140 Years of the White Ribbon Association (Part One)

In 2016 we celebrated the 140th anniversary of the White Ribbon Association – or the British Women’s Temperance Association (BWTA) as it was when it was formed in 1876. The BWTA was a part of the temperance movement, which grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century. The organisation has taken many twists and turns over the last 140 years to become today’s White Ribbon Association; this article will look back to where it all began.


What was the temperance movement?

The temperance movement was a popular crusade to reduce the use of alcohol – or, as the movement grew, to eliminate it altogether. Alcohol was ubiquitous across British society. It was relatively cheap and extremely accessible. Working class areas were sometimes targeted, with pubs on every corner. Grocers could supply alcohol with the weekly shop.

Early members of the BWTA

The people who founded the temperance movement in the early nineteenth century saw the poverty, abuse and illness in society and thought there was an easy cure – get rid of alcohol and get rid of these problems, too.

Initially, the temperance movement was about abstaining from liquor. However, in 1832 a Preston businessman and philanthropist named Joseph Livesey, along with six other local influential men, signed a pledge to abstain from all intoxicating beverages. They were known as the “seven men of Preston” and their example of abstaining from all alcohol quickly gathered popular support.

National temperance groups began to spring up. The Band of Hope was formed in 1847 to teach temperance to children. The idea of pledges became popular; people were encouraged to take or sign a pledge that they would abstain from alcohol for life. The movement gained support from all walks of life – and also staunch opposition.


The British Women’s Temperance Association


The BWTA was the first national women’s temperance organisation in Britain, founded in 1876. Women had been involved with the temperance movement from the start, and there were women’s temperance unions and groups around for decades before the BWTA emerged. The BWTA was the first women’s temperance organisation to gain national influence, however.

The first BWTA Constitution 1876

The BWTA was formed in Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1876 following a women’s temperance meeting. Only women could be members, and women therefore were the driving force behind the work that the BWTA did. Many of the women who founded the BWTA were involved in other political, social or religious work – but the BWTA was entirely run by its members, and the first few years of its existence were therefore as much about learning how to run a national organisation as anything else.

The BWTA provided a non-threatening way for women to carve out a public space for themselves. Temperance was a virtuous cause, although it was challenging social norms, and often linked with churches or other “good” causes. Women could do all sorts of things for the cause of temperance that would otherwise have earned them censure: giving speeches, publically campaigning, writing articles, preaching, marching and so on. Temperance gave them a voice and an audience they otherwise may have found harder to access.

It is almost inevitable that the BWTA and the women’s temperance movement had links with the women’s suffrage movement. Some people approached the issue from a temperance perspective; women were naturally upstanding and chaste, and they suffered most when men drank. When given the vote, women would naturally immediately vote against any and all alcohol interests. Women’s suffrage and temperance success were therefore intricately associated. Other people believed both in the cause of temperance and suffrage, but did not feel the two were morally or politically entwined.


The early years


The early years of the BWTA were spent establishing the organisation. It was decided that women would form local branches of the BWTA, which would be part of county unions, which would be led by the national organisation. A few dozen branches formed each year to begin with; by the end of the 1880s, there were hundreds and hundreds of branches across the country.


The British Women, as they called themselves, learned to run their offices. They began to publish their own monthly paper, run letter-writing campaigns, to produce advertisements and educational materials. They adopted the white ribbon as their symbol and promoted the women’s temperance movement as a type of sisterhood – if a woman saw another woman wearing a white ribbon, she would know she had a friend at hand.

Margaret Bright Lucas was elected to be the third president of the BWTA, following in the footsteps of Margaret Parker and Clara Balfour. Bright Lucas was from a politically active and egalitarian Quaker family (her siblings John Bright, Jacob Bright and Priscilla Bright McLaren were also known for their work in politics and reform). She was strong-minded and well-liked; under her leadership the BWTA grew in membership and influence until her death in 1890.


Growth and dissent

Margaret Bright Lucas had been a figurehead for the BWTA. Her influence outside of the temperance movement had given the organisation legitimacy and had helped smooth the way for the BWTA’s success. The British Women wanted another figurehead to lead the way, and help them maintain and grow their public influence. Lady Henry Somerset was their choice. Under her leadership, the BWTA continued to grow to unprecedented heights, but also saw a singular amount of strife.

Lady Henry (Isabel) Somerset was the oldest daughter of the 3rd Earl Somers. She had a typical upbringing for a noble daughter and at the age of 21 married Lord Henry Somerset. They did not have a happy marriage. They had one son; Lady Isabel soon after discovered that her husband was gay. Instead of dealing with the matter discretely, as the aristocracy would have preferred, Lady Somerset separated from her husband and sued for custody of their son (the law at the time would otherwise have seen custody revert to the father when the child turned 12). She won but earned the disapproval of her peers. Lord Henry exiled himself to Italy because of the scandal (homosexuality was illegal) and Lady Henry removed herself from British society.

Margaret Bright Lucas, the first President of the BWTA

Lord and Lady Henry did not ever divorce, and she continued to use the title. Lady Henry began to re-enter society through philanthropic work, and it was this that led the BWTA to offer her the presidency of the organisation.

Under her leadership, the BWTA continued to grow in numbers and in influence. Membership was reported to be over 100 000. Lady Henry was charming and charismatic, and soon became an object of adoration to many of the British Women. (Something Lady Henry did not discourage – she most likely relished it after years of being rejected by her husband and her peers.) However, she was also abrasive, stubborn and flighty. Over the first two years of her presidency, she frequently clashed with the women who did the day-to-day running of the BWTA over all sorts of matters from the publishing contract for their newspaper to how explicitly the BWTA should align itself with women’s suffrage.

Things came to a head at the 1893 annual meeting. A vote on making women’s suffrage part of the BWTA’s mission gained a narrow majority, and many members left the organisation, including several women who had been involved since the beginning and did a lot of practical work in running the BWTA.  These women formed the Women’s Total Abstinence Union (WTAU) which continued to do much of the same work as the BWTA (newly re-named the National British Women’s Temperance Association). Ostensibly, the issue of suffrage – more specifically, making the BWTA an official supporter of the suffrage movement – was the cause of the split. However, the majority of women in both the NBWTA and WTAU believed that women had the right to speak and demonstrate publically, that they should be treated equally socially and politically and even that women should be given the right to vote! The NBWTA insisted that temperance and suffrage must be explicitly aligned for either to attain success; the WTAU insisted that temperance work should be the main priority but that women’s suffrage was important in terms of both temperance and morality.

Both the NBWTA and the WTAU grew through the 1890s, involving hundreds of thousands of women in a national movement and promoting the cause of temperance – although it is interesting to wonder what might have happened if they had been able to resolve their differences and remain as one united women’s temperance campaign.


Learn more about the White Ribbon Association in part two of this article.