Local anti-prohibitionists fought back in the 1920s

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 final installment of a five-part series on the temperance movement in Elora and vicinity.)

Most historians would agree the temperance movement in Ontario reached its peak between 1916 and 1919.

After a battle lasting 70 years, prohibition had come to the province. In the process, temperance workers had developed the prototype for single-issue pressure groups, and had honed the tactics to shame and intimidate their opponents into silence. The post-1900 Ontario temperance movement was very much a centralized crusade, in large part dominated by one man, Ben Spence, whose qualities of vanity and single-mindedness eventually caused rifts in the movement. Both Elora and Fergus, on the evidence of the results of liquor votes, became strongholds of prohibition sentiment in the first two decades of this century.

Surprisingly, local temperance groups seem to have become weak during this period. Elora’s Royal Templars struggled through the 1890s, and do not seem to have survived into the 20th century. Only the Women’s Christian Temperance Union maintained any sort of public profile.

It is difficult to account for the dramatic change in local sentiments, when local temperance groups no longer acted as a major factor in guiding public opinion. Propaganda from Spence’s Dominion Alliance may have had some influence, and the vehement anti-liquor stances of local businessmen such as T.E. Bissell in Elora and the Beatty family in Fergus, must also be considered.

Perhaps more important was the rural-urban split that characterized Ontario society at the time. The election of the United Farmers government in 1919 was part of this phenomenon. Many people saw liquor as an urban evil, and temperance people constantly hammered this point, linking liquor (and particularly bar rooms) with unemployment, poverty, family violence, disease, prostitution and even immigration.

One curiosity of Ontario prohibition was that Ontario-made wine was exempt. Prohibitionists made this concession so as not to alienate the farmers’ vote, particularly in grape-growing areas. It was during prohibition that Ontario wine became associated with down-and-out drunks taking long pulls from bottles in paper bags. It took decades for the Ontario wine industry to shake this image. Soon after prohibition came into effect, there was no doubt that enforcement would be no easy matter. Hard-line prohibitionists insisted on a vigorous imposition of the law, but others took a more lenient approach. The United Farmers government was also divided, but the strict enforcers, including premier E.G. Drury, were adamant in attempting to make prohibition successful.

In 1919, the United Farmers had elected a majority government with not a single lawyer. Premier Drury thought it prudent that the attorney-general should be a lawyer, and brought W.E. Rainey into the cabinet.

The member for East Wellington, Albert Hellyer of Arthur, resigned to open a seat for Rainey, who declared that he would make every effort to enforce prohibition. He was elected by acclamation in the by-election in February of 1920. Although there was no contest, Rainey solidified his connections with the temperance movement by holding rallies in Fergus and Elora. The latter was organized by Bissell, the Elora industrialist who had led local temperance forces for two decades.

During his term as Ontario’s attorney-general, Rainey conducted a campaign against liquor that was high profile, controversial and, in the end, unsuccessful.

In the 1923 provincial election, he held his seat by 300 votes over J.J. Craig, of Fergus. Liquor and the enforcement of prohibition dominated the campaign in Elora and Fergus. At a rally in the Fergus Armouries, Rainey debated the issue with Conservative leader Howard Ferguson, who was a moderate on the liquor question.

Rainey was one of only 17 United Farmers to hold his seat, and Ferguson became premier. A year after the election, Ferguson called yet another plebiscite on the liquor issue. This time the question was whether to allow government sale and supervision of alcohol. It was the 10th liquor vote in Elora in 47 years.

In 1924, the sledding was much tougher for prohibitionists. Their own ranks were divided and enforcement was a demonstrable failure. Prohibitionists had raised high expectations, promising an end to crime, poverty and family violence. Their strident rhetoric and name-calling had insulted many people. As well, the opposition had finally become organized, largely around two pressure groups, the Citizens’ Liberty League and the Moderation League.

Prohibitionists had made a major tactical error during the First World War, when they tried to force the army to ban drinking and smoking. Returning veterans were furious to discover that Ontario was dry; they believed they had fought for freedom and personal rights.

The pro-liquor forces united behind the idea of government-controlled sales. Responsible people would be able to get a drink, and government supervision would prevent the excesses that agitated the prohibitionists.

Province-wide, the vote was a virtual tie. Guelph voted wet by a small majority, but the rest of Wellington remained dry, and Centre Wellington vehemently so: 402-179 against government sales in Elora, 794-151 in Fergus, 250-140 in Pilkington, and 506-105 in Nichol. Within two years, Ferguson allowed the sale of beer in Ontario, and rigid prohibition was over. Ferguson called an election in 1926, with the liquor question the major issue, particularly in Wellington County. Conservatives used the slogan, “True temperance, not sham prohibition.” They promised to allow liquor sales by the government under tight controls and regulations, including the local option for municipalities that wished to remain dry. No one advocated wide-open liquor sales.

Due to realignments, Elora was now in the Wellington South riding with Guelph. Bissell, who remained a hard-line total prohibitionist, barely lost the nomination of the combined Liberal, Progressive, and Prohibition Union parties to Sam Carter of Guelph, also a strong prohibitionist.

In the election, Conservative Lincoln Goldie took the seat by a large majority with a pro-liquor platform. Goldie lost in Elora, but only by 10 votes. Clearly, the tide was going out for prohibition, but the issue remained on the political agenda in Wellington County until the Second World War.

The Ontario Temperance Federation guided the campaign during the 1930s. The federation attracted many alienated Liberals who broke with premier Mitch Hepburn, who was a known drinker and soft on the liquor question. At its peak, the OTF had 700 members in North Wellington alone.

Largely on the strength of OTF support, a doctor, J. McQuibban, took North Wellington in 1937 for the Conservatives. A lifelong Liberal, McQuibban had broken with Hepburn on the liquor question. This was the last time in Wellington County that liquor was the major issue, but the “dry vote” continued to be a factor for another two decades. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, with its youth education program, continued to be active even longer.

Although the nature of the arguments changed dramatically over the years, temperance ranked as the leading social and moral question from the 1850s until the 1930s. Temperance organizations invented the political pressure group that has become so familiar. Their workers laboured tirelessly, many in movements other than temperance, for the reform and improvement of society.

Initially, the temperance groups were locally-based societies, sometimes associated with national and international organizations such as the Sons of Temperance. By the 20th century, all the direction came from the top down, with organizations such as the Dominion Alliance and the Ontario Temperance Federation. The ultimate goal of temperance people was the prohibition of all consumption of liquor. Governments disliked intervening on this issue, preferring to hold endless plebiscites in search of a consensus that never materialized.

In the end, prohibition failed because it was unenforceable, it promoted a general disrespect for the law and it failed to make a dent in the social problems that liquor supposedly caused.

Public opinion, like the arguments of temperance people, changed over time. The change had been particularly notable in Fergus and Elora, which, over a period of 40 years, changed from two of the wettest towns in the province to two of the driest.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Feb. 8, 1994.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015