Throughout the nineteenth century, the temperance movement presumed that alcohol rather than abject poverty was the primary cause of working class degradation and crime and believed elimination of the ‘demon drink’ would resolve social problems. This moralistic high-mindedness ignored the miserable reality of working class social conditions and the right of an individual to make their own choice. When the movement failed to bring about working class abstinence, they pushed for a reduction in licensed premises. This prohibition crusade conflicted with the “laissez-faire” politics of Obans ruling middle class. If not to further their own interests, the ruling middle class sanctioned ‘maximum freedom’ in the supply and consumption of alcohol.

Because of deplorable working class housing conditions, tiny cramped two roomed homes that accommodated large families, it was inevitable, the family’s social life spilled onto the streets and into public houses that provided warmth, space and comfort. Thus, the public house became an extension of the family home. Despite the temperance movements endeavours to provide alternate forms of socialisation, the working class remained hostile to change, although functions that catered for children were well attended.

This hostility stemmed from the fact that the land owning aristocracy who controlled the state’s public institutions dominated most aspects of working class lives, the only autonomy the working class had control over was ‘choice’ and that autonomy did not need to be dominated by middle-class do-gooders. Similarly, Obans’ ruling middle class, councillors and magistrates savoured their autonomy. They believed in freedom of choice, irrespective of whether it was the supply of or consumption of alcohol, so long as individuals acted responsibly and played by the rules.

This liberal approach benefited society, for instance, rather than rely on the Parish for Poor Law relief, widows supported themselves and dependents, selling alcohol from a room in their home. Cynics disagreed, the Oban Times printed ‘verily the ways of Oban’s Bailies are past understanding they punish drunkenness and then proceed to increase the facilities for getting drunk’. [1]

Theoretically, the magistrates steadfast refusal to reduce the number of working class public houses arose, in part, from the fact they did not want to be told what to do, in reality, the magistrates believed regulation of public houses would create a market monopoly that exacerbated poverty and not lessen drunkenness. Instead, Oban’s magistrates relied on laws and policing to control the working class ‘drink problem’.

Oban’s magistrates in conjunction with the constabulary regulated the sale and consumption of alcohol. They detested working class pubs conducted in a ‘disorderly manner’. This was the case in April 1879 when, Neil Macdougall, the proprietor of the Bridgend Tavern had his application for renewal of victualler’s licence rejected. However, Macdougall’s appeal was successful once his solicitor pointed out that: during 1878, only two out of the twenty-eight cases of breach of peace documented in the police log were associated with the Bridgend Tavern.

But, proprietors were powerless to control the inebriated working class after last drinks at 11pm when they spilled out onto the streets and continued their drunken squabbles in the public sphere.

JOHN SLAP MRS MACINTYREArguably, John Macdougall’s threat to “spilt up the head of the town’s bellman” was fuelled by more than ale and whiskey. In April 1879, Oban town council appointed Duncan Macphail as the new town crier or bellman. Perhaps John’s father Colin, a Burgh lamplighter, had been passed over for Macphail. Amongst the working class the position of town crier would have been perceived as upward social mobility, in these circumstances, it is understandable John felt his family’s reputation had been blighted.[2]

On the other hand, the threat against Macphail and the assault of Mrs Macintyre, also known as Margaret Buchan widow of slater John Macintyre and mother of John’s only son, might be related.

Nonetheless, Oban’s magistrates were determined to stamp out civil misdemeanours caused by alcohol and while ‘ruffians’ who provoked drunken brawls paid their dues, recidivists served a period of abstinence in Inveraray Jail.

Because Oban was a small town, the magistrates understood the local habits and personalities of people who appeared before them. Consequently, justice was dispensed, which kept the ‘ruffian’s in check and victuallers in business. More importantly, individuals had the freedom to choose whether to act responsibly.

[1] Oban Times, 25 October, 1879

[2] In August 1861 fishermen Duncan Macphail and Colin Macdougall, elected to spend fifteen days in Inveraray Jail rather than pay £5 for contravention of the Herring Fishing Act 1860.