Prohibition began in Wellington County in 1885

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

Last week’s column described the activities of the International Order of Good Templars, and the two chapters this organization supported in Elora during the 1870s.

While the low-key approach of Elora’s Good Templars may have helped reduce alcohol consumption in the village, there were other forces at work.

Canadian whiskey began its long decline in popularity during the 1870s. Whiskey consumption declined about 2% each year, while beer and malt liquor rose in popularity. As well, the distilling industry became concentrated in a half-dozen companies. Two were huge; Gooderham and Worts in Toronto and Hiram Walker in Windsor accounted for almost 40% of Ontario production.

The small distilleries like those in Elora could no longer compete, particularly on quality. As a result, people no longer saw distilling as a central part of local economies.

In a general sense, though, many believed that the alcohol industry was good for the country; through the excise tax, it provided two-thirds of the federal government’s internal revenue in the 1870s — a time when there was no such thing as personal income tax.

The 1870s also saw a shift toward greater government regulation. One of the first acts of the new federal government in late 1867 was to revise the excise tax on alcohol upwards. It took a couple of years before problems with collection and enforcement were ironed out, but the tax soon provided a steady stream of revenue, and whiskey was no longer a cheap beverage.

There were also new provincial regulations on hotels. In 1876, the number of hotels was fixed at one for every 250 people in a municipality up to 1,000 in population, and one per 400 over that figure. Tavern shop licences fees were a minimum of $60, more at the option of the municipality. Tavern-keepers had to post a $200 bond, and there was a tightening of various other rules.

As a result of the new law, Elora was forced to reduce the number of hotels in the village from six to five, and it fixed the licence fee at $80, a considerable sum at a time when many working men earned $7 or $8 per week.

By the mid-1870s, new and more militant temperance organizations appeared. 

The Ontario Prohibitory League was the most important in this area. This organization’s local chapter, the County of Wellington Prohibitory League, left no doubt that it sought the total abolition of the liquor business. It also sought to appropriate less militant groups such as the Good Templars by “co-ordinating all temperance efforts in the county.”

The Good Templars in Elora and elsewhere, and a few surviving chapters of the Sons of Temperance, had no desire to be co-ordinated by anyone. The Wellington Prohibitory League began working through Protestant ministers.

In 1876, the Wellington Prohibitory League circulated a petition for a liquor vote in the county. Under the Dunkin Act of 1864, any municipality could prohibit alcohol. The league secured more than 6,000 signatures, most from Guelph and Puslinch townships.

Support in Elora was thin: only 23 names, despite the fact that Elora photographer Thomas Connon was the vice-president of the league, and local Protestant ministers favoured the petition. Surprisingly, 328 Fergus names were on the petition, 65% of them women.

As a counter-measure, tavern owners circulated their own petition, and got 2,200 names. They argued that intemperance resulted from unlicensed and poorly-run taverns, and that temperance infringed on personal rights and trade.

County council, seeking to avoid an ugly plebiscite campaign, took no action on the league’s petition. The league did not give up. The following year it repeated its petition, and although it obtained only 2,000 names this time, county council agreed to have a prohibition vote in November of 1877.

There was a public meeting and debate in Elora’s Drill Shed, and the village’s Protestant ministers preached sermons in favour of the Dunkin Act. After almost two years of campaigning by the League, the public was tired of the issue, and the campaign was largely uneventful, and the turnout small.

Elora voted 147-48 against prohibition, and Fergus 210-44 against. The dry vote in Nichol and Pilkington was slightly larger. Surprisingly, the strongest dry vote was in Peel and Maryborough, where taverns were boisterous and illegal stills plentiful. County-wide, the league lost badly. The final vote was 5,664 to 3,519 against the Dunkin Act.

Although they lost the vote, league members continued their activity against taverns. In the late 1870s, they secured convictions against a number of hotels for serving liquor after hours and on Sundays. Those fined included Tom Biggar, of the Commercial, and Ephraim Land, of the American House in Elora, and George Fladd, of Salem. Fladd stated he had no intention of closing on Sunday because that was his busiest day.

After their strenuous efforts in the 1876-78 period, local temperance workers laid low for several years, but by 1884 the temperance movement was back with a vengeance.

There were two new organized groups, the Royal Templars of Temperance and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, both of which organized Elora chapters in 1884. These groups combined with other temperance workers to push for another liquor vote.

In 1878, the federal government passed the Canada Temperance Act, better known as the Scott Act. This required municipalities to hold a liquor vote if 25% of the voters signed a petition, and the results were binding. Temperance workers organized committees in each village and township in the county, and held a number of rallies to keep the liquor issue in the public eye. They raised a furore in July 1884 when they planned a major rally in Fergus, but were refused rooms in all Fergus hotels.

There were sufficient names on the petition by the end of 1884 for another vote, which was held in 1885. This time, the dry forces triumphed, carrying the county with a majority of 1,430 votes. They lost only in Arthur, Arthur township and Elora.

As of May 1, 1886, liquor could no longer be sold in Wellington county.

Immediately, the tavern owners began lining up to have their assessments lowered. Frank Dalby, of the Dalby House, stated that the Scott Act reduced the value of hotels by 50%. There was little inclination among drinkers to obey the law, and many of the taverns found ways to sell liquor discreetly. Temperance advocates became increasingly strident in their complaints about ineffective enforcement.

No one was happy with prohibition in Wellington.

In 1888, the tavern owners organized and began their own petition for another liquor vote, which was held in April 1889.

To many, it was clear that prohibition had been a failure because it was unenforceable. On the other side, temperance advocates caused themselves harm by their name calling and increasingly extreme positions. They began calling for the total and complete suppression of the liquor trade across the whole country.

By a majority of 1,860, Wellington county voted to repeal the Scott Act. After three years, liquor could again be sold in the county. Wellington was not alone in reversing itself.

Between 1882 and 1885, 27 counties in Ontario voted themselves dry. All later reversed that decision.

Following the complete failure of local-option measures in the 1880s, temperance forces turned their sights on the provincial and federal governments.

Reluctant to take immediate action, the federal government appointed a Royal Commission in 1891 to gather facts on the liquor question. It did not issue its report until 1895. It consisted of almost 6,000 pages of testimony in seven large volumes.

Under constant pressure, the provincial government held a non-binding plebiscite on the liquor question early in 1894. Province-wide, Ontario voted 63.5% in favour of prohibition, but the provincial government was reluctant to act because the turnout of less than 60% cast the results into doubt. Wellington voted 65% in favour of ending liquor sales, but the turnout was only 58%.

The vote was based on property ownership. Therefore, a number of women were eligible to vote — about 8% of the votes cast. Women voted strongly in favour of prohibition — about 85% province-wide.

The point was lost neither on temperance workers nor the general public. For the next two decades, women’s voting rights and the temperance movement became intermingled, and many activists were involved in both movements.

In the 1894 vote, Elora’s men voted 99-92 in favour of liquor, but the women’s vote resulted in a 15-vote majority for the dry side. The pro-liquor forces were strongest in Elora. But Fergus, which had rejected prohibition strongly in 1877, supported the measure this time by a vote of 208-78.

It is difficult to account for the lack of interest by so many people in voting on the liquor question. Undoubtedly, the temperance movement was more skilled and organized in getting its supporters to the polls.

We do not know what was in the minds of those who did not vote. They may have been undecided or indifferent, or they may have been sick of hearing endless talk on the issue.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Jan. 25, 1994.


Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015