The History of the White Ribbon Association
The White Ribbon Association was formally known as the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA) and was founded in 1876, becoming the foremost women’s temperance movement in Britain.
The Temperance Movement was at its height in the 19th Century, campaigning against the consumption of alcohol and actively trying to get the government to pass legislation to restrict the sale of alcohol. Advocates of temperance were concerned about the social impact of drunkenness to society, families and industry. As opinions and social habits changed in the latter half of the Twentieth century the Temperance Movement was somewhat forgotten. However, the White Ribbon Association was instrumental in bringing women into the public sphere and contributed significantly to society over the years.
At its peak, our Association had hundreds of thousands of members who belonged to local branches; the branches formed County unions which were affiliated to the national organisation with it’s headquarters originally based in London until 2006. Although the variations of names suggest otherwise, the branches and county unions were mainly in England, with some in areas of Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the British Women’s Temperance Association Scottish Christian Union was autonomous, and the Women’s Temperance Union of Wales was completely unaffiliated.
The name of the White Ribbon Association pays homage to this history. The White Ribbon was the symbol of the women’s Temperance Movement – women would pin a bow of white ribbon to their clothing to signify their loyalty to the cause and would refer to themselves as “White Ribboners”, signing a pledge to abstain from alcohol.
We hold a substantial archive which tells the story of the organisation, the women involved, it’s work and social change across the years. We encourage inquiries and visits to our archives as we would like to share these invaluable records.
Since its foundation as the BWTA, through various changes of name, our association has been working in the field of health promotion for over 140 years and continues to this day. As our society has changed over the years, so we no longer promote total abstinence but continue our valuable work educating the community about the harmful effects of alcohol, tobacco, drugs and gambling.
Click through the slider below to learn more about our history or click on the icons
Lady Henry Somerset and Frances Willard
Early Pledge Card
White Ribbon Association founded as the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA), following a women’s temperance meeting in Newcastle. Members pledge to abstain from alcohol, and take part in local and national campaigns against the alcohol trade.
Margaret Bright Lucas, a temperance and suffrage activist, becomes president of the BWTA. Under her leadership, the BWTA adds thousands of members and hundreds of branches across the country. Bright Lucas remains president until her death in 1890.
Lady Henry Somerset is elected president of the BWTA. A charismatic but controversial figure, she sees continued growth but clashes with the management of the Association.
A disagreement over policy proves the final straw. After an argument at the AGM, many of the management and some members of the BWTA depart the Association. Lady Henry Somerset remains in charge of the BWTA with the support of the remaining (still substantial) membership.
1894 The BWTA rebrands as the National British Women’s Temperance Association (NBWTA). The women who left form a new temperance organisation, the Women’s Total Abstinence Union (WTAU). Both organisations continue temperance work much as before. The NBWTA becomes more politically active.
Mary E Docwra becomes president of the WTAU. One of first members of the BWTA, she is a key to the success of the women’s temperance movement. She is a prolific writer, known in particular for The Temperance Cookery Book which sells thousands of copies.
Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle, is elected to the NBWTA presidency. Already well-known as a Liberal and suffrage activist, she leads the Association at the height of the temperance movement.
The outbreak of World War One drastically changes the work of the women’s temperance movement. The WTAU and NBWTA begin providing refreshments tents for soldiers amongst other war work. They promote temperance as a patriotic measure, preserving grains and resources that would have been made into beer and spirits. The King pledges not to serve or drink alcohol for the duration of the war.
After the war, the temperance movement declines in popularity as the social and economic landscape of Britain alters. Following a few years of falling membership, the WTAU and NBWTA reunite as the National British Women’s Total Abstinence Union (NBWTAU).
The outbreak of war again changes the focus of the NBWTAU by necessity. Unlike during World War One, when members could continue to meet, air raids, evacuations of cities and rationing limit temperance work. Nevertheless, the NBWTAU again supports the war effort and campaigns for war time temperance.
The temperance movement falls in popularity after World War Two. Membership of the NBWTAU steadily declines but is still substantial enough to celebrate the organisation’s centenary in 1976.
The organisation by this time has rebranded as White Ribbon Association, named in tribute to the white ribbons worn by the women of the temperance movement. The offices of White Ribbon Association move to the West Midlands from London.
The 140th anniversary of White Ribbon Association, which now focuses on health education in schools and communities, particularly covering the topics of alcohol, tobacco, drugs and gambling.