The Day The First World War Came to London’s Pubs

We are fighting Germany, Austria and Drink; and, as far as I can see, the greatest of these three deadly foes is drink" David Lloyd George March 1915One cold, foggy morning, the working men of London walked into their favorite pubs for their traditional early-morning nip. They were disappointed.

At midnight on November 30, 1915, the public houses of London were put under new rules: Alcoholic beverages could only be sold between noon-2:30 and 6:30 to 9:30 on weekdays, 1 to 3 and 6 to 9 on Sundays. This was a major change in a city where some pubs opened at 5:30 in the morning and stayed open well past midnight, but the inducement for compliance was strong. Violators could be fined hundreds of pounds and imprisoned for up to six months.

The First World War invigorated England’s teetotalers. They had spent decades arguing on the deleterious impact of excessive drinking on the national character. Now, they could argue that it was a matter of national survival: If the country’s shipyard and munitions workers were sick with drink, they weren’t making ships or guns. A 1917 government study showed that worker absenteeism in key war industries was driven primarily by exhaustion caused by long shifts with limited breaks, but the argument fell on deaf ears by those looking to blame the demon drink or to keep the war machine humming.

Unwilling to destabilize the economy by nationalizing the nation’s brewers and distillers or establishing a full prohibition, the Government settled on less dramatic reforms. In May 1915, the Central Control Board began announcing restricted hours for drinking establishments in cities and towns across the country, starting in the industrial north. By the fall, London was in the crosshairs.

“For the most part they turned with a shudder from chilly mineral waters, some compromising on ginger wine, a non-alcoholic English made decoction possessing considerable warming qualities, but the majority tried soup and liked it,” said a reporter for the New York World in that first day. “There was a good deal of banter among the disappointed ones, but no anger, although the rows of bottles containing the forbidden beverages mocked them from the shelves.”

While many focused on the impact on working men, it was actually the high-end wine bars that suffered the most. Much of the business of the city was done over leisurely late afternoon port or champagne in these tony establishments. They were now officially closed during their golden hours. Prime Minister David Lloyd George, a long-time temperance advocate, eventually convinced King George V to abstain from alcohol for the duration of the War, but teetotalling never caught on among the British upper classes.

Noon came at last, and “many business men had pressing engagements at that mystic hour. Many men with whom it had been a habit of years to go out at 11 “to eat an apple,” postponed their fruitarian refreshment until just on noon, when they hurriedly left to “shake the apple tree.”” Order was restored. At least until 3pm.

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