Temperance worker T.E. Bissell found success in 1900s

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 fourth installment of a five-part series on the Temperance Movement in Elora and vicinity.)

The 1894 Ontario plebiscite on prohibition brought the liquor question into the centre of the political arena, where it remained for the next three decades.

Candidates for office at all levels were pressed into declaring their position on liquor, and temperance groups kept up their pressure for restrictive legislation and more plebiscites.

The shifting of temperance from a moral question to a political issue undermined the autonomy and independence of local temperance groups.

Policies and actions in the 1890s and after tended to be formulated by professional temperance workers and full-time agitators. These people became skilled at political organization.

By the 1890s, the Ontario temperance movement was dominated by the Dominion Alliance, which had a highly-organized structure with councils at the national, provincial and county levels, and local secretaries at the bottom level. The Alliance sought to coordinate all temperance work and organizations, with a great deal of success.

To spread its message, the Dominion Alliance published a newspaper, The Pioneer. At its peak, the paper had a circulation of about 25,000, a respectable number, but nevertheless a tiny figure as a proportion of the population of the country. There is little doubt that the temperance movement was sustained by a small group of zealots.

Under pressure from the Dominion Alliance, and following the 1896 Royal Commission report on the liquor question, the federal government held a plebiscite on prohibition in 1898.

As with the Ontario vote in 1894, the results were inconclusive. Quebec voted wet, and the rest of the country dry by a small majority. Viewing the issue as divisive, and fearing the problems with trying to enforce a temperance act, the Laurier government took no action.

Meanwhile, drinking habits continued to change. Hotels in Elora, Fergus and Salem became less lucrative. By 1898, Elora had only three hotels, two fewer than the five allowed under provincial law.

Salem had dropped from five to two, and in Fergus only four were still in business. The town once had eight taverns.

Beer continued to rise in popularity. Canadian per-capita consumption of beer rose 50% between 1885 and 1895, while whiskey consumption declined 11% in the same period.

There was also a price differential. Whiskey sold for 10 cents per glass of two or three ounces, while a big pint schooner of beer cost only five cents. In addition to tavern consumption, beer had become a popular household beverage, sometimes consumed with meals.

The two Salem breweries shared fully in the boom in beer. Their wagons delivered it to houses in the area in small barrels or quart bottles.

Stricter provincial standards for hotels forced many publicans out of the business. Many simply couldn’t afford to make the necessary health and safety improvements to their establishments.

Profits suffered further in 1899 when hours of operation were shortened. Hotels had to be closed by 11pm on weekdays and at 7pm on Saturdays, so their customers could go home for a good night’s sleep so that they would be alert and attentive at church the next morning.

The Ontario government scheduled another prohibition vote for December 1902.

Sign up – The various temperance groups active in Centre Wellington and elsewhere in Ontario expended a great deal of effort getting people to sign pledge cards. This is one of the fancier ones, measuring five by nine inches and printed in colour, and it dates back to 1904. The pastoral scene and religious message stress the moral vision of the temperance movement. Millions of cards such as these were signed over the years, but very few seem to have survived. Do any readers have others in their possession?
Wellington County Museum & Archives A1987.33

The dry campaign in Elora was headed by T.E. Bissell, who had recently brought his farm-implement firm to the village. For the rest of his life, Bissell would take charge of the dry forces in the village.

High-profile men such as Bissell were often reluctant to take a strong stand on the question. This was particularly the case with storekeepers. Anything they might say on the liquor question was certain to offend someone, and consequently could hurt business.

Bissell’s 1902 campaign centred on a large rally, which packed the Armoury Hall. He would be mortified to know that the building now houses the liquor store.

For the first time in the history of the village, Elora voted dry by a large majority. As a whole, the province voted in favour of prohibition, but the government remained reluctant to come forward with legislation.

After the 1902 vote, Bissell continued his prohibition efforts by organizing the Committee on Temperance and Moral Reform. He petitioned council to outlaw pool rooms and force sellers of tobacco to obtain special licenses, and continued agitation for a vote in the village on the local option.

T.E. Bissell represented a new wave of temperance workers. He viewed the prohibition of liquor as a material and moral advance of civilization, and linked it to a whole range of other progressive measures, such as municipal water and sewer services, publicly-owned electric light and utilities, public health, and government regulation and inspection of food and drugs, and voting rights for women.

This was a much more comprehensive social vision than that of temperance workers of previous generations, and one that saw a far greater role for government in the daily lives of everyone.

This was one of the liveliest liquor campaigns in the long history of plebiscites. For the first time, there was a well-organized wet committee. The final totals were much closer than in the 1902 vote: 154 yes, 152 no.

Although the dry side won the vote by a majority of two, it failed to gain the approval of a majority of the ratepayers on the voters’ list.

Elsewhere, local option votes were successful. Nichol township, for example, voted itself dry in 1913.

After years of agitation, the provincial government brought in prohibition in Sept. 1916 as a temporary wartime measure.

The measure was made permanent by a referendum in 1919, and yet another vote in 1921 strengthened the legislation by outlawing the importation of liquor into Ontario.

In the 1921 vote, Elora declared itself overwhelmingly on the dry side, with a vote of 354-147. The majority was even larger in Fergus.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Feb. 1, 1994.

Stephen Thorning