This page is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to legislation governing alcohol use. Information here is provided simply to help add context to the case studies; therefore only legislation relevant to the time that the Temple Lodge Home for Inebriate Women was operational (1891-1929) will be included here.

The worried children and husband of an inebriate woman wait anxiously for her to come home (from Come Home Mother, c1883)

The Habitual Drunkards Act 1879 defined the term ‘Habitual Drunkard’ as “a person given to ebriety or the excessive use of intoxicating drink, who has lost the power or the will, by frequent indulgence, to control his appetite for it” (Law Dictionary website). The Act enabled courts to suggest residential treatment in a licensed inebriate retreat as an alternative to prison for habitual drunkards. Admission to such an institution was dependent upon the inebriate entering the retreat voluntarily. The patient was required to submit a written application in which s/he would agree to remain in the retreat for a specified time, not exceeding 12 months. Supporting declarations were required from two other people to confirm that the applicant was a ‘habitual drunkard’. Medical evidence was not required, but the application had to be validated by two justices of the peace, whose role it was to ensure that the patient understood the legal ramifications of voluntarily submitting to the restrictions and treatment imposed by the retreat. The treatment was to be funded by the person themselves; therefore anyone who could not afford to pay, or did not have a benefactor to fund them, did not receive treatment under this Act. This created a two-tier system in which the middle and upper classes were treated as if they had an uncontrollable disease requiring medical treatment, and the working class, poorest members of society were treated as criminals and sent to prison (Bucknill, 1878). If the patient escaped, a warrant could be issued for their apprehension and the period of absence would not be counted towards time served in the retreat. This was an act which ‘enabled’ residential treatment; in the eyes of many it did not go far enough as it did not compel drunkards to enter treatment. There is also an incongruity in that the person being deprived of their liberty also had to pay for the privilege. The Act imposed no obligation on local authorities to establish or fund retreats, it merely gave them the right to do so; and into this vacuum emerged many privately run and philanthropic retreats.

A young girl goes looking for her mother, who is out drinking (from Come Home, Mother, c1883)

The Inebriates Act (1898) built on the Habitual Drunkards Act (1879) and attempted to provide for male and female drunkards who could not afford to pay for treatment. Like its predecessor, the 1898 Act empowered local authorities to fund or establish inebriate reformatories, but did not compel them to do so. Authorities could cooperate with other authorities or with philanthropic organisations. Habitual drunkards could still enter treatment voluntarily, but convicts for whose crimes alcohol was a contributory factor, and anyone arrested for drunkenness four times in a year could now be compulsorily committed to a certified or state inebriate reformatory instead of, or in addition to, their sentence. Reformatories were intended to be harsher than prisons (Morrison, 2008) and run in a similar way.

‘Inebriate’ included drugs if the substance was consumed by drinking it, for example, laudanum, opium, ether, and chlorodyne (Berridge, 2011). Injected drugs were not covered by this Act. It was an offence to serve alcohol to anyone convicted of being a habitual drunkard; local authorities compiled books with photos and physical descriptions, which were circulated to local pubs (Berridge, 2011) – examples include the Birmingham Pub Blacklist which can be found on Ancestry (subscription or library access required) and the Dundee Register of Inebriates on the BBC website.

Section 1 – drunkards guilty of crimes where drink was a contributory factor – the offence was committed under the influence of drink or that drunkenness was a contributing cause of the offence, and the offender admits that he is or is found by the jury to be a habitual drunkard, the court may, in addition to or in substitution for any other sentence, order that he be detained for a term not exceeding three years in any State inebriate reformatory or in any certified inebriate reformatory the managers of which are willing to receive him.

Section 2 – convictions for drunkenness – Any person who commits any of the offences mentioned in the First Schedule to this Act (all related to drunkenness), and who within the twelve months preceding the date of the commission of the offence has been convicted summarily at least three times of any offences so mentioned, and who is a habitual drunkard, shall be liable upon conviction on indictment, or if he consents to be dealt with summarily on summary conviction, to be detained for a term not exceeding three years in any certified inebriate reformatory the managers of which are willing to receive him.

Retreats and reformatories licensed under the Act were obliged to follow the rules and regulations laid down by the Secretary of State. Retreats receiving patients under the Act had to be licensed, were inspected twice a year, and had a medical attendant, who in the case of Temple Lodge was a local GP.  Legislation did not require retreats to be licensed and a number of unlicensed retreats were also established around this time. Private retreats were outside the scope of the Act and therefore were not accountable to the state, giving them much more freedom in their practices.  

So, pre-1898, admission was purely voluntary, there would have been a stigma attached to admitting to having a drink problem, and it would have been a huge and courageous decision to go into a retreat or reformatory. Post-1898, there were three types of institution for the care of inebriates: certified reformatories, state reformatories, philanthropic ventures – retreats (licensed and unlicensed). Only two state reformatories were established: Aylesbury Inebriate Reformatory for women and a reformatory for men attached to Warwick Prison.

It’s been interesting to compare Victorian views on alcohol misuse with modern day attitudes; pre-1898 the Victorians felt there was a loophole in the legislation because it did not compel people to enter treatment. Years ago, I trained as a psychiatric nurse and had a placement in an alcohol misuse clinic; many staff resented the courts making treatment orders and felt that if patients hadn’t reached their own “rock bottom” before seeking treatment, they would not be sufficiently motivated to change.

In addition to the two aforementioned Acts, Inebriate women could also be found guilty of alcohol-related crimes under various other Acts:

The 1902 Licensing Act: an inebriate wife could be sent to a reformatory instead of being given a separation order. Local authorities compiled books of people who had been convicted of drunkenness and were not to be served alcohol.

Women could be detained under The Provision of Meals act of 1903 and Prevention of Cruelty act of 1904 if their neglect and cruelty were due to drink.

The lack of success in reforming inebriate people lead to a belief that they were ‘unreformable’ and that they might be considered ‘mentally defective’. Under The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act a person classified as a habitual drunkard could be considered a ‘mental defective’ as the test at the time was whether they could live independently without getting into trouble (Scheepers & Kerr, 2019). Someone classified as a habitual drunkard could potentially be incarcerated on a permanent basis rather than a period of up to three years.


Berridge, Virginia (2011) “House on the hill: Victorian style” (first appeared in The Lancet) in Druglink Vol 26 Issue 2 /April 2011
Scheepers & Kerr (2019) Seminars in the Psychiatry of Intellectual Disability, Cambridge University Press