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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Temperance hard-liners failed; social group had success

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.


(This is the second part of a five-part series on the Temperance Movement in Elora and vicinity.)

After the burst of temperance activity in Elora in the early 1850s, the anti-alcohol forces laid low for several years. These cycles of enthusiasm always characterized the temperance movement, and it is not always possible to account for them.

The Elora chapter of the America-based Sons of Temperance and Daughters of Temperance faded away in the late 1850s. This organization took an extreme position, advocating a total ban on the manufacture and sale of alcohol.

Such a position was premature in a pioneer town like Elora. Some people viewed the Sons as a threat to the well-being of the village, which depended on the liquor industry. The booze business supported two distilleries and a brewery in Elora, another brewery in Salem, and dozens of farmers who supplied them with grain.

The more moderate temperance groups, such as the Elora Friendly Society, did not fare very well either, largely because they were never able to articulate any goals or aims.

Nevertheless, the “soft sell” approach was revived in 1861 with the founding of the Elora Temperance Association and Improvement Society.

This group initially held weekly meetings, and at the end of its first year had a membership of 50 (in a village with a population of about 1,100).

Its supporters were drawn from the middle ranks of Elora’s population and it was not dominated by the wealthier businessmen and merchants who controlled all other organizations in the village. The directors included John Wilkinson, who operated a small tailoring shop, and William Stafford and Charles Scott, both self-employed tradesmen in the construction business.

In its second year, the Elora Temperance Association began to encounter the persistent problem of temperance groups: waning enthusiasm. Meetings were reduced to four per year, and the group brought in high-profile speakers to attract crowds. It also held debates on subjects such as, “What is more useful to mankind, the horse or the cow?”

Despite its best efforts, the Temperance Association passed into history within a couple of years.

Public drunkenness and flagrant abuses of liquor laws reached their peak in Elora during the early 1860s. It is surprising that a public backlash did not occur.

For example, Elora’s hotels routinely opened on Sundays. There were frequent brawls and fights, and at least two deaths at the Commercial Hotel resulted from excessive drinking. An enterprising Tom Purvis picked up extra money when local publicans hired him to take drunks home in a wagon at the close of each day’s business.

Licensing of hotels and stores selling liquor was a municipal responsibility after Elora became a village in 1858. The licence fees supplied a considerable portion of the village’s revenue -  22% in 1862. There was a reluctance by both council and the public to disturb this reliable source of revenue.

Elora’s most vocal temperance advocate, harnessmaker Andrew Gordon, never played a major role in any of the temperance organizations. Andy wanted immediate action and results. He personally laid charges against local violators of liquor laws, and occasionally secured a conviction. He scored a major point when he successfully prosecuted Edwin Newman for selling liquor in his store without a licence; Edwin’s partner in the business, Walter Newman, was also the licence inspector.

It was never easy to secure a conviction. When the cases were brought to court, all the witnesses disappeared.

Organized temperance achieved a measure of stability in 1865, when the International Order of Good Templars organized an Elora chapter, assisted by members of the village’s fledgling Baptist church. The Elora chapter, known as the Lifeboat Temple, shunned the strong rhetoric of the parent body.

In effect, the Lifeboat Temple succeeded because it was a social group. This was the first organization in Elora to have both men and women in positions of equality on its executive; in 1873 half its officers were women.

The bulk of its membership was under 30 years of age and it drew members from a wide cross-section of the village. The Lifeboat Temple provided a respectable place for men and women to socialize. Temperance talk became incidental to its other activities: discussions, table games and teas.

The Lifeboat Temple rented or borrowed a room for its meetings until 1874, when member Gavin Middleton provided the group with much of the second floor of his new building at Geddes and Moir Streets (the Toronto-Dominion Bank is now on this site.)

For major events, the Lifeboat Temple rented the Drill Shed (now the LCBO store). Here they held socials and teas, and staged games of carpet croquet, a tamed-down version of the more robust outdoor game.

In 1872, the Good Templars had organized a second chapter in Elora, the Fountain Temple. This group attracted a more militant group of people (Andy Gordon and several members of his family became members), and the average age of its members was older than that of the Lifeboat Temple.

The Fountain Temple sought total prohibition of the liquor trade, and held regular rallies at the Elora Drill Shed. The members saw their mission as helping the weak and educating the public. Their meetings fit the popular stereotypes of temperance gatherings: readings and poems, passionate speeches, often by ministers, and songs such as “Down With The Traffic” and “Driven From Home.”

Although the Fountain Temple built up a large membership very quickly, most who joined did so at the conclusion of a rally. These people had no real commitment to the organization, and within two years the Fountain Temple was in trouble. It surrendered its charter in the fall of 1874. The new club rooms of the Lifeboat Temple, opened six months before, had been the final blow. Many members deserted in favour of the low-key approach to the liquor question taken by the Lifeboat Temple.

John Smith, editor of the Elora Observer, commented frequently on the liquor question during the 1870s. Like many men of his time, he was of two minds on the question: he supported moderate temperance groups, but more than once was seen being carried out of a barroom when his own legs failed him.

Smith believed the loudest zealots were the most recent converts, and that they did the movement more harm than good. He argued that efforts to use the law to restrict alcohol were misguided, and would result in widespread evasion and general disrespect for the law. He consistently argued that moderate temperance groups, such as the Lifeboat Temple, did much good by reclaiming drunkards, training youth, and setting an example.

At the same time, temperance advocates took increasingly hard-line positions during the 1870s.

One professional temperance lecturer who spoke in Elora in 1872 argued that temperance was very much the business of government: because the purpose of government was to provide the greatest good to the greatest number, it followed that governments should ban the sale of alcohol.

The mind-your-own-business school-of-thought on the liquor question, he claimed, was composed chiefly of drunkards.

By 1875, the drinking habits that had characterized the village in the early 1860s had changed dramatically. The hotels were generally quiet places, and public drunkenness had become less common and much less acceptable by the community. This occurred during a period when the temperance movement in the village was weak, and seldom aggressive in pushing its cause.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 18, 1994.


Vol 50 Issue 41


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