Saturday 25 October 2014

Eva Gore-Booth champion of the barmaids

In 1908, the British Liberal Government introduced a Licensing Bill aimed at overhauling licensing arrangements across the UK. At the centre of the legislation was a recommendation to abolish barmaids.

The mere suggestion of forcing thousands of women out of work propelled Eva Gore-Booth into action.

She launched a campaign which would turn the streets of Manchester into a political battlefield and oust Winston Churchill from his constituency.

The dramatic episode was later described by author Ronald Blythe as "the most brilliant, entertaining and hilarious electoral fight of the century".

During the industrial revolution people moved from rural areas into confined urban spaces to secure work in factories and shops. As populations in cities swelled, so too did the number of public houses. This inevitably brought with it a rise in crime and violence.

In Ireland, laws were introduced to help alleviate the many social problems caused by drunkenness. In 1906, new legislation offered legal protection for husbands or wives of drunkards who squandered the family income on alcohol.

Opening hours of licensed premises were reduced and a complete closure of pubs on election days was suggested.

In 1908, the Liberal Government in the UK attempted to introduce even tighter controls. At the core of this legislation was a proposal to ban women from working in bars.

Women, it was suggested, were luring men to drink. The alcohol industry was accused of exploiting attractive females in order to sell liquor.

Ultimately the occupation of barmaid was seen as a path towards prostitution and eventual moral ruin.

Religious and temperance organisations welcomed the proposal. Senior members of the Labour Party were quick to agree. Ramsay MacDonald wrote frequently about the evils of bar work for women.

Labour MPs published a testimony that the lives of barmaids often ended in "drunkenness, immorality, misery and frequently suicide".

Eva Gore-Booth promptly organised a high-profile campaign to protect the employment of barmaids. Gore-Booth was a respected author and a member of a privileged Anglo-Irish family from Lissadell House in County Sligo.

She had moved to the working-class district of Manchester in 1897 where she established trade unions for women workers.

Gore-Booth was not deterred. She established the Barmaids' Political Defence League. Nine barmaids volunteered to accompany her to a meeting with the Home Secretary, Herbert Gladstone MP.

Gladstone described public houses as the "sources of evil and danger" and not a suitable place for women to work.

Gore-Booth insisted that bar work did not lead women into an immoral life.

Weekend Magazine

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