The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, a senior foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress covering the United Kingdom and several other jurisdictions. Clare has written numerous posts for In Custodia Legis, including Revealing the Presence of Ghosts; Weird Laws, or Urban Legends?; FALQs: Brexit Referendum; and 100 Years of “Poppy Day” in the United Kingdom.
July 31 of this year marked the 100th anniversary of the enactment of the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Act 1923. Under the Act, it became an offense to knowingly sell, or attempt to purchase, alcohol in a public house (pub) to, or by, anyone under the age of 18. The offense was punishable with a fine of 20 shillings for the first offense and 40 shillings for subsequent offenses (approximately US$58.47 and US$117.05 in today’s money, factoring in inflation in the UK). The purchase of beer, porter (dark beer), cider, or perry (alcoholic pear cider) to those aged 16 to 18 years of age was lawful, provided it was purchased in conjunction with a meal to be consumed at the same time on the property and not in the bar area.
While the Act is significant in terms of raising the age to buy beer and wine from 14 to 18, its historical significance also lies in being the first private member’s bill introduced by the first sitting female member of Parliament, Lady Nancy Astor. Lady Astor was elected in 1919 to her husband’s seat after he became Viscount and moved to sit in the House of Lords. Lady Astor’s election was only allowed due to the recent change in the law of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act, which entered into force just a year earlier in 1918. This Act is very short, consisting of only two sections, and simply provided that women were no longer disqualified from sitting and voting in the House of Commons on the grounds of sex or marriage. Lady Astor should be distinguished from the first elected female MP of Parliament, Constance Markievicz. Marchievicz was elected in 1918 from jail for Dublin’s St. Patrick’s division. She, and other members of Sinn Féin, refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the King and, as a result, she did not take her seat at Westminster.
Lady Nancy Astor was born in Virginia in the United States and settled in England in the early 1900s. She was a supporter of temperance and her feelings for the need for a bill limiting the sale of alcohol to minors were clear from her maiden speech in Parliament, in which she stated, “I do not think the country is really ripe for prohibition, but I am certain it is ripe for drastic drink reforms.” Remarks and records of the cries from other MPs, during her opening speech, demonstrate some of the hostility with which she faced when taking her seat. She started her maiden speech with the lines:
“I shall not begin by craving the indulgence of the House. I am only too conscious of the indulgence and the courtesy of the House. I know that it was very difficult for some hon. Members to receive the first lady M.P. into the House … It was almost as difficult for some of them as it was for the lady M.P. herself to come in.”
While the Hansard record includes cries of “[n]ot at all!” after this statement, reports of Parliament at the time and her opening lines themselves indicate the chamber, filled with male MPs, were not receptive to her. Nor was the House of Commons necessarily open to her idea of prohibiting the sale of alcohol to those under 18, with calls of “no!” and laughter from MPs being recorded in Hansard, the official record of parliament, during her pleas for drink reform in her speech.
The possibility of this bill’s enactment was helped by restrictions on alcohol brought in during World War I. The Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) was constituted to introduce any necessary restrictions and the rules for the board were established by the Defence of the Realm (Liquor Control) Regulations 1915. The board determined what area restrictions were necessary by investigating the conditions of each area to ensure that any interference in the consumption of alcohol was in the interests of the efficiency of the war. Such restrictions included reducing the strength of alcohol in liquor and the hours during which it could be sold, raising prices, and requiring food to be served at establishments serving alcohol. While not popular, these restrictions paved the way for Lady Astor’s bill.
Lady Astor stated that the objective of her bill was “to help self-control and the powers of resistance.” She argued that it did not introduce any new concepts on alcohol, rather that it simply altered an age limit that was already provided for in the law and that it would ultimately be easier for those serving to determine if a person was under the age of 18 rather than under the age of 14.
Some MPs proposed that the bill should be written solely to apply to girls. Lady Astor objected to that, noting:
“sex discrimination in legislation affecting morals will not be tolerated by an enlightened public conscience partly because it is unjust and partly because immorality is a joint offense which cannot be cured by dealing with one sex. [An HON. MEMBER: “No legislation will ever stop that.”] All legislation tends upwards. I think the hon. Member forgets that we are trying to legislate for true freedom.”
The bill was ultimately enacted and received considerable support from within the House. While her husband, Viscount Waldorf Astor, was frequently attributed for the bill, Lady Astor had support in her constituency and was re-elected to parliament seven times until she finally retired. Known for her sharp tongue, she barbed with Winston Churchill, reportedly telling him, “[i]f I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee!” Churchill responded, “[a]nd if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”
Lady Astor’s political career was not considered at the time to be exceptional and was derided in an article in the London Times, published in 1945, which claimed: ”she accomplished nothing more noteworthy than the forcing through of a bill barring teenagers from entering pubs.”
100 years later, while the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Act 1923 has been repealed, the principle of the prohibition on the sale and consumption of alcohol for those under the age of 18 has remained the same and continues to be lawful for those aged between 16-18 years of age to purchase beer, cider, or wine to consume at the same time as a meal in a pub.
Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.