‘The demoralising tendency of spirit shops’ and the case for impartial administration

Many of the material improvements undertaken in Birmingham during the first half of the nineteenth century came about as a result of public demand. This was particularly evident in the actions of the Street Commissioners: the markets, Town Hall and road improvements were all provoked by public complaint, evident in memorials and petitions to the Commissioners. Birmingham’s Street Commissioners often come across as a more conservative administrative body, in contrast to the town council.  They undertook the duties of public servants, raising the necessary funds and permissions to alter the town for the accommodation of a growing urban community. It is very rare to find disputes over broader social issues within the Commissioner’s minute books. Certainly not with the regularity or passion evident in those of the Town Council.

The neutral stance of the Commissioners was something that its board members placed a value on. This is evident in their response to a memorial presented in September, 1833 by the Temperance Society. Significant improvement projects, such as the expansion of the market area, would involve compulsory purchases of nearby land and properties. To recoup some of the expenditure, any land or properties not utilised would be sold by public auction once the works were completed. The 1833 memorial expressed grave concerns over a notice produced in Aris’s Gazette, in which the Commissioners advised of the upcoming sale of a property ‘lately erected by the Commissioners at the corner of the New Market’. The property was a public house ‘fully licensed for the sale of ardent spirits’. Whilst the memorialists (some of whom were Commissioners) expressed appreciation for the ‘laudably anxiety of the Commissioners to obtain for the public as much as possible’, they were nevertheless ‘apprehensive that they (the Commissioners) have not fully considered the demoralising tendency of spirit shops’.  In response the Commissioners resolved that they could not justify ‘so great a sacrifice as would be occasioned by the abandonment of the license…more especially when connected with the fact that, out of six public houses purchased by the Commissioners in preparing for the Market, two only, including that now under discussion, have been retained by them.’. The auction went ahead and, in this instance, fiscal prudence trumped public moral opinion.

The dispute rumbled on and in a letter to the editor of Aris’s Gazette of September 16th, 1833, an anonymous ‘Commissioner’ argued the corner of the board, finishing with a clear indication of the importance attached to their rational neutrality:

When the Commissioners entered into the duties imposed upon them by Act of Parliament, they did not flatter themselves with the hope of pleasing every body. They have been guided by a strict desire to perform their duty conscientiously and impartially; and on this principle they have acted…until they have nearly completed their arrangements for giving to the town of Birmingham a large and commodious Market Hall.

Extracts from the minutes of the Birmingham Street Commissioners can be found at the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Library of Birmingham: MS 2818/1/6  copies of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette are available in the Local Studies centre, also at the Library of Birmingham.

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