Thursday, 9 July 2015

Was Beer the end of Mother’s Ruin?

Welcome to my guest Roland Clarke who tells us about his famous family, researching on Wikipedia - and gin!

When I was growing up, I was often told that my Quaker ancestors had helped bring an end to the repercussions of ‘Mother’s Ruin’ by promoting beer.

This made some sense as the family had been involved with the brewing firm of Truman Hanbury & Buxton.

So when Maureen Vincent-Northam asked me to write about those ancestors, I began wondering whether that was just a family legend, whether that would be an interesting starting-point. Was there was some truth behind the story?

Thomas Fowell Buxton
My fourth great-grandfather was Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, 1st Baronet (1 April 1786–19 February 1845) and he married Hannah Gurney, the sister of Joseph Gurney and Elizabeth Fry – yes, the prison reformer that was on the old British £5 note.

Although Thomas Fowell wasn’t a Quaker, as they were, he was a committed social reformer and in the forefront of the abolitionist movement, succeeding William Wilberforce as its parliamentary leader in the House of Commons, having been elected an MP in 1818.

And as Wikipedia says, ‘In 1808, Buxton's Hanbury family connections led to an appointment to work at the brewery of Truman, Hanbury & Company, in Brick Lane, Spitalfieds, London. In 1811 he was made a partner in the business, renamed Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co. Later he became sole owner.’

Although I am always wary of treating Wikipedia as gospel, I find it is a useful starting point for any research, and from there I can corroborate the facts using other sources. In this case, my late mother had a lot of Buxton books that she was given by my paternal grandmother, who was born Rebekah Mary Buxton in 1900 – a direct descendent of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton. Among these was “Buxton the Liberator” by R H. Mottram in 1883, which confirms almost all the facts, as do some of the other sources that I found – referenced in this article or at the end.

There were no direct references to Mother’s Ruin in any of these initial sources, but on Historic UK I found an article on Mother’s Ruin, and in it the following sentences:

“Gin had become the poor man's drink as it was cheap, and some workers were given gin as part of their wages. Duty paid on gin was 2 pence a gallon, as opposed to 4 shillings and nine pence on strong beer.”

“Gin was the opium of the people, it led them to the debtors' prison or the gallows, ruined them, drove them to madness, suicide and death, but it kept them warm in winter, and allayed the terrible hunger pangs of the poorest.”


“In 1830 the Duke of Wellington's administration passed the Sale of Beer Act, which removed all taxes on beer, and permitted anyone to open a Beer Shop on payment of a two-guinea fee.
This Bill virtually ended the traffic in gin smuggling.

By the end of 1830 there were 24,000 beer shops in England and Wales, and six years later there were 46,000 and 56,000 Public Houses.”

In the same year, there was, according to Wikipedia, the Beerhouse Act, which would have had the
same effect.

Did Thomas Fowell Buxton vote in favour of either Act? Would a brewer vote to enable anyone to brew and sell beer on payment of a licence costing two guineas?

The Duke of Wellington’s administration were Tories, while Buxton was nominally a Whig. On his election in 1818, his friend and future brother-in-law, Joseph Gurney, wrote to him arguing: “Do not let thy independence of all party be the means of leading thee away from sound Whiggism. Let us take special care to avoid the spirit of Toryism. I mean that spirit which bears the worst things with endless apathy, because they are old.”

The Hansard record of the passage of the Beer Act in 1830 include an interesting record on Mr F Buxton’s opinion.

“Mr F Buxton, while admitting that the fears entertained of this measure, as far as the brewers were concerned, had been greatly exaggerated, contended that the loss to the publicans would be as great, if not greater, than was anticipated. There had only been one or two instances of petitions being presented in favour of the clause under the consideration of the House, while hundreds had been presented against it. He did not mean to say that the measure would be positively bad; but it would at any rate, be questionable. By it public-houses might be opened during all hours of the night, and in any places, and no security was given for their being properly conducted, for the fine or penalty proposed by the Bill was no security at all. At present there was some difficulty found in keeping public-houses in good order, though the publican was liable to have his license taken away, which was equal to a fine of 500l. What then would be the state of the case where the fine was only 2l.10s. He conceived that the other parts of the Bill contained innovations, sufficient to satisfy the advocates of free-trade, and he hoped the House would refuse to accede to the introduction of any more. If at a future period it should be found necessary to make any fresh innovations, then let them be done, but he thought some consideration ought at present to be extended to the publicans. He should support the Amendment of the hon. Member, which was exactly in accordance with a clause introduced into the bill of an hon. and learned Gentleman some years back.”

At this stage of my investigations, I sense that Buxton voted for the Bill, once the amendment under discussion was defeated, and that the large breweries went on to benefit from the growth in outlets. And Mother’s Ruin met its demise – for a while.

Of course the fascination with my ancestors doesn’t end there. Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton’s greatest achievement was as an abolitionist, helping to end the slave trade in the British Empire. And then there are the social and criminal justice achievements of his Quaker in-laws the Gurneys, who continued their connection with the Buxton family down the generations. Maybe I will talk about them another time.

For now, thanks Maureen for letting me ramble.

Further links:

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton

Trumans, brewing and gin