Victorian inebriety

Image courtesy of the Lucerna Magic Lantern Web Resource,

In the Victorian era, there was much debate as to whether alcoholism was a disease, a choice or a moral vice. Dr Peddie in 1861 felt that “many cases of excessive intemperance depend on disease and constitute a form of insanity…such cases cannot be treated without confinement” and that “inebriety is generally recognised as a functional disease of the nervous system, often inherited, occurring generally in those that have an acutely sensitive temperament and are thus liable to morbid impressions and nervous exhaustion” (Alford, 1880). It was thought that sensitive people had an intolerance of stimulants and were more easily overcome by them. Mental or physical strain would cause sensitive people turn to stimulants, become exhausted, and a vicious circle of craving and indulgence would ensue. Dr Peddie claimed that the working class were especially vulnerable as they might often be rewarded for goods or services with alcohol, but that even “ordinarily vigorous persons” could succumb to intemperance if they used stimulants to alleviate mental or physical strain.

“Feeble mindedness” gained popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as an explanation for women’s habitual drunkenness (Mott, 1911). Others considered alcoholism to be a “disease of the will”, requiring the participation of those afflicted to cure themselves, yet requiring medical assistance to do so. At the forefront of research was Dr Norman Kerr who joined CETS in 1874, founding The Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety 10 years later. Research centred around the belief that inebriety was a medical disease with physical symptoms such as delirium tremens, requiring medicinal cures (Valverde, 1997). Dr Kerr (1884) estimated that at least 30% of cases were hereditary, though it could be triggered by nervous shock, overwork, lack of healthy stimuli, head injuries, and indigestion. He was conflicted as to whether inebriety was a sin, vice, crime or disease, and at times all four, but more frequently it was a disease.

Image courtesy of the Lucerna Magic Lantern Web Resource,

Dr James Stewart proposed in 1892 that once inebriety had taken hold of a person, it could be “transmitted to the offspring either in the form of the alcoholic diathesis, epilepsy, cholera, insanity or even tendency to crime.” The only way the child could avoid developing inebriety themselves was lifelong abstinence. The marriage of a child or grandchild of an inebriate to a first cousin was to be avoided at all costs.

In 1893, The Times reported that 80-85% of those imprisoned for drunkenness were women compared to only 60-65% men (The Times, 1893). Ten years later, in 1903, the women’s State Reformatory held twice as many inmates as the men’s (Kelynank,1904). In 1906 women made up over half of the number of voluntary entries to retreats and 70% of private committals (Morrison, 2008).

A small girl finds her mother drinking in a gin palace

Why were a disproportionately high number of women sent to inebriate homes or reformatories compared to men? The Government’s Inspector of Retreats, Dr R W Branthwaite, suggested magistrates may be reluctant to remove the breadwinner from the family home. He also suggested that men and women reacted differently to excess alcohol: “a drunken woman nearly always becomes hysterical, laughs or dances, or sits on the pavement and screams. She ‘goes for’ her drinking companion on the slightest provocation, and a policeman has an attraction for her which she cannot possibly resist. A drunken woman quietly wending her way homewards is a sight rarely to be seen . . . Hysterical frenzy is the exception rather than the rule in the case of the drunken man; he usually plods and struggles homewards with dogged determination, sometimes morose and surly, but more often than not, inoffensive if left alone” (Branthwaite, 1909).

A magic lantern slide from a presentation promoting temperance, courtesy of Lucerna Magic Lantern Web Resource,

In their article “Wretched, Hatless and Miserably Clad”, Hunt et al (1989) drew attention to the gender imbalance in inebriate reformatories, questioning why greater numbers of women than men were represented in reformatories. They conclude that drunken women were often viewed by magistrates to be wretched and in need of help, rather than as deviants who needed to be controlled.

There may be a more sinister reason. Drunken women were portrayed as being prostitutes, promiscuous, violent to their husbands and producing large numbers of neglected children who would become a burden on society (Chesser, 1909). The government was becoming genuinely concerned about the health of the nation, particularly infant mortality rates and thought that maternal drinking was a contributory factor. Inebriate women were judged more harshly than men for their intemperance and Dr Sullivan (1903), Deputy Medical Officer at Pentonville Prison, blamed women for “offspring that were prone to become the moral imbeciles who form the bulk of the criminal class”. Women, quite literally, gave birth to the nation’s future population, and were thought to be the main contributor of hereditary characteristics (Bland, 1995).

Eugenics theorists thought that inebriate women ought to be sterilised or segregated until the menopause, and reformatories fulfilled this purpose. Dr Sullivan (1903) felts that “the treatment at least restrains for a time [the inebriate’s] tendency to procreate offspring that are likely to be parasitic or dangerous to the community.” Dr Gill said in 1908 “if inebriate reformatories do nothing else than prevent the reproduction of the species, they have done much to justify their existence” (Morrison, 2008). As Valverde (1998) noted: “inebriate reformatories were involved in the policing of women’s sexual and reproductive conduct as much or more than in the regulation of alcohol.”

Analysis of those sent for treatment by the courts might tell a different story, but of the 34 (of 64 identified) Temple Lodge patients I’ve researched so far, I’ve only found one convicted of prostitution and none of neglect. This may be because CETS homes would not accept women “whose history shows a record of immorality.” However, of the 47 women I’ve searched online newspapers for, 23 had been reported in newspapers as having appeared before the courts.


Alford, S (1880) A Paper Read Before the Social Science Association on the Habitual Drunkards Act 1879
Branthwaite (1909) The Report of the Inspector under the Inebriates Act for the year 1909
Chesser, Elizabeth Sloan (1909) ‘Inebriety among Women’, British Journal of Inebriety, 6 (1909), p187
Hunt et al (1989) “Wretched, Hatless and Miserably Clad”
Kelynank (1904) ‘Medico-legal aspects of Inebriety’, The British Journal of Inebriety, 2:1 (1904), 117-29,pp.123-7
Kerr, Dr N (1884) Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety: inaugural address delivered in the Medical Society of London’s rooms, April 25th, 1884
Morrison, Bronwyn (2008) ‘Controlling the “Hopeless”: Re-visioning the History of Female Inebriate Institutions, c.1870–1920’, in Helen Johnston (ed.), Punishment and Control in Historical Perspective (Basingstoke, 2008), pp. 143–5
F. W Mott, ‘Alcohol and insanity’, July 1911, British Journal of Inebriety, Ix,
Sullivan W. C. (1903) The Causes of Inebriety in the Female and the Effects of Alcoholism on racial degeneration, British Journal for the Study of Inebriety, 1:2 (1903), 61-4, p64
The Times, 6 December 1893
Valverde, Mariana (1997) ‘“Slavery from within”: The Invention of Alcoholism and the Question of Free Will’, Social History, 22(1997), pp. 251–68
Valverde M (1998) Diseases of the Will: Alcohol and the Dilemmas of Freedom, pp.265-6, Cambridge University Press