewing, cookery and other classes, along with Sunday evening sermons. Their Saturday evening concerts at the City Hall were very popular and ran for over 70 years. 

Temperance tea rooms, coffee houses and hotels such as those owned by the Cranston family (including Catherine Cranston) offered pleasant alcohol-free places to visit and stay throughout Scotland.

The Scottish Band of Hope Union formed from several existing temperance groups in Glasgow in 1871, focusing on enrolling children to the temperance cause. Branches held weekly educational lectures, and additional concerts and trips for their young members who could join from the age of 6. William Quarrier, the founder of orphan homes, was its first Chairman.

Women established their own groups, such as the British Women’s Temperance Association which started in Newcastle in 1876 inspired by American temperance activists who toured Britain. We hold records for over 40 of their branches in Glasgow and the surrounding areas.

For years drinking had been a large part of city life with licensing laws non-existent in Scotland till 1756. Once licensing was set up, it was initially very lax. In 1780 605 licenses to serve ale were granted by the Glasgow Magistrates. Some sources estimate that there were over 2000 taverns in Glasgow by 1831. The ready availability of alcohol was soon linked to anti-social behaviour and poverty in Glasgow. Exasperated Glasgow church elders recorded stern admonishments for the drunkenness of their parishioners in the kirk sessions minutes held in our archives. The police reported over 126,000 arrests for being drunk and incapable between 1871 to 1874, and in the city’s poor relief records the inspectors commented on ‘awful boozers’ amongst applicants.

As the city’s temperance movement grew so did its influence. In 1890 Glasgow Town Council opted to end licensed premises on Corporation property (this only ended in the 1960’s). Lord Provosts Sir William Collins, Sir Samuel Chisholm and Sir Daniel Macaulay Stevenson were all temperance leaders. Later the Temperance (Scotland) Act enabled areas to vote for local prohibition. Areas such as Whiteinch, North Kelvinside and Cathcart choose to become ‘dry’ in the 1920’s. The polls continued until 1976.

Although the movement dwindled in the 1980’s, temperance groups provided a social network, entertainments and a way of life for its members in Glasgow for generations.