St Buryan: the drink trade

Drink was a central element of Victorian culture. The number of inns, public houses and beershops (called kiddleywinks or winks in parts of west Cornwall) was very much higher than now (although easy access to alcohol on the supermarket shelves was not an option). It was claimed in 1850 that the working class spent between a third and half of their income on drink. This was extremely unlikely and a gross exaggeration but the consumption of beer and spirits in the UK did rise to peak in the 1870s.

The rise of the drink trade was accompanied by temperance agitation. Beginning in the industrial northern town of Preston in Lancashire an organised teetotal movement emerged in the 1840s. Its proponents at that time demanded radical social change, often being found in the ranks of Chartist groups and trade unions. By the 1860s moral reform was deemed sufficient as temperance (rather than teetotalism) became a hallmark of Victorian respectability.

By the late Victorian period, Band of Hope processions would have been a familiar sight in Cornish towns and villages. This one was at Lanner, near Redruth. The Band of Hope was aimed at children and had been founded in 1847.

Although the peak of alcohol consumption had passed, demands for local vetoes, closing pubs or limiting their hours of opening, gained ground in the 1870s, especially in the Liberal Party. In 1881 a Sunday Closing Act was passed for Wales. Two years later Cornwall very nearly followed suit but the Cornwall Sunday Closing Bill was narrowly defeated by Conservative opposition in the House of Lords.

John Hutchens Johns was someone in our database who became a publican. He had been born in Sancreed where his father Joseph was a tin miner. John did not follow his father into the mines, first serving as a ploughboy at a farm in neighbouring St Buryan. By 1871 he was back with his parents who had by then moved to St Buryan churchtown. Both Joseph and John were farm labourers. Marrying in 1875, John was recorded as a gardener’s labourer in 1881. However, between 1881 and 1883 he and his wife Louisa took on the running of the King’s Arms inn in the village.

John Johns’ entry in the 1889 trades directory for St Buryan

The venture had presumably failed by 1893 when John was no longer at the King’s Arms. In those days as now, running a pub was not easy. In the late 1800s, with the population of St Buryan shrinking by over 20 per cent in 40 years and the rise of temperance agitation in Methodist Cornwall, the life of a publican was hardly a guaranteed road to riches. John fell back onto farm labouring. Nonetheless, by 1911 he had again managed to escape the fields and was working as an auxiliary postman.

Mary Prowse had grown up at St Buryan churchtown, daughter of a single mother who earned a living from dressmaking in 1851 and who married a farm labourer in the 1850s. Mary married at a young age. Perhaps she wanted to get away from her new stepfather. Her husband William was a tin miner from St Just, to which parish the couple moved and lived until Mary’s death in 1903. William had a chequered back story, being jailed in 1863 when he was 18 for assaulting PC Henry Thomas at Sennen. As a result he spent a few months in Bodmin Jail picking oakum and ‘in the corn mill’, presumably on a treadmill. After that episode he appears to have settled down and spent the next 20 years as a tin miner before retiring in his 50s. Meanwhile, Mary had her hands more than full bringing up their nine children.

For a flavour of the local dialect and reminiscences of the filming of Straw Dogs in the village see here

2 thoughts on “St Buryan: the drink trade

  1. My great grandparents were primitive Methodists in Manchester and hugely involved in temperance. We have pictures of my great-gran (the mother actually of Kenneth Wolstenholme football commentator) in the 1950s with girls looking just like those in the photo. She led these marches.

    I wanted to ask, I thought that almost everyone drank very weak alcohol rather than water though for centuries because water itself was not safe to drink. How can this be reconciled, if so, with the temperance movement.


    1. It’s true that some beer was weaker in earlier times – from which the term ‘small beer’ comes. However, the idea that everyone drank beer because the water was so bad is one of those persistent myths that hang around despite little evidence. Water was free, unlike beer, and its quality outside urban areas (where most people lived before the mid-1850s) was often fine. Obtaining decent drinking water only became a widespread problem with the growth of large towns and cities. But by the 1840s the provision of piped water was beginning to appear and in the 1850s most towns of any size had rudimentary sewage systems which greatly reduced the chances of polluting wells and springs. It’s indeed an interesting point that the emergence of the teetotal movement coincided with slowly improving sanitation, although note also a generation overlap between teetotalism, arriving in the 1840s, and beer consumption, peaking in the 1870s.


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