History of the Temperance Movement in Tasmania

The Mercury, Thursday 14th April 1932 – Temperance Centenary ‘100 Years of effort in Tasmania’

To reach its centenary is an outstanding achievement in the life of any social organisation, and members of the temperance movement in Tasmania have cause for just pride when they look back on their record during the hundred years since organised efforts have been made to combat intemperance in the State.

The pioneers of the movement were James Backhouse and George Washington Walker, two Quakers, who embarked on their temperance mission in Tasmania in 1832, and now, 100 years later, those who have followed in their footsteps and carried on their work unite in paying tribute to their unfaltering courage and determination, which enabled them to bear the heat and burden of spreading the temperance gospel at a time when one of their greatest difficulties was to overcome age-long custom, traditions, and beliefs, which were firmly embedded in the minds of men and their social conventions.

An Early Challenge

An amazing contrast is provided by the drinking habits of society to-day, and those of those early years of the nineteenth century, but the altered condition distinguishes no one class, the improvement being general. Chief credit for the advancement must be given to the pioneers of total abstinence, who definitely organised themselves in deliberate antagonism to the ordinary use of alcoholic liquor. The effective result of their example and appeal was a challenge to those orders of society which either recommended or countenanced the use of alcohol, as a beverage the church, the medical profession, the commercial and trading interests, and particularly those responsible for the welfare of the young.

Their challenge met with vigorous opposition, which was followed by inquiry into the nature and properties of intoxicating drinks, this furnishing abundant evidence of the worthlessness of alcohol for many, of the purposes to which it was commonly applied. In later years this evidence was supported by the findings of doctors, scientists, and leaders in the religious and social life of the community. Lord Shaftsbury declared in 1870 that “but for the work of the temperance societies we should be Involved in such an ocean of intoxication as would make those islands uninhabitable.” His remarks concerned only the British Isles, but records show that they applied with equal force to the Australian colonies in the early days. The pioneers had to face Indifference, and even hostility, from the churches, the medical profession, and even the great social reformers. It I was under such conditions that James Backhouse, of York, and George “Washington” Walker, the pioneers of the movement, began 100 years ago their temperance mission in Tasmania.




The first instance of public attention being directed towards the desire to check the evils of intemperance in Tasmania, of which any record can be found was apparently made by Dr. Ross, who, in communication with people in England, had spoken of “the dreadful effects of drunkenness in Hobart Town.” The first recorded instance of activity in the temperance movement in Australia is contained in a letter written by a person in England to a resident of Hobart, enclosing copies of the rules of the Leeds Society for the Promotion of Temperance, and a few tracts printed by similar organisations, which had their origin at Boston (U.S.A.).

The barque, Science, which carried the mall in which that letter was posted, brought to Hobart as passengers, Backhouse and Walker. They found that the population of the town was about 28,000, and that the revenue arising from duties on spirits amounted to £ 36,000. They began to distribute tracts, and within 10 weeks of their arrival the two missionaries of the Society of Friends had aroused considerable public interest in the temperance movement, The first step towards establishing a temperance society was made on April 18, 1832, and three days later the “Hobart Town Courier” announced the fact “with unfeigned pleasure.”


The inaugural meeting of the society was hold at the rooms of Mr. Deane, in Elizabeth Street, the then Colonial Treasurer (Mr. Thomas) presiding Commenting on the meeting, the “Courier,” in its editorial columns, stated:We trust such further proceedings will be taken as will put the society on a stable and successful footing…. if while the rest of the world is setting us the example of temperance societies, Van Diemen’s Land should not chime in, but stand against lt.  (Quod Dues avertat), the colony must expect to be held up to scorn as the last resort and stronghold of drunkenness of the devil and his angels; but such a calamity, we are sensible, the good feeling, the Intelligence, the self interest, and the conscience of our truly British community, will not suffer to overtake us.

Two further meetings were held, ant the nature of the pledge which all participating in the movement were to sign was the subject of lengthy discussion On May 3, the Van Diemen’s Land Auxiliary Temperance Society was firmly established, “to prevent the formation of habits of intemperate drinking.” Members of the society voluntarily agree to “abstain entirely from the use of distilled spirits, except for medicinal purposes; and, although the moderate use of other liquors is not excluded, yet as the promotion of temperance in every form is the specific design of the society, it ls understood that excess in these necessarily excludes from membership.


The Lieutenant-Governor at that time was appointed patron of the society, and the following were the original members of the committee: Messrs. Jocelyn Thomas, John Montagu, Joseph Hone, Matthew Forster, Revs. W. Bedford,’ J. Norman, Drought, A. Macarthur, F. Miller, N. Turner, Captain Boyd, Assistant Commissioner General Yeoland, Lieutenant Ball, Drs. Turnbull, Clerke, Ross, and Mr. Hiddlestone. Dr. Turnbull and Assistant Commissioner General Yeoland were appointed honorary secretaries.

The “Hobart Town Courier” stated or. May 12, 1832: ” The newly established Temperance Society, we are happy to learn, goes on prosperously, and cannot fail, we think, to do good in a place like this. The streets of Hobart Town, now a large and bustling place, during every day of the week, but especially on Sunday, are most orderly, scenes of drunkenness being as rare as they were formerly disgusting. But, notwithstanding this, excessive drinking, though evidently undermined, has still a wide and ruinous range.

Later in the year temperance societies were formed In Launceston, Campbell Town, Ross, Bothwell, Hamilton, Richmond and Sorell.


In the years Immediately following the establishment of the society considerable progress was made in the efforts to increase sobriety. Backhouse and Walker travelled throughout the country, almost every centre of population being visited. Temperance meetings were held, and the declaration of the society was signed by a great number of people. The fifth annual meeting of the society, held in Trinity Church, Hobart, on May 17, 1837, was presided over by the Governor (Sir John Franklin), who stated that “the first colony that shall banish intemperance will be most prosperous and happy.”

While conditions showed some improvement, the temptations of the liquor traffic may be judged from the fact that every ninth house In Hobart Town at that time was licensed for the sale of drink. Probably the only  place in southern lands to compare with that state of affairs was Sydney, where the population was’about 20,000 and every sixth house was a liquor shop. The Rev. Charles Price, the first Congregational minister who arrived in Launceston, ably supported the efforts of Backhouse and Walker, and was responsible for the formation of the first Total Abstinence Society in Australia, this being established in Launceston on October 4, 1832, with Mr. Price as president. Two years later the “Ven. Arch-deacon Jeffries, of Calcutta,- to which diocese New South Wales and Van Die men’s Land then belonged, arrived in Tasmania on a tour of inspection.

The electrified an audience In Launceston by declaring that the surest and safes! way for men to avoid the evils of Intemperance was to abstain from all intoxicating drinks, and to sign a total abstinence pledge, for the mutual benefit and support of each other.


Mr. Price founded the Tasmanian Teetotal Society in 1838, linking up with the earlier organisation. Addressing the International Temperance Convention in 1888, Mr. W. R. Dean, of Launceston, said that the population of Launceston at the end of 1832, not including military and convicts, was 2,249 There were 13 public houses, and such was the state of society at that period that men were in the habit of selllning their wives and farms for a few bottles of grog.

Mr. Walker performed much valuable work In other directions, and his indefatigability should not be overlooked. The Museum In Hobart owes great deal to him; the Botanical Gardens received his warmest support; he reorganised the Hobart Savings Ban and became Its manager, acting for number of years gratuitously. He an Mr. Backhouse extended their labour to the whole of the colonies. New South Wales and Queensland were visited in 1836, Victoria and South Australia in 1837, West Australia and Mauritius in 1838, and for two years they conducted missionary work in Africa.


Early In 1842 Walker was enabled with the assistance of two or three young men, recently arrived from England, to form a Total Abstinence Society. Committee meetings were held at his house weekly, and public meetings every alternate week. It was no uncommon happening for the meetings to be interrupted by persons, chiefly under the influence of drink, and on several occasions lt was necessary to dismiss the assemblage before the completion of the programme’ On one occasion the doors of the Friends’ Meeting House were forced off their hinges and seats in the building were broken by a number of young men, the sons of respectable parents, who had banded themselves together to obstruct business.

Walker carried on, however, the total abstinence, movement grew, and branches existed In. several country towns. Rechabitism was introduced in the colony in 1832, and five years later’, the Van Diemen’s Land Total Abstinence Society was established, with Mr. Walker as president and Mr. James Bonwick as secretary, and its membership increased rapidly. About that time close attention was directed to the juvenile movement, and the Junior Total Abstinence Society had a membership of 620, Mr. T. J. Crouch, sen., being president, and Messrs. T. J. Crouch, jun., and J. Pratt Joint secretaries.

The Hobart Town Catholic Total Abstinence Society was established on November 5, 1846, the Vicar General (Very Rev. W. Hall) being elected president, and its total membership was 3,800. The Independent Order of Rechabites developed, through the efforts of the Tasmanian district at Launceston, and tents were opened at Brown’s River, Evandale, Perth, Longford, Campbell Town, Hobart, Launceston, and New Norfolk. Notwithstanding the efforts made to combat the drinking habits of the people, Wood’s Calendar of 1850 records that in October of the previous year there were 106,005 gallons of Intoxicating liquors In the bonded warehouses at Hobart and Launceston. During 1848 27,760 gallons were imported, and 12,301 gallons were exported to British colonies. Forty breweries were operating at that time in Tasmania, and there were 376 publicans and 30 wine merchants. Customs revenue from spirits amounted to £37,681 for the year ended January 5,’ 1840, the total Customs revenue that year being £77,151, and wholesale and retail licences to sell wine and spirits produced £9,085. The total population over 21 years of age numbered 42,658, of which 11,351 were females. In 1846 there was one public house for every 88 free persons in. Tasmania.


Realising the value of the printed page as a means of reaching the people, a small committee commenced, the publication of the “Van Diemen’s Land Temperance Herald,” a small eight page monthly newspaper, in July, 1845, at Launceston; Both this and the “Australian Temperance Magazine,” which was printed In Sydney,” proved worthy auxiliaries, and contributed to the sum of moral influence which was destined to sway the people and firmly establish the temperance movement. Throughout the early 30’s and 40’s considerable attention was given to the holding of public meetings In every centre of population, and many prominent clergymen and professional and commercial men participated. Thirteen years after the advent of the two Quaker missionaries there were over 10,000 teetotallers In Van Diemen’s Land, New South “Wales, and New Zealand.

In early years lt was necessary to invoke the aid of legislation to cope with the evils of the liquor traffic. The licensing system was Instituted In 1825, when an Act of Sir Thomas Brisbane, Governor of New South Wales, was passed with the advice of the Legislative Council of that Colony, and in. 1827 the Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s  Land approved of a further Act. The Increase In the already large number of licences In Launceston and surrounding districts, and likewise in southern parts of the Colony, about 1,840, was productive of so many serious evils to the community that a largo number of prominent citizens, Including 13 magistrates and 11 ministers of religion, presented a petition to the Lieutenant-Governor (Sir J. Eardley-Wilmot) urging him to limit the number of licensed houses. Tho outcome of the petition was that the magistracy was induced to reflect upon the enormous evil of indiscriminate and wholesale licensing, and at the next meeting no fewer than. 13 new applications were rejected and the renewal of 19 licences refused.


The following is an Interesting comparison of the number of licences and the population taken over periods of 10 years since 1856:

The. Tasmanian Statistician’s figures for 1930-31 show a population of 222,481, with 291 publicans’ licences, and 25 club licences, The following comparison of the consumption per head of the population of beer, wine, and spirits shows a marked falling off:



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