The 28th of May is celebrated as ‘Prohibition Day’ in Wick.
After the Temperance (Scotland) Act in 1913, the local ward in Wick voted on the 28th of May, 1922, by a majority of sixty-two per cent to go ‘dry’ – and stayed off the booze for twenty-five years to the day. Amazing as it may sound, between 1922 and 1947, Wick, in Caithness, was officially a dry town with no alcohol licenses permitted within the Royal Burgh. Every pub had to shut its doors and every off licence had to remove alcohol from its shelves. Just imagine, prohibition in Wick lasted nearly twice as long as it did in America. It makes you wonder in what alternative appetites or passions those temperate souls in Wick indulged.
It all began in 1840, when the ‘Wick and Pulteneytown Total Abstinence Society’ was formed, under the direction of the Methodist Minister, and a Temperance Hall was constructed. That wasn’t an isolated event, as there was a growing intolerance towards alcohol and a view that only total abstention would remove the blight of drunkenness and alcoholism from society. Neighbouring Thurso already its own Temperance Hall at that time and a lot of them were linked to the emergence of friendly societies. Dedicated Temperence Hotels also began to appear and one of those, Mackay’s Hotel, was in Wick.
When the Temperance (Scotland) Act of 1913 was passed, local councils were allowed to impose a ban on alcohol sales with a simple majority of votes cast. However, the First World War focused people’s attention on other matters for a time. Meanwhile, Wick remained a focal point for Scotland’s herring fleet and, together with the adjacent Pulteneytown, attracted many ‘uncouth’ sailors, which horrified the sensibilities of the God-fearing, middle-class, blue-collar, Protestant element who were fiercely opposed to alcohol. I’m sure the middle-class Landlords didnae mind so much.
At the same time, the temperance movement was regaining support, driven by the religious persuasions of Baptists or Wesleyan Methodists and the likes of the Suffragettes. The ‘No License’ movement was dominated by Church Ministers and the kind of people who always know what is best for other people. You may suppose they had the best of intentions and were surely attempting, in their own self-righteous way, to drag the newly industrialised working class out of its slums. The philanthropist movement also saw alcohol as a central cause of poverty and that turned temperance into a political cause.
The idea of polling was revisited after the Great War, with the first polls being held in December, 1920. The rules stated that districts and parishes could vote for ‘No Licence’ if thirty-five per cent voted in favour. With a ‘no’ vote, all public sales of spirits would have to cease and a ban stay in place for a minimum of three years, before another vote could be taken. Also of significance, was the passing of the Representation of the People’s Act of 1918, which gave the vote to women aged over thirty. It’s probably fair to say that a lot of poor women, often the victims of alcohol related violence, were opposed to drink and, armed with a vote, played an important part in the outcome.
One famous American made his presence felt in Wick during the campaigning. He was W. E. ‘Pussyfoot’ Johnson, a fierce opponent of alcohol. His presence in Wick was seen as “foreign interference” and was a catalyst for violence on one occasion. During a speech of his, a brawl began and Johnson was attacked by the crowd. He ended up with a serious black-eye for his troubles.
Throughout the local area, over 540 thirsty communities returned opposition to a ban. Those that voted for bans included Stromness in Orkney, Lerwick in Shetland and Wick in Caithness. In Wick, more than three quarters of the population voted, with 1,500 supporters in favour and 900 against. Appeals were made to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, even going so far as to suggest that the decline in the herring industry was due to boats – and their crews – heading instead for the likes of Peterhead, where they could get a drink. All appeals failed and, from the 28th of May, 1922, all alcohol licenses were withdrawn in Wick.
Amazingly, the ban remained in force, even throughout the Second World War when the influx of large numbers of servicemen in need of a wee dram, including my Grandfather, might have forced a change. Don’t for one minute imagine that the whole neighbourhood was totally abstinent. Of course, there were a few shebeens offering locally distilled whisky; one apparently right behind the Police station.
The ban was challenged four times over the intervening period and every time it was supported by more than 50 per cent. Then, in December, 1946, the local population turned out in force to overturn the ban and on the very significant date of the 28th of May, 1947, twenty-five years of ‘No Licence’ came to an end. The ban in Wick was repealed in 1947, but the infamous Temperance (Scotland) Act of 1913 was only finally abolished by the Licensing (Scotland) Act of 1976.
These days, the heart of Wick is the Pulteney distillery, which means the folk are now proud of their whisky, because it provides a lifeblood that stops the town from dying altogether. The distillery struggled during the ’20s and changed ownership three times, before it closed down, in 1930. Thankfully, it reopened in 1951.
The name Wick derives from the Norse ‘vik’, which means a bay and emphasises the area’s Viking past. Wick was elevated to Royal Burgh status in 1589, however, it wasn’t until 1803, when Thomas Telford began work on the harbour, and on Pulteneytown to the south of Wick, that it really began to develop. The two parts of the town, north and south, merged, in 1902.
Ebenezer Place in Wick, home to Mackay’s Hotel, is recognised by the ‘Guinness Book of Records’ as being the shortest street in the world. If you like ancient castles, you can still visit the ruins of Castle Oliphant, which date back to the 14th Century, and the remnants of Bucholly Castle, which dates back to Viking times. And, of course, there is the Temperance Hall, erected in 1842 and which has accommodation for about 1000 poor dried out souls.