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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 12

No. V

No. V.

Who knows not Circe,
The daughter of the Sun, whose charmed cup
Whoever tasted lost his upright shape,
And downward fell into a grovelling swine?


2. Another remedy, differing from total prohibition materially, has been proposed, and carried into effect, under the name of the Gothenburg system. Sweden, in its former universal drunkenness and demoralisation, proves how much the habits of a nation may be prejudicially affected by free trade in intoxicating liquor. Impoverished by fierce and long-continued foreign war, the government nursed the traffic for the sake of the revenue, and also participated in the profit accruing from the manufacture of strong drink. Royal distilleries were established, and drinking customs became so deeply-rooted, as to become politically powerful. There had been a species of prohibition, partial in its effect, but a strong demand for free-trade in liquor arose. It was considered to be a necessary of life; the literature of the day commended it; and priests from the altar spoke of its virtues. There wa3 no resisting the torrent of public opinion; and sixty-seven years ago, the Diet confirmed the privilege of distillation on every land-owner on payment of a nominal fee. There was no duty on spirits, and any shop-keeper could retail the potent corn-brandy, or the "liquid hell-fire," as it proved to be in this unhappy country. The phrase was adopted by Alison, the historian, as appropriate. In less than a generation, there was a spirit-still at work for every seventeen persons, the pauperism was doubled, and the number of criminals in the towns increased so enormously as to exceed the proportion of crime-burdened London by twelve to one.

The results were so awful, and the evil so unparalleled, that attention was drawn to the subject, and a party of temperance reformers struggled for a change. In 1855, after several slight amendments had been secured, a law was passed entirely restrictive, partly prohibitory, and leaving something also to local option. The copper page 13 stills used in families were bought up under that law, comparatively heavy duties on distillation and stills were instituted, and the number of stills at work fell from hundreds of thousands to hundreds; from scores of small villages the sale of spirits was swept away, and at posting stations and in towns the number of places for sale was much reduced. Two classes of licenses were established: for retail, with consumption on the premises, and for wholesale, non-consumptive. At stipulated periods, local bodies return to the governor of the district a list of the licenses about to expire, stating, at the same time, what "additional facilities," if any, are needed. When the number is fixed by the governor, communal committee, and ratepayers, the licenses to that number are sold to the highest bidders for three years. Minor but stringent regulations as to the hours of sale, &c., complete the law, with one exception. Mere legislation did not, however, go deep enough, although it afforded a frame-work on which the reformers could operate. In Gothenburg, a sea-port town of 60,000 inhabitants, the drinking customs were so firmly established that liquor was set down with every meal, and the place was one vast scene of improvidence and debauchery. Pauperism became so common that a committee of enquiry was appointed. It was found that the prevailing poverty and demoralisation were caused by the excessive use of spirits. Sales of corn-brandy were often made on credit, workmen's clothes being taken on pledge; the places of sale were dirty and disorderly, and the law which required victuals to be sold was systematically evaded. This wretchedness, it was stated, could be remedied, and the suggested remedial measures were—that neither proprietor nor manager of public-houses should derive gain from the sale of spirits; that these should be sold only for cash; that the places for sale should be clean, light, and airy; and that food should always be provided for sale, 'cooked and hot,' if needed. To carry out these objects, the formation of a limited liability company was determined on, which should take opportunity of a clause in the law enabling such companies to buy the whole retail spirit licenses in a town. That company was formed on the 22nd August, 1865. Its capital was £100,000, but it has not been called up—loans for a few hundreds having supplied the necessary funds. It bought up, as they expired, the whole of the retail or public-house spirit licenses, with a dozen or so exceptions (houses perpetually licensed, &c.) Ultimately, sixty-one licenses fell into its hands; it discontinued a few of these, and (excepting the dozen houses) it had then the monopoly of the retail sale of drink for consumption on the premises in Gothenburg. It established three kinds of houses, and under these classes it continued about forty places for the sale of drinks. First and chief are the public-houses; then non-consumptive 'bottle' houses; and lastly, clubs and restaurants. The last class are leased by the company, with the condition that all wines and spirits used therein must be bought from it, but other conditions and charges are at the option of the keepers.

The result of the experiment will be shown by a reference to the state of the country before and after the alteration in the law. The Committee of the Diet in 1853, reported that "seldom, if ever, has a conviction so generally and unequivocally been pronounced, with regard to the necessity of rigorous measures, against the physical, economical, and moral ruin with which the immoderate use of spirits threatens the nation." It was stated that the physical aspect of the people was wretchedly deteriorated, and the criminal calendar was without parallel in modern European history.

After the company had been a few years in existence, the Dean of Gothenburg, himself an ardent reformer, wrote:—"The company has undoubtedly been the means of raising the moral and economical condition of the people, by decreasing the immoderate drinking of sprits." The universally-respected Bishop Björk also certifies that "the Gothenburg company is, in his opinion, one of the best institutions of its page 14 time, for advancing the moral and economical welfare of the working classes:"

One remarkable consequence of the operations has been an improvement in the tone of public opinion on the subject of the liquor trade. In 1872 the Working Men's Union in Gothenburg, numbering 2,000 members, held several meetings to discuss the question, "What ought or can be done to diminish drinking?" They came to the conclusion that the whole retail houses should be in the hands of the public company. A law to that effect passed the Diet by large majorities and came into operation in October 1874.

The financial results of the company in 1872 were as follow: There had been 170,000 gallons of spirits sold, giving a gross profit of £16,890. The expenses were £5,214, leaving £11,676 of net profit paid to the town treasury.

The Gothenburg system has been adopted more or less completely in about two-thirds of the Swedish towns, and it is extending into Norway. By the new law the principle that the whole profit must be given to the local authorities is rendered compulsory.

An effort has been made in the Imperial Parliament to authorise the introduction of the Gothenburg system into Scotland. The Bill intended to authorise the voters to declare that the Act should be adopted, and as the roll was to be the same as that for the election of the school board, women were included. The local authority was then to appoint a committee of their own body to administer the Act. This board would be empowered to buy up the good will and plant of the existing public-houses. No other licenses to be granted; the grocers' licenses to be gradually extinguished. This measure did not pass, but it has occupied the attention of the public, and it is not unlikely that it may ere long pass into law.

Attention has also been drawn to the subject in England. At a meeting of the Birmingham Liberal Association, a resolution has recently been passed approving of the adoption of the Gothenburg system. Mr. Chamberlain, M.P., intimated his intention to submit a similar resolution to the House of Commons this present session. If it were carried, he would then prepare a Bill embodying the scheme. The London 'Times' supported the plan, but suggested, as an alternative, that the system should be set on foot in the first instance, as in fact it was set on foot in Sweden, by a private company; and this suggestion has elicited a letter from a correspondent stating that "one such company has already been formed in London. The Duke of Westminster, who takes a great interest in the movement, has granted the lease of a house in Oxford street—the Rose and Crown—at the corner of Gilbert street, about mid-way between the Marble Arch and Oxford Circus—and the promoters include Mr Cowper Temple, Sir Harcourt Johnstone, and Mr Samuel Morley, along with members of several of the leading firms of the neighbourhood. Business was commenced in November last, but it is too early yet to speak of the probable success of the scheme. The leading principle of the Gothenburg plan will be strictly observed—that the manager will derive no profit whatever from the sale of the intoxicating drinks, which, however, will be only wine, ale, beer, &c., for it has been decided that for the present, at least, no spirits shall be sold. Good dinners, soups, tea, coffee, &c., are provided at a very low charge, and the dining-room is to be used as a reading-room in the hours that it is not ordinarily required for meals. The idea of the experiment is to show that, pending any legislative action, a public-house conducted on good principles, in which there is no temptation to drunkenness from the proprietor, can be made to pay, and thus to induce capitalists to unite to extend the benefits of such a system."

It is in this direction that the friends of temperance must look for fields for future exertion. So long as public-houses are in the eyes of many a proper adjunct in our social system, so long must efforts be made to keep the drink traffic within proper limits and to remove all temptation for page 15 its undue extension. The following principles have been tested in the Gothenburg experiment, and it is suggested that a session ought not to pass without an attempt to carry them into effect:—
1.All sales of intoxicating liquor must be for cash.
2.Any person taking a pledge to secure payment of intoxicating liquor to be guilty of a criminal offence.
3.The size and accommodation of public bars to be specified.

One-half of each public bar to be set aside for the sale of tea, coffee, and other non-intoxicating refreshments, together with a supply of biscuits, sandwiches, bread and butter, and the like.

There should be no difficulty in our senators of every shade of opinion as regards the liquor trade uniting to pass such wholesome provisions into law. The trade would then have some reason for assuming the title "Licensed Victuallers." Other three suggestions there may be more difference of opinion about, but the importance of them cannot be denied. These are

5.Conferring upon the voters (male and female) in each district the right to determine triennally the number of licenses required therein.
6.The elimination of the temptation of personal profit from the sale of alcoholic liquor. Every vendor to pay over the net profits of the establishment to the local authority for the public use. This can be easily ascertained as returns can be made of the amount of liquor sold, and an average profit per gallon struck. In Glasgow, 5s. per gallon is the estimated net profit. Here the profit will be greater.
7.Power to be given to the voters to lease to a public company the whole of the public bars in the district.

The transference of the licensing power to the ratepayers is likely to meet with general approval. The present licensing courts in which the power is granted to members of the Court selected by the Government, presided over by the Resident magistrate of the district, is a vast improvement on the former state of affairs. It ensures uniformity of decisions, and the Bench cannot now be packed to carry or defeat any particular end in view. But still, however trustworthy the members of the Licensing Courts may be generally, irresponsible nomineeism is a vicious principle. The fixing the number of licenses required should be in the hands of the people themselves, and then the administration of the law, otherwise, as regards the suitability of the applicant, or the fitness of the premises themselves, may be left to the Licensing Court. The present holders of licenses would find it to be to their interest to support a measure conferring such a power on the people. It would prevent the deterioration of the trade by undue competition. I was once much struck by the mischief attending the multiplication of licenses. In a small village in North Otago, which was just emerging from its initiatory state, having a few weatherboard houses, but without pavements or metalled roads, the best building in the place was a two storeyed hotel. I observed to a friend that one good hotel was sufficient for the place. "Oh," said he, "there's another licensed, and there is to be a third." Instead of one well-conducted house being allowed to cater for the wants of the residents, and thus have every encouragement to conduct business in a quiet and reasonable manner, here were three centres opened to demoralise the inhabitants through excessive competition. If the votes of the community had decided the question, I am satisfied they would have declared that one good house was sufficient for all their wants. In any statute passed conferring such a power upon the inhabitants, a prohibition against persons interested in the trade voting, should be inserted, and canvassing for votes on the part of any person interested, should be made penal.

Having now given an account of the Swedish experiment, I shall briefly refer to several other remedies which have been suggested. I may remark, in addition to what I stated in a former letter, on the impolicy of free-trade in alcoholic liquor, a point which is, I believe, maintained by page 16 some, that the experience in Sweden of unrestricted trade, establishes that it is synonymous with degradation and misery to the mass of the people, and the deterioration and ruin of the nation.