In the mid-nineteenth century the brewing industry was in flux. Technology was changing the way beer could be produced and the larger or ‘common’ brewers were steadily growing, squeezing out smaller operators and buying up their properties. Public drunkenness was a real problem and the number of pubs and beerhouses, many of which were unpleasant places, was widely seen as contributing to the problem. To make matters worse, the way that licenses were handed out by magistrates favoured publicans tied to the bigger, wealthier brewers who were able consequently to control the market in whole areas of some cities.
In Liverpool in 1862 the magistrates tried an experiment. At the time Liverpool was widely seen as one of the worst cities in the country in terms of the amount of public drunkenness and the number of offences committed; it also had an unusually high number of beerhouses and pubs, many of them in a poor state. There was a desperate need to solve Liverpool’s problems with drunkenness and at the same time lessen the influence of brewers on the political and social life of the city. What these far-sighted magistrates did was free up licensing altogether, making it possible for anyone who could show they had suitable premises and were of ‘good character’ to set up a business selling beer.
Critics, including the common brewers and many tenant publicans who saw their local monopolies threatened, attacked the plan, arguing that more liberal licensing would lead to more public disorder and crime. The policy lasted only four years and was widely believed to have failed miserably; in 1872 the Spectator commented on the subject saying that “free licensing has been tried by the Liverpool magistrates and has produced results so ghastly that they have recoiled from the experiment.” As always the truth is more complicated. By 1866 the magistrates’ bench was once again dominated by individuals influenced by the larger brewers who had a vested interest in tighter controls–on their own terms–over licensing. This is not very far from the way large brewers in recent years have defended the ‘beer tie’.
In a letter to the Times dated May 21, 1872, a ‘Liverpool Man’ believed to be S.G. Rathbone, an opponent of the ‘free trade in licenses’ when he sat as a magistrate, suggests the experiment was much more successful than generally thought. Indeed Rathbone seems to have changed his mind about restriction:
… I know of no evidence which shows any ghastly results followed the introduction of free licensing; certainly the police statistics do not point to such a conclusion. The free licensing system was adopted at the licensing session held in the autumn of 1862 and abandoned in the autumn of 1866. The number of apprehensions for drunkenness during the official police year which closed in autumn, 1862, was 12, 362, and for the year 1866, 12,494; so that at the end of the free licensing period the apprehensions had not increased in proportion to the increase of population. The restrictive system of issuing licenses having been returned to at the licensing session of 1866, and Sir Selwyn-Ibbetson’s Beerhouse Act of 1869 having brought the issue of beerhouse licenses under magisterial control, there has been a steady decrease in the number of drinking houses; and the number of publichouses and beerhouses, which in 1865 amounted to 2,805, is now only 2,313. The steady decrease in the number of drinking houses has been accompanied by an equally steady increase in the number of apprehensions for drunkenness, which, for the last year of free licensing, 1866, was 12,494; while for the police year ending in autumn, 1871, after five years of restrictive policy, it was 22,947. These figures are, of course, in themselves not conclusive, many causes combining to influence the apprehensions of drunkenness; but, at all events, they show that the police statistics of this town, so much relied upon by the advocates of restriction, afford no evidence that free licensing injured the morals of the inhabitants.
The ‘Liverpool Man’ goes on to show that the number of licensees unable to pay their rates rose substantially during the unrestrictive period, indicating that the profit from selling beer had fallen substantially. Much of this was put down to licensees keeping open houses in ‘bad situations’ hoping for the return of the restriction; these licensees were no doubt assisted by the larger brewers who owned the houses in question. Our ‘Liverpool Man’ concludes wisely and I’ll leave him the last word:
No human ingenuity can devise a law which shall at the same time place liquor within the reach of the sober and keep it out of the reach of the drunken: yet this is really the impossible aim of all systems of partial restriction. The restrictive system, at least in our large towns, entails all the evils of monopoly without any corresponding advantages …
The real solution to the liquor question is, then, to throw the trade open on equal terms to all willing to enter it and to pay a good high Excise license duty [there was no excise duty on beer until 1880], and thus destroy the monopoly out of which many of the moral and all the political evils of the trade now arise.