Meet the pragmatic temperance leader

Photo courtesy of Sean Hawkins


Lady Henry Somerset’s tenure as President of the British Women’s Temperance Association and Vice-President/President of the World Woman’s Christian temperance Union was frequently mired in controversy.
One of the main reasons for this was that she was a pragmatist. She did not believe it was right for the law to ban people from drinking. Indeed she told the Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing in 1897 that it would be against people’s civil liberties if they were banned from drinking.
“I should not wish to interfere with anybody who chose to take alcohol in moderate quantities”.
She wanted it to be harder for people who were abusing alcohol to be tempted, so she wanted fewer pubs. In her evidence to the Commission she presented maps of different parts of London, showing how the poorer areas had a higher concentration of pubs. No wonder people were tempted, especially when drink was often cheaper than food.
She chose to take the Total Abstinence Pledge herself because she belived in leading by example. She knew that moderation was not a cure for an alcoholic – such people had to refrain from drinking in order to recover their physical and mental strength. How could she expect others to make this sacrifice, if she didn’t make a similar sacrifice herself? And of course she encouraged all her servants, tenants and friends to do the same. But on occasions she would tell guests to her home at Eastnor Castle to bring their own drink, if they wanted it, and she served wine to her Royal guests at Reigate priory when Mary, Duchess of Teck came to officially open Duxhurst, her village for the care of inebriate women.
Many of her colleagues in the temperance movement favoured the American approach, arguing for prohibition. Lady Henry chose to tackle the causes of alcoholism and drug abuse and help those, particularly women, who had fallen prey to such temptations. It meant she got involved in many other social causes and some of the women on the Executive Council of the BWTA did not like this. Inevitably there was a split in the ranks and a new group, the Women’s Total Abstinence Union was formed, to concentrate solely on the temperance issue. The BWTA became the National British Women’s Temperance Association and remained under Lady Henry’s leadership for several more years. This enabled her to widen the remit of the Association, because she recognised that many of the social ills of the time were interlinked.
It was this pragmatism which made Lady Henry’s work so meaningful and successful.

About rosblack

I am a freelance writer & author of 4 social history books, featuring female social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th century. In a previous life I managed a housing charity. I also give talks.
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