Good for England, Bad for Her Women: The Beer Act of 1830 and the Cornering of Rural Revolution

Dr Gay Sibley
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Arising at least in part out of the good intentions of the Duke of Wellington, the 1830 Beer Act, designed to move the populace away from “spirits” such as gin, entitled nearly anyone to manufacture, sell, and consume large amounts of beer and ale. By 1831, according to Brian Harrison in Drink and the Victorians, there was in England and Wales a licensed drinking establishment for every one-hundred and sixty-eight members of the population (304). This legalization of beer as a national drug of choice resulted in some consequences that could not have been foreseen, most notably the rise in the number of the country’s alcoholics. In terms of forestalling revolutionary activity, however, the consequences of the Beer Act for England were excellent.

First, from 1830 on, the barley crop burgeoned, resulting in an unprecedented prosperity among northern farmers. In addition, the proliferation of the pubs and associated beer shops sanctioned the meeting together of communities of rural workers in their own neighborhoods, allowing them the opportunity to discuss and organize indoors, as the time for a wider enfranchisement approached. Because the farms had their own breweries, however, the domestic presence of alcohol made it possible for rural women to avoid public scrutiny. While the men were banding together at the pubs, many women were left often alone in well-stocked homes. As Harrison points out, “frequent were the nineteenth-century tales of concealed intemperance above stairs” (Victorians 296). The early novels of George Eliot document this gendered phenomenon of English history.

Keywords: Women, Alcohol, Gender Politics
Stream: Sociology and Geography, Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Studies and Humanities, Politics, Public Policy and Law, Natural, Environmental and Health Sciences, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Gender
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Dr Gay Sibley

Associate Professor of English, Department of English, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Honolulu, Hawaii, USA

In her graduate seminars, in some of her undergraduate courses, and in her research, Dr Sibley has long focused on the way the consumption of alcohol in the western world has been portrayed in literature. Most particularly, she has researched the literary portraits of women--both in the biographies of female authors and in the characters within their fiction--for evidence of hidden "collateral damage" as a result of alcohol as the cultural drug-of-choice, a drug which would otherwise appear to have somehow, and somewhat perversely, enabled western civilization. Dr Sibley's graduate seminars include "Academic Satire," "The English Hymn in Western Culture," "Exotic Fiction as Historic Text," and (most recently and frequently) "George Eliot and Victorian Intellectual History." She is currently at work on a fictional biography of George Eliot.

Ref: I06P0120