SHAD Interview: “‘The Fatal Gaze of This Moral Basilisk: The Salvation Army’s War on Drink in Victorian Britain,” with Steven Spencer

Editor’s Note: This week we continue with a special three-post extravaganza of author interviews from the newest issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. The current issue deals with the topic of radical temperance–the act of not drinking alcohol in booze-soaked eras. Today we hear from Steven Spencer, author of “‘The Fatal Gaze of This Moral Basilisk’: The Salvation Army’s War on Drink in Victorian Britain,” director of the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre in London, and an Honorary Fellow in the School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester.

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Steven Spencer (Photo  ©Alistair Kerr, Creative Mongrel)

Tell readers a little bit about yourself.

After completing an MA in history, I trained as an archivist at University College London in 2006-2008 and had worked in a range of archives before I came to work for The Salvation Army in 2009. I’m the Director of The Salvation Army International Heritage Centre, where we hold archives, objects and books relating to the history of The Salvation Army from its origins in the 1860s (and even earlier!) up to the present day. As the International Heritage Centre we hold material on The Salvation Army all over the world. 

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

My interest in the history of the temperance movement is relatively recent. The Salvation Army was invited by the University of Preston’s Demon Drink project to give a paper at their “Radical Temperance” conference in 2018. I presented a paper on the history of The Salvation Army’s stance on alcohol and my colleague gave a paper on The Salvation Army’s contemporary work in addressing alcoholism and continued commitment to abstinence from alcohol.

I must confess that up until this point, I hadn’t given much thought to the wider temperance movement but, as I began the research for my paper, I was absolutely fascinated by its scope and scale in the UK and USA in the C19th and early C20th. Temperance has been considered one of the most significant social campaigns of the period and became a mainstream political issue, culminating of course with prohibition in the USA. I also became aware of the absence of research on The Salvation Army’s total abstinence stance or on its role in the wider temperance movement.

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

I think I’d start by explaining that temperance wasn’t necessarily about doing bartenders out of a job because of the large number of temperance hotels and coffee houses that sprang up in the heyday of the temperance movement. Pubs themselves were even bought by Dr. Barnado, The Salvation Army and others and reopened as alcohol-free venues. A number of which have ironically now been reopened as actually licensed pubs!

I think a bartender may be one of the few people who may have an appetite to follow some of the tendentious debates about the renewal of liquor licenses by local ratepayers and licensing magistrates that were a prominent battlefield of temperance campaigners in the latter part of the C19th.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

My day job is actually running a large and busy archive, so research isn’t really the focus of my time. We have a team of 8 people and as well as cataloguing and managing the collection, we receive a large amount of enquiries from the public (including academics) about almost every aspect of The Salvation Army and its 150-year history. That being said, researching my article for SHAD did highlight a number of areas of The Salvation Army’s work around temperance that would repay further research- such as the Band of Love, a juvenile temperance society set up in the 1890s- which is the subject of the latest blog on the Heritage Centre’s website.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

As someone who has only come to this field of research in the last couple of years, I continue to be amazed by the scope of research being carried out into alcohol and drugs, whether in the pages of SHAD, under the auspices of the Demon Drink project or in the Drinking Studies network.

BONUS QUESTION: What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

To only slightly sidestep the question, I would say that I, and The Salvation Army Heritage Centre, have greatly benefited from the connections we’ve developed with academics in a number of fields who have worked collaboratively with the Heritage Centre on research and other projects – Clare Anderson at Leicester on the British Empire, Brantley Gasaway at Bucknell on evangelical Christianity, Emma Hanna at Kent on the First World War, Julia Laite at Birkbeck on prostitution and Julie-Marie Strange at Durham on charity fundraising, and many more than I can mention here!

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