Advertisement for a Rechabite temperance meeting at Longford, 1863 (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

Temperance societies proliferated after the 1832 arrival of the Quakers, James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, who started a pledge to abstain from alcoholic beverages. In 1836 the Tasmanian Temperance Society took the teetotal pledge, while the moderate Launceston Temperance Society only opposed excessive drinking.

Temperance was a key issue of the 1850s in a colony where convictism lowered the tone of society, liquor consumption was heavy, and there were widespread poverty and drunkenness, few women to exert a moderating influence and limited entertainment alternatives. Publicans were the largest commercial group on the island, with an estimated public-house to every 127 inhabitants. Temperance advocates saw alcohol as the source of society's degeneration, affecting the 'health, temporal prosperity, domestic comfort, and moral and religious well-being of man' as well as being closely linked to crime.

The start of the decade saw overlapping membership in movements to upgrade society, through anti-transportation and temperance. Temperance activities, primarily by middle-class evangelical Christians, were largely directed towards the working class. To counter the public-house, recreational facilities were established: coffee houses, temperance hotels, debating clubs, reading rooms, youth organisations and festivals. Brass bands were popular, with enthusiastic and vocal audiences at temperance meetings.

During the 1850s the total abstainers gained ascendancy and were almost successful in their appeals for a dry colony similar to Maine, USA presenting five parliamentary petitions containing over 10,000 signatures. The powerful liquor industry opposed prohibitory legislation; economically, the government derived 55 percent of its revenue from the duties placed on spirits. The Licensing Acts of 1854, 1856 and 1858 regulated rather than prohibited the liquor traffic. Bitter controversy over the Sunday closing of public-houses saw leading temperance advocate 'Coffee Pot' Crouch and others publicly threatened with tar and feathering in 1855 for organising a vigilante group to enforce Sunday closure.

Part of an international organisation that traced the major defects and evils in society to alcohol abuse, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was active in Tasmania between 1885 and 1914. Members believed the moral superiority of women gave them the responsibility to uplift the morality and purity of all Tasmanians, and actively pursued temperance through petitions, education, local option, the suffrage movement and public awareness. The temperance cause was strengthened when King George V undertook to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the First World War. According to British Prime Minister, Lloyd George, alcohol was as great or greater an enemy than Germany. Total abstinence became equated with patriotism. A plebiscite on early closing was held in 1916, with the temperance movement favouring six rather than ten o'clock and stressing the deleterious effects of late drinking on family life, home finances and the war effort. Along with New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, Tasmania voted for early closing. In 1937, Tasmania was the first to revert to late closing.

Although the heyday of the temperance movement has passed, the two branches of the WCTU (in the south and the north-east) continue to lobby government on issues concerning 'God and Home and Humanity'.

Further reading: D Cooney, 'Local option in Tasmania ', Honours thesis, UT, 1973; R Jordan, 'White-ribboners', Honours thesis, UT, 2001; R Kilner, 'Temperance and the liquor question in Tasmania in the 1850s', THRAPP 20/2, 1973.

Wendy Rimon