Cambridge Tories and students smash up a debate on prohibition at The Guildhall – preventing Cardinal Manning from speaking. 1880.


In March 1880 an illustrious group of clerics were invited to take part in a meeting titled ‘The Local Option.’ This was a movement calling for local town and city councils to have powers to prohibit the sale and purchase of alcohol. It ended badly.

The context for Cambridge is the pioneering work done by Ellice Hopkins, one of the first Cambridge heroes I wrote about after Florence Ada Keynes introduced her to me in her book ‘Gathering Up The Threads’. Ellice, born into a well-to-do family made it her business to go into the slums of Cambridge and convert the slum dwellers. But – as I describe in this blogpost, she had more than a few stern words to say to the Christian establishment of Cambridge.  The Internet Archive has digitised her book “Working among working men” from the early 1880s and it is an incredible spotlight on the slums of Cambridge – in particular off East Road.

The business owners that owned/ran the pubs and breweries – of which there were many dotted about all over the city, were against the temperance movement. If you look at old maps of Cambridge, you’ll find the equivalent of a brewery for, say, every convenience supermarket we have today.

The context of the article below is to remember that this article has been written in a Liberal-supporting newspaper. We also don’t know who the author is. This was also a time when Cambridge still had problems with rioting undergraduates – something that would not be completely extinguished until after the Second World War. So, just as with the aftermath of the general election in 1885, we hear tales of Conservative activists and undergraduate students buying drinks for local violent drunkards, then setting them upon whichever target took their fancy.

800306 Cambridge Local Option Meeting Guildhall prohibition booze riot


The following is a description of recent cases of rowdyism in Cambridge, from the pen of a Cambridge Graduate, who was present at the Local Option Meeting on the 2nd inst.

“If any young man, with stentorian voice, powerful fists, and deficiency in brains, seeks employment, we would advise him to apply to the Tories and publicans of Cambridge, and he will probably hear of something to his advantage. Cambridge has been supposed, by agreeable fiction, to be a great centre of culture — a home of “sweetness and light” – a “seat of sound learning and religious education.”

“Its inhabitants are generally thought, by those who know nothing about them, to be permeated by the refining influences of its ancient University. In the interests of truth, it becomes necessary to dispel this absurd delusion. The University town is now stamped before the country as the home of that rowdyism which is so well appreciated by the Prime Minister and Lord John Manners. We very much doubt if there is a greater amount of low blackguardism and brainless insolence concentrated within equal space in this or any other country.

“It seems that it is utterly impossible to hold an orderly public meeting in Cambridge on any great political question. The great disturbance in connection with the meeting of the Liberation Society, held in that town five years ago, was much commented on at the time, and is probably still remembered by our readers. The tumult was then caused mainly by the undergraduates, whose riotous conduct was sanctioned and patronised by notable Church dignitaries.

“Forms, chairs, and tables were broken; the distinguished deputation on the platform were pelted with flour-bags by educated young gentlemen, many of whom were, apparently, through their manifestation of sympathy with “Mother Church,” qualifying themselves for holy orders. Three years ago, a Sunday Closing meeting was broken up by an organised gang of half-drunken wretches, led on to the attack by prominent local Tory politicians, some of whom are now adorning the Cambridge Town Council by their presence in that body.

These triumphs, however, were not enough for the Tories and their blackguard followers. Hitherto they had only been able to howl down speakers of second-class celebrity. On the the night of Tuesday, the 2nd instant, their grand opportunity came. The arch-enemy of Bung” was himself advertised to speak on Local Option. Rarely has a more influential. deputation appeared before an audience than that of the 2nd instant. Sir Wilfrid [Sir Wilfrid Lawson – temperance campaigner and Liberal MP in late 1800s] is a host in himself, but on this occasion he was accompanied by Cardinal Manning, the Rev. Basil Wilberforce [grandson of William Wilberforce], and the Rev. S. A. Steinthal, of Manchester. One would have thought that the presence of the venerable and learned dignitary of the Catholic Church would, alone, have secured a respectful attention.

“Cardinal Manning is, habitually, listened to with respect by the inhabitants of the foulest slums of London and Liverpool; but it would appear that the denizens of the University town on the Cam will have to undergo a long process of “education” before they can exhibit like courtesy.

“The saturnalia of rowdyism began long before the speakers made their appearance; for, with great crash, the doors fell down before a huge “Beer and Bible” mob — a medley of undergraduates, publicans, and the scum of the town. It was at once evident that no meeting would be held that night; especially as one or two knots of the (so-called) respectable leaders of the Tory party stood near the platform, with the evident intention of taking it by storm soon as their opportunity came, although it consisted, to large extent, of well dressed ladies and gentlemen of the better class of society. (It should be noted, by the way, that the Cambridge rowdy is no respecter of sex. What matters it whether delicate and fragile women are injured, when the interests of Bung and Jingo are at stake?).

“The chairman (Professor Stuart) was received with loud shouts of derision, as Mr. Hunter Rodwell, M.P., [Conservative – Cambridgeshire seat] the well-known Farmers’ Friend” (?) had been expected to occupy that position. The first two speakers (both clergymen) were listened to with comparative silence; but when Sir Wilfrid Lawson rose, it was evident that a dead set was to be made against him.

“Sir Wilfrid, whose voice was slightly affected, struggled on manfully for a time, exposing, in excellent humour, the hypocrisy of brewers and publicans—who, at a meeting of the trade,” had pledged themselves to listen in silence—but, finding that it was impossible to be heard amid the brutal howls of the publicans, and the stupid, senseless shouting of a section of the undergraduates, and desiring to keep his voice in order for the ensuing debate on Friday, bade the audience good evening, and sat down.

At this point, a blackguard in the centre of the hall drank the honourable baronet’s health from a black bottle, amid the cheers and laughter of his associates. Cardinal Manning and Mr. Wilberforce, finding their eminent leader thus insulted, refused to address the people, and the chairman declared the meeting dissolved. The object of the Tory leaders — to scale the platform — was happily frustrated by the friends of order, including, we are glad to say, a number of undergraduates; and the gas being gradually lowered, the audience as gradually dispersed, leaving thirty-five broken forms, several broken chairs, and a reporters’ table knocked to pieces.

“We will venture to say, that if the orderly, peaceful, and respectable classes in Cambridge allow this sort of thing to go on, they will richly merit such treatment, and the utter contempt of all the neighbouring towns. We assume that — in a place of 40,000 inhabitants, filled with churches, and with a large contingent of the great black-coated army which the Government establishes to take care of our spiritual interests — there are, at any rate, some thoughtful and intelligent people, who are of opinion that great public questions are not to be decided by the senseless shoutings of a number of drunken fools, or by the hare-brained chatter of irresponsible frivolity!”

“We suppose that there are, at any rate, a few churchmen who perceive that the establishment must have stronger bulwarks than howling gownsmen, and more destructive missiles than flour bags, if it is to continue its existence. We suppose that there may possibly be, even in Cambridge, men who can perceive that the spirit of blackguardism, let loose against one of the most illustrious deputations that any town could be honoured with, may one day be directed against themselves.

“Let all such persons (they will probably amount to a goodly number, even in the chosen seat of rowdyism) combine, irrespective of opinion on religious, political, or social questions, to secure order in all public meetings in the town of Cambridge. They may possibly be called on to oppose force by force; nor should they shrink at that. The selfish brutality of the publicans, and the odious manipulation of that brutality by the Tory leaders for their own ends, are fast becoming unbearable to a large section of the community; and it is time that all friends of public order and civilisation should unite to crush the head of this serpent which is attacking the vitals of the State.

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