Joseph Livesey: Preston’s greatest social reformer or Preston’s greatest killjoy… or both?

Posted on - 9th July, 2021 - 12:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, People, Preston News
The monument to abstinence is in Preston Cemetery Pic: Tony Worrall
The monument to abstinence is in Preston Cemetery Pic: Tony Worrall

People often say to me: “You must be fun at parties,” which is baffling, because I genuinely am not.


In this though, I like to think I’ve found a kindred spirit in one of the 19th century’s most notable progressives, the founder of Teetotalism and Preston’s very own Joseph Livesey. 

Born in 1794, Joseph Livesey predated Charles Dickens but was raised in conditions that could only be described as Dickensian. He was orphaned at the age of seven and from a young age worked with the “incessant action of every muscle required for weaving” in a damp River Ribble adjacent cellar that left him “with seven years of chronic rheumatism in my lower joints”.

Typically for someone of his class, Livesey lacked a formal education. However, the lack of formal education made Livesey crave knowledge with uncommon zeal. He wrote: “Whilst thousands of costly volumes lie dormant, unopened and unread by their owners, the backless volume of a borrowed book was read by me with eagerness.” 

The eagerness to learn at a young age, almost to the exclusion of all else, set a precedent for his later life. It was frequently observed that the time he dedicated to self-education left him little time for more ‘frivolous amusement’. That said, some of the more common forms of amusement for the boys at the time were ‘fighting parties’, which I’m assuming is just fighting on a larger scale, so I can’t personally blame him for sticking to marbles.

Livesey bemoaned the lack of educational opportunities afforded to the working class, and despaired at what he perceived as their seeming acceptance of the lack of education. However, this wasn’t simply some 19th century keyboard warrior we’re talking about here – in his later years, Livesey set up a Sunday school teaching the fundamentals of reading and writing. He also set up a mechanics institute and was pivotal in establishing the Institute for the Diffusion of Knowledge (which we now know as UCLan). 

It’s important to note that, for the majority of his life, Livesey sold cheese. Of his many great services to the people of Preston, supplying them with cheese stands perhaps as tall as any. I’m actually eating cheese from the bag as I write this, if I’m being honest. However, the reason it’s so important Livesey was a cheesemaker was that this meant he travelled across Preston and its surrounding areas frequently and, wherever his cheeses took him, he noticed squalor, suffering and distress of the poor, which he claimed stemmed from alcohol abuse.

It wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion to reach; in many areas of 19th century Preston, a Venn diagram of alcohol consumption along with alcohol abuse would have been a near perfect circle. This problem was far from isolated to northern mill towns; across the waters in the Americas it was estimated that the average male over 15 was consuming almost seven gallons of alcohol per year and, as a result, the temperance movement against alcohol consumption was rapidly gaining pace.

Joseph Livesey
Joseph Livesey

Livesey set up his own temperance movement in 1832. Livesey’s movement was founded on a more puritanical ethos, with total abstinence being the only acceptable form. One of his followers, Richard Turner, was asked about abstinence and he stuttered ‘T-T-T Total’. As a result the movement adopted the name Teetotalism, I’m assuming in a sense of solidarity as opposed to just taking cheap shots at the afflicted. 

Livesey’s movement was a great success, the ideals of the teetotalism were embraced by several nonconformist churches and are still adhered to today. He gave a great many speeches and took frequent tours in a ‘Teetotal car’ that made trips into surrounding towns, holding meetings and spreading the word. At one time, so effective were the methods that a chaplain at the house of corrections said: “This was the sixth assizes (at Lancaster) at which there had not been a single case of felony from Preston”. Now, I don’t have time to fill in a freedom of information request form regarding crimes in Preston to draw a modern parallel in 2021, but I imagine there’s been at least one committed in the last six days.

However, I believe it was the murderous sentient robot Ultron from the Marvel comics that said: “Everyone creates the thing they dread” and the Temperance movement ran afoul of two 19th century schools of thought. First, while Livesey might have rejoiced the smallest act of parliament curtailing the selling of drink in England, the gathering pace and influence of laissez faire capitalism meant brewers, distillers, hooch smugglers, cider fiddlers and mead alchemists were never wanting for business. Second was a pushback against the puritanical nature of Teetotalism by liberalist thinkers espousing individual liberty. The Temperance movement rejected the idea of drinking, even in moderation, meaning even those who’d suffered nothing more than a mild hangover their entire lives were as culpable as those who’d Gin and Tonic their way into a 20-man brawl at 2am on Church Street. The lack of distinction between the two was viewed as needlessly polarising. Noted liberals of the 19th century, including John Stuart Mill, had spoken out against the idea of legislating against vice in any way; Mill himself described it as a “Monstrous Theory”. 

It’s easy to see how Livesey’s rhetoric might galvanise some but isolate others. If we look at a passage from his monthly newsletter the Staunch Teetotaller, it begins: “I don’t intend on this occasion to dwell on the horrible effects of national intemperance.” The letter then goes on to reference “slayings going on daily in the drinking system, broken hearts and domestic wretchedness, bankruptcy of the middle class, poverty of the poor, crowing of the workhouses, prisons and asylums, sinking of vessels or the burning of cities.” And remember, this was him specifically not dwelling on alcohol… 

While the temperance movement found enormous success and Livesey remained an unwavering and energetic spokesman for teetotalism, towards the end of his life the number of public houses in Preston had increased to around 460. 

Joseph Livesey died in 1884 aged 90 – however death is but an inconvenience for the truly committed and in his will, he left a provision that every household in Preston should receive a free copy of his Malt Liquor Lecture, in which he maintained that “there is more food in a pennyworth of bread than in a gallon of ale”. Livesey left a significant and lasting legacy, with the streets lined in the thousands by mourners. He can rest easy knowing that where his temperance movement failed to fully dismantle the pub industry, successive governments’ alcohol duties and unscrupulous brewery leasing arrangements have done the job for him. 

So, there you have it, the next time anyone suggests Preston’s only cultural touchstones are Nick Park and the guy who wrote Brimful of Asha who studied here for a while, you can point them in the direction of Joseph Livesey. I’ve only been able to give the broad-strokes of his social activism and the massive impact he’s made, so raise a glass (of water) to a great man.

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