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 as part of the temperance movement. The organisation has taken many twists and turns across the years to become today’s White Ribbon Association.


First Meeting

The BWTA was the first national women’s temperance organisation in Britain, founded in Newcastle-upon-Tyne following a women’s temperance meeting on 21 April 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 however, it was the first women’s temperance organisation to gain national influence. The first President of the BWTA was Margaret Parker (click HERE), a Quaker and social activist and reformer.


Early members of the BWTA

Margaret had met courageous women of the Temperance cause whilst in America, and returned to Britain full of the Crusade fire. Encouraged by her friend Margaret Bright Lucas she sent out a circular letter inviting the women of Great Britain and Ireland, to be present at the meeting in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Women flocked to the meeting appalled by the distress and poverty resulting from intemperance and were ready to form themselves into a society. These women came from small groups who had been meeting independently in different localities across the country. The main purpose of this new society would be to campaign against the manufacture and sale of alcoholic liquor. Membership began to increase with the enrolment of individuals and also by the affiliation of Temperance motivated groups of women who were already in existence in some areas of the country. All members were required to take a pledge of total abstinence.

Only women were allowed to be members, and women therefore were the driving force behind the work undertaken by the BWTA. Many of the founding women were involved in other political, social or religious work but this new organisation was entirely run by its members, and the first few years of its existence were about learning how to run a national organisation.

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 was 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, publicly campaigning, writing articles, preaching, marching and so on. Temperance gave them a voice and an audience they may otherwise 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 vote against any and all alcohol interests. Women’s suffrage and temperance success were therefore intricately associated.

The first BWTA Constitution 1876

The early years

The early years of the BWTA were spent establishing the organisation. It was decided that women would form local branches, which would become part of County Unions, to be led by the national organisation. A few dozen branches formed each year to begin with but by the end of the 1880s, there were 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, firstly as The British Women’s Temperance Journal eventually through several changes, to finally become the White Ribbon magazine. They ran letter-writing campaigns, produce advertisements and educational material. 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.

Clara Lucas Balfour (click HERE) was elected as second President in 1877 following Margaret Parker, but her tenancy was very short ending due to ill health. The third President Margaret Bright Lucas (click HERE) 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.

Periodicals – The ‘Official Organ’ of the Association

The first official organ of the Association was published in 1883 as the British Women’s Temperance Journal and has been through various name changes across the years. The history of the periodical follows the changing Association and the full story can be read HERE

Growth and dissent

Margaret Bright Lucas was a figurehead for the BWTA. Her influence outside of the temperance movement gave the organisation legitimacy and had helped smooth the way for the BWTA’s success. The British Women wanted another figurehead to lead the way to help them maintain and grow their public influence. Lady Henry Somerset (click HERE) was their choice as next President. Under her leadership from 1890 to 1903 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 was soon adored by many of the British Women. However, it was not always smooth going, there were clashes of opinion including how explicitly the BWTA should align itself with women’s suffrage. Things came to a head at the 1893 Annual Council 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 who did a lot of the practical work of running the BWTA.

Margaret Bright Lucas, third President of the BWTA

Women’s Total Abstinence Union & the National British Women’s Temperance Association

The opponents of Lady Henry’s ‘Do Everything’ Policy left and formed the Women’s Total Abstinence Union (WTAU) which continued to do much of the same work as the BWTA but with a focus on temperance. The BWTA was newly re-named as the National British Women’s Temperance Association (NBWTA) and continued under Lady Henry’s leadership. 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 publicly, 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.

The NBWTA and Lady Henry Somerset

Following the 1893 split the newly re-named NBWTA retained many of the women who were the public faces of the women’s temperance movement. These women were often involved in multiple campaigns or movements. They were highly passionate – none more so than Lady Henry Somerset.

Lady Henry soon made her voice heard. She was extremely enthusiastic about all sorts of causes and new departments for NBWTA sprang up including promoting rational dress, campaigning against vivisection and even for the provision of flowers to girls working in factories. The NBWTA were often reported on in the national newspapers, promoting their cause.

Homes for Preventative and Rescue work

Towards the end of the 19th century under the auspices of the Association, various homes were maintained for preventative and rescue work of women, including St Mary’s Reigate, Surrey which had been founded in 1884 by Lady Henry Somerset (President 1890-1903) as an Industrial Home for girls. Among these homes were also Alpha House established in North London and Grove Retreat, of the affiliated Manchester and Salford Christian Women’s Temperance Association with links to the Police Court Mission. Duxhurst Inebriate Farm (click HERE) was later to be opened by Lady Henry in 1896.

Local Option and Brewster Sessions

The BWTA wholeheartedly supported attempts to get Local Option on the Statute Books – the power given to the electorate of a particular district to choose whether licences for the sale of intoxicating liquor should be granted or not. They did all in their power to educate and win public opinion as to its undesirability including meetings, lobbying of Members of Parliament, and writing letters to influential people.

Throughout the country members diligently attended what used to be called ‘Brewster Sessions’, when existing licences had to be renewed and applications for new ones were made. These women sat in court wearing their White Ribbon badges to demonstrate their opposition. They would also address the magistrates and sometimes had a strong case with a good number of applications refused or conditions imposed.

Prior to the advent of the Second World War there was intense activity at Brewster sessions with many branches represented in a number of courts, and strong opposition was put up to the granting of new Licences. In some cases, the members went into the witness box to give evidence as to why they thought the licence in question should not be granted.

World Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and Frances Willard

Lady Henry had a great friendship with Frances Willard (click HERE), who was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the American counterpart of the NBWTA. Willard also presided over the World Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WWCTU) and Lady Henry was vice-president.

Controversary lay ahead as Willard attracted criticism that spread to Lady Henry and the NBWTA. This involved Willard’s clashes with a US civil rights campaigner, Ida B Wells at a time when there was racial injustice in America, segregation and lynching. Florence Balgarnie who was involved with both the NBWTA and Fraternity, a British anti-segregation society and newspaper put pressure on the NBWTA to condemn lynching and segregation. Whilst Willard was staying with Lady Henry, they both publicly condemned lynching at a meeting and spoke in favour of more equality.

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