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British Gothenburg Experiments



Date opened
Average Number of Men Employed
September, 1894
1,200 to 1,500

The Elan Valley experiment, the first of its kind in the United Kingdom, owes both its origin and its success to the practical wisdom of the Waterworks Committee of the Birmingham Corporation. It was established in September, 1894, to meet the requirements of the men employed upon the construction of their new reservoirs near Rhayader. To accommodate the navvies and others employed, the Committee had practically to construct a village some three or four miles from Rhayader, and the supply of liquor at once became an urgent problem. Prohibition was felt to be impracticable, so that the only alternatives open to the Committee were either (1) to let or lease a building to a private publican in the ordinary way ; or (2) to themselves apply for a licence and establish a canteen on their own property. The first of these alternatives, although simpler, was open to grave objection. While the publican, as the tenant of the Committee, would to a large extent have been under their control, it was nevertheless felt that if the house " were run as a trade venture in the interests of the publican, his own interest doubtless would be to promote rather than to restrict the sale of drink." The second alternative was therefore chosen. The Committee accordingly applied for a licence, which was granted subject to certain special terms which the Committee itself suggested. The chief of these conditions was that the canteen should be placed in charge of a manager who should be paid a fixed salary and have no direct or pecuniary interest in the sale of intoxicants. The second main condition related to the hours of sale, the Committee not wishing to open during the whole of the usual public-house hours.

The conditions governing the experiment are, of course, in certain important respects exceptional and more than usually favourable to success. In addition to a certain benevolent despotism which the Committee (unlike a voluntary company, such as the People's Refreshment-House Association) is free to exercise, the works are to a large extent isolated. Rhayader is three or four miles distant, and access to the works, which are situate on the left bank of the river Elan, is completely under the control of the Committee. The only approach for vehicles is by a suspension bridge which the Committee itself constructed, while a narrow footway leading to a footbridge at the other end of the village is the only other means of access. The public have no right of way, and tradesmen from the neighbouring town are only allowed to use the suspension bridge on the express undertaking that they will not introduce intoxicants into the village. Moreover, the bridge-keeper has instructions to examine every cart. It is an interesting fact that so far there has been no shebeening.

The monopoly enjoyed by the Committee is, nevertheless, not quite complete. On the other side of the river, but at a comparatively short distance from the village, is the Elan Hotel, (The distance separating the Elan Hotel from the village canteen is, by way of the suspension bridge, exactly a mile; but from the right-hand end of the village it is little more than half a mile.) a fully licensed house, which is said to be much frequented by the men from the works. (The Secretary of the Waterworks Committee, in his evidence before the Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Laws (July 5th, 1898), estimated that the sum spent by the men at the Elan Hotel, and at the public-houses in Rhayader equalled in amount the takings of the canteen). The licence for this house was applied for when the Birmingham Corporation first began its works, and although the Corporation applied to be heard in opposition to the licence, the magistrates refused to hear its representatives, but granted the licence despite their protest. It is undoubted that the close proximity of this house militates against the complete success of the canteen experiment. As a fully licensed house it does so directly in respect of the sale of spirits. At the canteen itself no spirits are sold, the sales being strictly confined to beer and mineral waters. The sale of the latter is, however, exceedingly small (The Secretary of the Waterworks Committee stated that out of a total week's takings of £104 18s., only 7s. 6d. was derived from the sale of mineral waters). There is no sale of food. It was at first proposed to sell tea, cocoa, and other similar beverages, as well as food, in the canteen, but the idea was relinquished owing to the absence of any demand for them. The selling price of the beer (5d. per quart) is fixed by the market price in the neighbourhood.

Orders to the brewers are sent direct by the Secretary of the Waterworks Committee, who charges the goods at selling prices to the manager of the canteen. Stock is taken each week on specially prepared forms. The canteen manager, according to the Secretary's statement, " quite understands that he is thought no more highly of if his sales are high than if they are low, whereas should there be any disturbance or drunkenness he would be held responsible for it." To ensure the good quality of the beer sold, the Committee has established a system of taking samples of all the beer in the canteen at irregular times without notice to the canteen manager. In response to a private order from the Secretary of the Waterworks Committee, a man attends at the canteen and takes samples. The bottles are then sealed in the presence of the canteen manager and sent to Birmingham, where they are submitted to the examination of a brewing expert.


The management of the canteen is governed by a series of regulations of quite exceptional stringency:

1. No credit is given.

2. Music, games, etc., are strictly prohibited.

3. The hours of sale are severely restricted. The canteen is open on ordinary week-days (i.e. Monday to Friday) from 12.80 p.m. till 2 p.m., and from 5.30 p.m. till 9 p.m. On Saturdays it is open from 1 p.m. till 4.30 p.m., and from 5.30 p.m. till 9 p.m. At first it was kept open continuously on Saturdays from 1 p.m. till 9 p.m., but it was found that there was a tendency on the part of the workpeople to remain too long in the canteen, and so the canteen was closed between 4.30 and 5.30. p.m. It was originally proposed to open the canteen for half an hour in the morning on each week-day, and provision for this was made in the scheme of management sanctioned by the magistrates, but ultimately it was not found necessary to do so. There is no sale on Sunday, the licence being governed in this respect by the Welsh Sunday Closing Act.

4. The quantity of beer to be served to any one customer is strictly limited, the rules providing that no person shall be allowed more than two quarts of beer during the evening for consumption on the premises, nor more than one quart during the dinner-hour. The total quantity which a customer can thus purchase during the day is three quarts. The Secretary states that, in practice, it is found impossible in the rush of business to keep an eye upon every individual customer, and it may sometimes happen that in the " great rushes" of trade this rule is sometimes evaded, but, speaking generally, it is enforced.

In the case of " off" sales the rules provide that " no hut-keeper [i.e. a workman in whose hut from eight to ten other workmen are lodged] shall be supplied with more than 1J gallons of beer in any one evening, nor with more than 2 gallons for the mid-day meal from the jug department, except on Saturday evening, when a hut-keeper may purchase double the quantity." The latter proviso is to cover Sunday consumption, the canteen being closed on that day.

5. It is further provided that " no person who is in the slightest degree intoxicated shall be supplied with drink on any pretence whatever." This rule is said to be enforced absolutely and without regard to the quantity of beer which a man may have had.

6. Women are not allowed to enter the bar, but are strictly confined to the jug department, where only "off" sales are made. The total number of women in the village is not more than from 120 to 150.

7. An " age limit" is imposed both for " on " and " off" sales. In the case of the former the rules provide that only men above the age of eighteen shall be allowed to enter the bar; and in interpreting this rule the management " leans to the side of strictness rather than to the side of laxity." In respect of "off" sales the rules provide that no boy under the age of sixteen, nor any woman under the age of twenty-one, is to be served with beer or porter in the jug department.


As already pointed out, no music, games, or other attractions are allowed in the canteen; but a public hall or recreation-room has been built near to, but entirely separate from, the canteen, and there newspapers, magazines, games, and amusements of various kinds are provided. A supply of non-intoxicating drinks was also formerly on sale there, but the demand for them was apparently not great. This room is said to be " a great success " and " tends to minimise the drinking in the saloon." The Secretary of the Waterworks Committee, in his evidence before the Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Laws, stated he knew that "in many individual cases men who had been addicted to drink, having had the means provided them of spending their evenings in a more rational way, had been kept away from the drink."


On its financial side the experiment has been an unquestionable success, and is said to make " a very considerable profit." For the three and a half years ending March 31s,t, 1898, the gross profits amounted to £5,450, and the net profits to £3,262. The ratio of net profit on takings was 22 per cent. This latter figure is noteworthy in view of the heavy cost of carriage and the further fact that an eighth part of the total capital outlay is annually written off the profits. The average percentage of profit on capital invested was slightly over 93 per cent, per annum. These surplus profits are devoted to the maintenance (wholly or in part), of the various village institutions, of which the chief are the day school, the public rooms (including the free library, reading-room, and recreation-room), and the hospital.


In its general results the experiment has certainly justified the policy of the Committee. There has been very little disturbance, and only on one occasion, or at most on two, has the management had to have recourse to the power which it reserves to itself of closing the canteen. " Very shortly after the house was opened," said the Secretary of the Waterworks Committee in his evidence before the Eoyal Commission, " we had to close it on one night. Our people had not then been got to realise the lines on which it was intended the public-house should be conducted, and they began to comport themselves as one would suppose they would do in an ordinary public-house. We immediately cleared them out and closed it. Since then we have had no trouble."

There have been cases of drunkenness, but these have been comparatively few, and in general orderliness and sobriety the settlement is said to compare " extremely well" with similar settlements in other places. The Chief Constable of the county, writing in October, 1896 (two years after the opening of the canteen), said:

" Drunkenness in the Elan village is undoubtedly suppressed through the stringent rules and measures adopted by the canteen; and, further, I have no hesitation in saying that it is attributable to those regulations."

In June, 1898, he wrote again as follows: "Drunkenness has slightly increased in the village; I do not, however, think it is attributable to any bad management of the canteen. I still adhere to my former opinion expressed in my letter to you, dated October 5th, 1896."

The slight increase in drunkenness referred to (of which the letter quoted above was the first intimation received by the Committee) may or may not have been attributable to the canteen. The probability is that it was not, for it happened to coincide with an actual falling off in the takings of the canteen.

It is interesting, finally, to notice that while the rules and regulations of the canteen have been altered slightly from time to time according to circumstances, such changes have always brought the management more and more within the original conditions laid down when the Corporation first applied for the licence.


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