Payday Drunk

“The problem of the pay-day drunk is still with us,” according to a 1908 article about Cape Breton coal mines. While concerns about alcohol consumption in that era were often focussed on religious beliefs or social impacts, the article’s concern was alcohol’s impact on coal production.

Throughout much of the 1800s and early 1900s, the temperance movement, which believed alcohol was responsible for many of society’s ills, worked to limit or ban alcohol consumption. The first temperance society in Canada was established in Pictou County in 1827 and the movement would have a number of victories over the next century.

For example, in 1869 the Nova Scotia legislature passed a law requiring that two-thirds of rate payers in a polling district support the granting of a liquor license to a tavern. Also, the Government of Canada passed the Temperance Act in 1878 which allowed local governments to hold votes on banning the sale of alcohol. Afterwards, 13 of Nova Scotia’s 18 counties became “dry,” most of them for many years.

Nova Scotia’s early mining laws tried to prevent miners getting drunk on payday. The 1873 Mines Regulation Act, the first in Canada to regulate safety in mines, made it illegal to pay miners in a "public house" (a pub) or a “beer shop,” or anywhere alcohol was sold. Even places adjacent to pubs couldn't be used, due to concerns that miners might get drunk instead of taking their pay home to their families. The rule remained in the province’s mining laws well into the 1900s.

It was against this backdrop that an unidentified author wrote in the March 1, 1908, edition of the Canadian Mining Journal that drunkenness on paydays was a problem.

Interestingly, the author of the article did not oppose drunkenness on moral, social or religious grounds, as many did at that time. His concern was the impact it was having on coal mines. As he wrote, “A few figures may illustrate its effect on the operation of the mines.”

The average production of the Dominion Coal Company’s mines from January 27-31, 1908, was 13,200 tons of coal per day. Payday was Saturday, February 1, and the average production for February 1-8 was 9,800 tons per day, significantly lower than in the days before payday.

On February 14, the day before the next payday, production was 12,300 tons. However, on payday, Saturday, February 15, output dropped to 9,200 tons. On Monday, February 17, output was just 9,000 tons. (Mines were usually closed on Sundays).

The article stated, “The difference between these figures is attributable to the effects of pay day and nothing else. A fair estimate is that 14,000 tons per month is lost in outputs by men staying off after pay day. The curve of outputs when plotted resembles the Alps, being a steady rise for thirteen days after pay day to a maximum height the day before pay day. Then comes a fall, which takes another fortnight to overcome, and this kind of thing is a continuous performance. And the amusing part is that Cape Breton is theoretically dry. If this be done in a dry county, what will be done in a wet?”

The author estimated that 10% of miners might be “recovering from a drunk” immediately after payday.

What to do?

Francis W. Gray, an English mining engineer who had immigrated to Cape Breton, thought he had the answer. He argued in the November 1908 edition of the Canadian Mining Journal that miners’ clubs played an important role in reducing drunkenness in England, Germany and the United States.

These clubs, run by miners, for miners, were working class versions of upper-class gentlemen’s clubs. They offered billiards, cards, checkers, concerts, “illustrated lectures,” libraries and reading rooms where, in at least one English example, “strict silence is enforced.”

The clubs also sometimes had baths and showers where the miners could clean up after their shifts, although Gray wrote that this was somewhat controversial at a South Yorkshire colliery that he was familiar with from his time in England: “When first installed the baths were looked upon as a doubtful experiment, and all kinds of dreadful things were predicted of those persons who were so venturesome as to wash their backs, there being a superstition in this district that ablutions weakened the back.”

Not surprisingly, the selling of alcohol was essential since it provided much of the revenue that kept the clubs going: “It cannot be disguised that the chief financial support of these clubs comes from the sale of exciseable goods, chiefly beer and tobacco….”

However, “The amount of liquor sold is limited to a certain number of glasses to each member, and is not sold to any person under twenty years of age.” (Child labour was common in many industries in that era:

Gray argued that a properly regulated miners club was a much better solution than illegal bars, where men could buy as much alcohol as they liked. “In the United States prohibition in mining camps has proven a ridiculous failure, of necessity, while the restricted club has proved the best aid to sobriety that the mine owner has been able to call to his assistance. In Germany a colliery [coal mine] without its bierhalle or casino would be a nine days’ wonder. In many English colliery villages institutions like that just described have kept whole populations sober, who would otherwise have gone afield to get drunk every week end. In Canada, the writer is only acquainted with Cape Breton collieries, where they have a ridiculous enactment that prevents the sale of liquor within one mile of any mine, on paper that is, for sad to relate every payday the outputs drop down and remain down for three and four days.”

Gray concluded, “We think it can be safely asserted that a well managed club…where men can enjoy some little relaxation of mind and body after their day’s work, a place not too Puritanical in its rules nor too lax on the other hand, where men can take refuge from wash-day and other domestic turmoils without the risk of getting ‘loaded’ and losing a week’s pay, is a useful adjunct to any colliery, and the subject is one that should commend itself to coal corporations and their officials.”

Francis Gray, and no doubt many others, must have been disappointed two years later when the Government of Nova Scotia banned alcohol outside Halifax in 1910 and instituted a province-wide ban from 1916-1929.