Lloyd George, the ‘King’s pledge’ and liquor control in the Cromarty Firth

Current events, which include restrictions on travel across the country, prompted Neil Bruce to study how governmental decisions affected life in the Highlands during the two world wars of the twentieth century. In this post, he focuses on liquor control in the North of Scotland during World War One. Neil is a graduate of the MLitt Highlands and Islands History programme at the Centre for History, University of the Highlands and Islands.

On 1st April 1915, two Cromarty men were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour at Tain Sheriff Court for buying sailors alcohol, making them ‘less efficient’.(1) No April fool, it reflected official concern that drink was seriously damaging the war effort. Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George claimed it was ‘doing more damage to us than all the German submarines.’(2) The government in 1915 and 1917 seriously considered effectively nationalising the licenced liquor trade, literally ‘lock, stock and barrel’.(3) In 2020, though, shops with alcohol licences were classed as ‘notable exceptions’ when others were instructed to close to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).(4)

Newspapers reflected considerable disagreement about whether drink was hindering war efforts. Temperance advocates and shipbuilding employers demanded its prohibition.(5) The Cabinet failed to get opposition support to increase alcohol taxes. Lord Kitchener joined King George V’s pledge that he and his household would abstain for the duration of the war, but it was not generally supported.(6) Lloyd George’s proposal to spend £68 million to buy the breweries and public houses met with unsurprising resistance from the temperance movement.(7)

The government decided to take control of the sale and supply of alcohol to ensure ‘national efficiency’. It set-up the Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) with absolute powers to designate alcohol control areas where there were naval, military, munitions and other war functions.(8) Within a year it controlled all the Highlands and Islands. No spirits could be sold during the weekend in Inverness-shire and Ross and Cromarty’s western mainland, islands and ‘all arms of the sea and water between’.(9) In Caithness and Sutherland spirits sales were prohibited except for medicinal purposes: other liquor could only be sold between 12 noon and 2:30 pm, and 6 to 8 pm on weekdays.(10)

In April 1916, the board bought all the public houses and hotels around the Cromarty Firth, including Cromarty and Invergordon, to ensure naval operations remained efficient.(11) It closed 19 licensed premises, kept 39 open under its management, and only permitted off-sales from two of the four licensed grocers. To prevent smuggling into service quarters and vessels, weekly lists of all off-license sales were provided to the naval base. Service canteens did not stock spirits and civilians who bought servicemen liquor would be fined.(12)

Lloyd George and the Cromarty Firth 1

Lloyd George and the Cromarty Firth 2

Henry Carter, The control of the drink trade: a contribution to national efficiency, 1915-1917 (London, 1918), facing 134.

In September 1916, the board met representatives from Highland counties and burghs, naval, military, local and licensing authorities in Inverness to hear about the controls’ effectiveness.(13) The armed services and chief constables of Caithness, Inverness, Inverness-shire, Nairn-shire, Ross-shire and Sutherland reported reductions in drunkenness.(14) The Dornoch, Thurso and Wick provosts demanded spirit sales be consistent to stop an illicit whisky trade: spirits were being smuggled into prohibited areas and online, or at least on railway lines, parcels were being sent by train and post.(15) Liquor control threatened the viability of seasonal hotels in Inverness-shire and Sutherland, while the Inverness provost wanted methylated spirit consumption stopped.

The press highlighted the role whisky played in daily life. One reported the ‘consumption of ardent spirits’ was a social habit in the Highlands’.(16) Another quoted an old man: ‘more than half the pleasure of a dram lies in having a friend to share it with.’(17) Those able to buy whisky found it watered down by 10% on the board’s instructions.(18) When German submarine warfare hit food imports in 1917, beer production was threatened. The government reduced its strength by half rather than see morale plummet, though it became dispiritingly nicknamed government or Lloyd George’s beer.(19)

The government’s challenges during wartime and the current crisis bear some comparison. During both it assumed powers over individuals’ ‘normal’ lives and protected essential services, particularly necessary industrial production. In 2020, measures included bolstering the economy, designating essential workers, and financially supporting employers and employees. In 1915, it created a board with unfettered powers over liquor, including direct control of Cromarty and Invergordon’s retail trade. In invoking restrictions on citizens, government expected compliance in the common good, and in return needed to maintain morale. The king ‘cracked open’ a bottle of brandy on Armistice day 1918, but Highlanders had to wait six months before any liquor control regulations were lifted.(20) We do not know, yet, how long current regulations might remain in force.

1 The Scotsman, 1 April 1915, 8. One man was imprisoned for a month, the other for 15 days. 2 Manchester Guardian, 1 March 1916, 6. 3 See Turner, J., ‘State Purchase of the Liquor Trade in the First World War’, Historical Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, 589-615; 4 https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-business-and-social-distancing-guidance/ accessed 31st March 2020. 5 Lloyd George, D., War memoirs of David Lloyd George, vol. 1 (London, 1938), 194-196. 6 The Scotsman, 1 April 1916, 7; 6 April 1916, 4. 7 Lloyd George, War memoirs, 196-197. 8 Duncan, R. R. G., ‘Panic over the pub: drink and the First World War’, unpublished thesis (University of St Andrews, 2008), 129. 9 The Scotsman, 22 March 1916, 6; 13 February 1917, 7. 10 The Scotsman, 20 June 1916, 4. Licensed premises could open at 5:30 am to supply food and ‘non-exciseable’ drink: Local variations were also permitted. Carter, H., The control of the drink trade: a contribution to national efficiency, 1915-1917 (London, 1918), 141; 155. 11 Ash, M., eds. J. Macaulay & M. A. Mackay, This noble harbour: a history of the Cromarty Firth (Edinburgh, 1991), 203, n 112; Carter, The control of the drink trade, 175. 12 The Scotsman, 13 February 1917, 7. 13 The Scotsman, 30 September 1916, 7. 14 Ibid. 15 The Scotsman,13 February 1917, 7. 16 Ibid. 17 The People’s Journal, 27 September 1915, quoted in Duncan, Panic over the pub, 144. 18 The Scotsman, 13 February 1917, 7; Duncan, Panic over the pub, 146. 19 Duncan, Panic over the pub, 238-9, 261-262; Lloyd George, War Memoirs, 790. 20 Duncan, Panic over the pub, 261-262; 268; Lloyd George, War Memoirs, 790; The Scotsman, 12 April 1919, 10.

1 thought on “Lloyd George, the ‘King’s pledge’ and liquor control in the Cromarty Firth

  1. If I remember correctly it was a long time before the last of the State Restrictions were cancelled . I moved into Wester Ross from Tayside in 1961 and I can recall vaguely items appearing in the Ross-shire Journal in the 60s pertaining to these regulations.
    Incidentally as a Tee Total abstainer it didn’t bother me at all/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s