Spirited away

When you’re stocking up on your New Year tipple spare a thought for wartime factory workers who were denied theirs

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Liverpool suffered a lot of indignities during the Second World War. It was the second most heavily bombed city in Britain after London because of its strategic importance.

The docks were the main target. They were the gateway to America and staging area for the Battle of the Atlantic, key to keeping the country fed and stocked with essentials. But also lurking out in the northern suburbs were the Royal Ordnance Factories of Kirkby and Fazakerly.

Fazakerly was quite small but Kirkby was a huge operation, peaking at 20,000 workers and producing one in ten of all the country’s bombs. The nearby presence of Kirkby also subjected the whole of Liverpool to one additional and unnecessary indignity – watered-down whisky.

It was the enthusiastic temperance man David Lloyd George who forced the watered whisky on Liverpool, as well as becoming the man who banned buying rounds in pubs. He had been trying to get his hands on the ability to prevent the nation drinking since the First World War, when he once said: “We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink; and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink.” He even persuaded the King to abstain for the duration of the war.

However, even though he was at first Chancellor of the Exchequer and then later even prime minister, the responsibility for alcohol production and licensing was still kept firmly out of his hands by more drinking-friendly members of the cabinet. The only measure he managed to push through was one which banned “running up a slate”, by buying drink on credit, and a bizarre ban on buying rounds, making it illegal to sell a drink in a pub to anyone except the person who was going to drink it. He was most displeased with the failure of his efforts and when munitions production targets were missed in 1915 he blamed it entirely on drink and not at all on the serious shortages of equipment and trained personnel.

When the Second World War rolled around he was appointed minister for munitions, having left the office of prime minister in 1922, and although he still wasn’t able to get his hands on control of spirit production or licensing in most of the country he was able to put some very strict controls on drinking in anywhere deemed to be a munitions production area.

Beer was one of the few commodities that went unrationed because it was good for morale

Chorley, in which the Royal Ordnance Factory employed over 28,000 people during its wartime peak, was affected, as were the surrounding areas of Preston and probably Blackburn. This, along with most of Liverpool having been declared one of the munitions production areas, meant Lloyd George ruled over a significant part of the North West with his strong temperance convictions.

Pubs under his control were reduced to opening only two or three hours a day. Elsewhere they were valued as community meeting places and beer, although it was made weaker and more expensive than before the war, was one of the few commodities that went completely unrationed, because it was essential for morale. No such luck for Liverpool, and anywhere else declared a munitions production area, but worst of all was what he did to the whisky. Whisky production had already been limited as part of grain rationing and all whisky now had to be bottled at 40 per cent by law, whereas it had previously often been bottled at cask strength. Still, the new strength was respectable enough and mostly stuck after the war, as an industry standard, even. But in the munitions production areas it became illegal to sell spirits at anything more than a measly 28.6 per cent, a mere shadow of their former selves.

The black market boomed. While civilians were being so restricted in their drinking the navy were still enjoying a daily ration, a practice which only ended in 1970. It was known as the rum ration but it was the spirit ration and could actually be given in rum, whisky or brandy – although never in gin, which was kept solely for the officers. To feed the rum ration some cases of whisky had to pass through the Liverpool docks, where a little pilfering was not just possible but expected. Although the authorities did try to crack down to prevent it, taking a little bit of whatever was about from your workplace was regarded by most people as a normal perk of the job. It happened in every factory (although hopefully not the munitions factory), it was endemic on the railways and it was very common on the docks. A small chance of being caught was shrugged off as an occupational hazard and one cooper who was caught stealing rum at the age of 60 said at his trial that it was just, “one of those things which happen now and again”.

Lloyd George was already ageing and had fallen from the highest political position at the beginning of the Second World War and was never able to regain it. But he did remain at work in parliament where, I must admit, he made many significant and important contributions to the nation despite his unfortunate views on drink, until 1944, when ill health forced him to retire to Wales at the age of 81. He died a year later without seeing the end of the war, although he knew victory was certain.

Despite his other successes he was never able to curb British appetites for drink. The one successful law he did get passed was the Immature Spirits Act which prevents anything from being sold as whisky unless it has been cask aged for at least three years. He intended the law to make life more difficult for distillers – three long years to wait before anything they produce could be sold – but the majority of the industry welcomed the measure as one that would keep inferior products off the market and keep the name of Scottish whisky meaningful.

That promise of a minimum standard of ageing has gone on to be one of the reasons Scotch became the byword for good whisky the world over. Instead of holding drinking back, Lloyd George helped Scottish whisky reach its current heights, exporting 99 million cases a year and accounting for a quarter of UK food and drink exports. Sorry David, cheers!

Stockport author Ruth Ball’s Rebellious Spirits: The Illicit History of Booze in Britain (Elliott & Thompson, £14.99) is out now

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