The temperance movement was a constant presence in most North American communities during the 19th century.
Wellington County was no exception. The course and progress of the movement here paralleled what was happening elsewhere.
Temperance organizations were among the first social groups formed in Wellington’s communities. They first appeared in the 1840s and rapidly grew in numbers of chapters and membership in the 1850s. Their goal in those early decades was to convince people to reduce their consumption of liquor, and ideally, to swear off booze altogether.
The pioneering organizations, such as the Sons of Temperance and the Good Templars, had chapters in most of the villages and towns of Wellington by 1860. Several towns had two or even three temperance groups.
Most of those organizations welcomed men and women, unlike other social and church groups of the period. As well as their stated mission, they provided respectable surroundings for men and women to socialize. That helped their success.
As the 19th century progressed, the temperance groups became increasingly strident. Rather than persuasion, they began to favour legislation to outlaw the making and sale of liquor, and their focus was directed at hotels and barrooms as places destructive to society and to families.
Those groups began to pressure municipal governments to schedule referenda on the sale of liquor in the 1870s. By the 1880s, they occasionally achieved success. Indeed, Wellington’s voters brought in county-wide prohibition in the 1880s by a popular vote. Enforcement proved to be a total failure, and three years later Wellington’s voters brought back the bottle and the barroom.
The anti-liquor forces and their newer organizations, such as the Anti-Saloon League, the Prohibitory League, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, displayed an admirable degree of determination and single-mindedness.
Despite setbacks, they continued to labour on, pushing whatever restrictions they could manage to bring to provincial laws and local bylaws.
One of their successes in the 1890s was the closing of barrooms at 7pm on Saturdays. That was the traditional night for farmers to go into town to shop and socialize.
The argument in favour of the early closing was that people would get a good sleep on Saturday night rather than drink, and so be fully alert for the sermon in church the following morning.
As might be expected, the early closing on Saturday was popular with neither the public nor with hotel owners. Saturday night was by far the busiest night of the week for bars. Farmers were no happier. It was their night to socialize after a week of hard work in field and stable.
Not surprisingly, violations of the early closing law were widespread, and in some localities, universal.
Temperance advocates were outraged that local officials and especially the county liquor inspectors, seemed to be disinterested in enforcing the law. Privately, hotel owners said they would be fools to close when others in the same town remained open. And merchants feared that a strict enforcement of the law in one town would merely drive their customers to another town with a more flexible attitude to the law.
The major provincial temperance groups retaliated by hiring spotters and informers who would travel around the province, attempting to trap hotel keepers into breaking the law. They would then lay a complaint with the county liquor inspector, who was obligated to lay charges.
In the fall of 1897, a couple of spotters worked their way around Wellington County. One of them, giving his name as Langley, was the busiest. On the evening of Saturday, Sept. 4, he strolled up to the bar in each of Mount Forest’s four hotels after the legal closing hour. He ordered a glass of porter at each one, which the bartender obligingly served. Langley charged all of them with selling liquor outside the legal hours.
Langley contacted the county’s liquor inspector, John McDonald, of Elora, and on Sept. 14 Jim Roberts, D.L. Kenney, L. Galbraith, and D.J. McKinney appeared before Police Magistrate Macgregor in Mount Forest. A lawyer from Fergus handled the prosecution, and A.S. Clarke, of Mount Forest, argued for the defence.
Langley was the only witness brought forward by the prosecution. His claims were contested by Clarke, who put Langley through an intense cross-examination, trying to get the witness to contradict himself.
Langley was vague about his origins, admitted that he had no fixed abode, and would not say where he was staying in Mount Forest or what he did for a living. The defence used those admissions to characterize Langley as a dissolute and unreliable character.
Clarke managed to get Langley to admit that he did not have a watch, and did not see a clock in Galbraith’s hotel.
Macgregor dismissed the charge against Galbraith because there could be no determination of the time. Clarke continued with his vociferous defence of the other three, which had to be continued the following day. After a brief consideration, Macgregor found Kenney, Roberts, and McKinney guilty, and fined each $20 and costs, the minimum for the offence.
Langley, who sometimes gave his name as Langlow, moved on to new challenges in Harriston and Palmerston, securing convictions against hotel owners there for violations of the 7pm law. Between Sept. 13 and 20 he was active in West Garafraxa Township.
West Garafraxa had voted itself dry under the Scott Act, a provincial law that prohibited liquor sales after a majority vote in a referendum.
Despite the dry status of the township, Langley had been able to purchase schooners of beer at both the Belwood hotels, operated by Jim Murdock and Cyrus Sargent.
The trial generated much interest, and was heard in Salem in front of a bench full of magistrates: James Gladstone and John Wissler of Salem, Thomas Marshall of Pilkington, and Hugh McDonald, of Belwood.
Hotel keepers, by this time, had decided to put up a vociferous defence when charged, instead of the meek postures they had previously taken when charged with offenses. Their provincial organization engaged a lawyer named Haverson who would travel the province to defend members who were charged.
Haverson opened the Salem session with guns blazing. The prosecution had only the evidence of Langley. Haverson advised Langley that, under the Scott Act, he was as guilty in asking for a drink as the defendants were in serving them, and that if he testified he would be prosecuted along with Murdock and Sargent.
Langley decided that his safest course was to offer no evidence. The four magistrates quickly dismissed the case. Langley appears to have moved on to greener pastures after that case.
“Whiskey informers,” as they were called, were not popular people. The general opinion was that they were underhanded and unsporting in their operations. Many of those who supported temperance had contempt for them, and they rarely were able to find local people to back up their evidence in court cases.
No one seems to have tried to determine who Langley (if that was really his name) was, where he came from, or who he was working for.
The charges he laid were widely reported in local papers, so his usefulness to the temperance cause was limited when bar keepers became wary of strangers.
Other informers popped up from time to time during this period, but none seems to have lingered in the area as long as Langley, who was here for at least six weeks. Hiring men such as him was an expensive way for the temperance organizations to push for the enforcement of the law.