Who Do You Think You Are?

Temperance report, 1875

Richard Brass from the West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford, discusses a document from the heart of the Victorian temperance debate

- Interview By Rosemary Collins

From the 1830s onwards, the temperance movement became increasing­ly popular in Britain. Concerned about the destructiv­e social impact of drunkennes­s among the working classes, temperance activists sought to promote teetotalis­m and campaigned against the sale of alcohol. In 1875, Bradford house painter, Methodist lay preacher and temperance activist James Scurrah visited dram shops, licensed houses and beer shops on Saturday, Sunday and Monday nights, and reported on what he saw. His reports are held by West Yorkshire Archive Service, Bradford. Archive assistant Richard Brass tells us more.

Can You Describe The Temperance Reports?

James Scurrah made crude tables that note the sign of the pub that he’s coming into and the approximat­e time. He notes the numbers of males and females in each pub, and he has a column for remarks. The reports always follow the same format in that they are taken from opening time on Saturday evening until closing on Monday evening, and he goes on a di!erent route around the city centre on each report. Scurrah covers an enormous amount of ground – the reports are like a walking tour of the Bradford district. I hope one day to map out how far he’s walking.

Generally in the early evening it’s a bit quieter, but as the evening wears on it can get rowdy and very, very busy. This means that the remarks become more exciting from a researcher’s perspectiv­e later on.

Can You Tell Me About His Observatio­ns?

James Scurrah is clearly very judgementa­l. His ire particular­ly falls upon unaccompan­ied women who are drinking in pubs. Irishmen and Irish women are always singled out, and people of low character and loose morals. To be fair, if a pub is quiet he’ll say “Very quiet in here”. If it’s noisy or there’s people swearing or using coarse language he’ll always note it too.

For example, at the Spotted Ox on Ivegate on 13 March 1875 you would find, “Many of the women in here… dressed up to the mark, and you would have thought they were of the highest class if you had not heard them speak, but as soon as they had spoken you would ken what they were, women of loose habits.”

In terms of religion, I think Scurrah believes that these people are probably going to go to Hell. His preface to the fourth report says, “I find not so much drinking as on the first occasion, but I find su"cient to convince me and every wellwisher of his species that the drinking habits of the people is a bane on society, and the forerunner of evil and wickedness in the world.”

Scurrah also reports on the behaviour of the police. On 29 February 1875, at the Swan Inn on Market Street, he notes that he “followed an Inspector of Police in and I waited 10 minutes outside to see if he came out but he did not whilst I stopped”.

Clearly Scurrah finds this suspicious, and yet while the temperance groups are quick to highlight the wicked behaviour of working men and women in subsequent memorials to the mayor and MPs of Bradford, they omit any mention of Scurrah’s findings regarding the police, which I think shows some political discretion.

How Did The Temperance Movement Use James Scurrah’s Reports?

In May 1875 nine temperance organisati­ons made their concerns known to the mayor and councillor­s of Bradford. They expressed their dissatisfa­ction “with the administra­tion of the law for the suppressio­n of drunkennes­s”, complainin­g that the mayor, councillor­s, police and licensing board were doing a terrible job of enforcing licensing laws, which was leading to violence, gambling and prostituti­on. The archive service has the material relating to this in our bundle of temperance papers.

Why Did You Choose This Document As Your Gem?

I’m really interested in working-class culture, be it the urban working class or rural, and I’ve found that very few primary documents are written by working-class people. They are usually written by upper-class people. As a result the history of the whole Bradford district is skewed. If you read general Bradford histories about Victorian times, you’d think

His ire falls upon unaccompan­ied women who are drinking in pubs

that if you walked up Westgate on a Saturday night you’d get mugged by Irishmen, and these reports as an example clearly tell a very di erent story.

James Scurrah sees the whole Bradford district. He sees incidents of fighting and he makes remarks about that, but in general you could read this and it could almost reflect a Saturday night out in town now. It’s a really good walking tour of gaslit Victorian Bradford. Also, although some of the remarks are repetitive, others are really, really interestin­g and highlight some great aspects of workingcla­ss culture. For example, women dressing up and going to market and then going straight out on the town afterwards.

What Other Documents Do You Have In Your Collection­s?

My interest is always to do with quirky collection­s that refer in particular to the working class. One of our main collection­s is the Spencer Stanhope Collection, a fantastic manorial estate collection that goes back to the 12th century. It contains all sorts of documents about cockfighti­ng, the

Civil War, and militia and muster rolls, so that’s quite an exciting, wellused collection.

A more modern collection is the Oriental Arts Collection which is an Asian arts, music and dance collection. It goes back to the early 1960s and includes beautiful coloured posters and fliers and photograph­s. And then we’ve got the 1in12 Club Collection relating to what claims to be the oldest anarchist club in the country, going back to 1981. Finally we’ve got the general collection­s that all archives have – records from churches, local government, clubs and societies, and schools. Readers can find out more about our holdings at

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