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Our Children in Old Scotland and Nova Scotia
Chapter VIII - Coffee Houses


THOUGH Temperance work is not, perhaps, strictly speaking, the work required for our children, still it is practically inseparable from it, and in my experience, directly sprang out of it, for my first impulse to become a total abstainer arose from witnessing the sufferings and deprivations of poor little children in the course of my early work at the Day Nursery and Home.

I was not at that time a teetotaler; I thought that many good people who were so were mistaken, and pressed a theory too far. I had been used to seeing beer, wine and spirits moderately used, and that by people for whom I had the highest respect, and I did not feel called on to take any other view of the subject. I do not suppose I was singular in this. I fancy most moderate drinkers would tell you precisely the same; but I had hitherto seen what may be called the right side of the drink question, with no knowledge of the wrong side, except, I admit, the recollection of the fishermen at St. Andrews, long ago, when they had come home from the herring fishing, or for some reason were flush of money, when they too frequently became excited to maniacal frenzy, and used to make it dangerous for quiet folks to pass near their dwellings; but these recollections were of frights long gone by, and which at the time I had accepted as a necessary evil. Therefore, when I began to work at the Day Nursery I was not a teetotaler! A short time, however, sufficed to entirely change my opinion.

It was impossible for any moderately humane woman to witness the sights and hear the stories of sin, suffering, and sorrow, which were a considerable part of every-day life there, without feeling horror and disgust at what was only too clearly the direct cause of nine-tenths of all the mischief.

As time went on and the Homes increased I had to be about more and more, and thus saw more of the life and temptations of working men, railway servants, dock labourers, sailors and others; and as my work had to be done in all weathers, and at all hours from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., I had ample opportunities of seeing the effect of cold, wet and discomfort, on the men. What seemed to me the most fruitful source of habits of drinking was the want of proper food, at reasonable hours. This, as so many of them work at great distances from home, seemed unavoidable, as it was no part of the business of the too numerous public-houses to supply food. I therefore thought of trying what a coffee-house at Burutisland would do to meet the want, on the plan of food versus drink. By this time, 1881, the British Public-house Company in Edinburgh had been started, and the Secretary was most kind in giving me all information and assistance, and in helping me to an excellent man as manager. So that, suitable premises having been secured near the pier and railway station, I was in a position to begin work. I took the utmost pains to make the place attractive and pleasing in every way, with plenty of looking-glass, bright pictures, clean marble tables—in summer, flowers, and in winter, plenty of fire and gas. I also provided what seemed much valued—wash-basin and clean towels, a plentiful supply of the daily papers, Shipping Gazette, etc., and from the kindness of friends a good stock of second-hand magazines. The bookshelf was a prominent feature, and to this I added, for the sake of the boys and lads whom we induced to come in the evening, the Boys’ Own Paper, Animal World, etc., and some sets of dominoes, draughts, and other quiet games. Cards and gambling of any kind were strictly forbidden. I am sorry to say it required some firmness to carry out this rule. We also had as much music as possible in the way of accordions, flutes, etc., and found a musical box very useful in attracting customers.

You will say I have left out the food question. I wished to tell you first how I tried to fight the public-house with its own weapons. As John Wesley said, "I don’t see why the devil should have all the pretty tunes," and I fail to see why the drink-shop should be brighter and more attractive than the "public-house WITHOUT the drink ! "

One of our customers said to me one day, when he and some others had been admiring the arrangements, "Eh, mem, I think ye wad gie us onything but the ae thing, and that is—WHUSKEY! and I’m sure we’re muckle obleeged till ye!"

So they were, I am sure; but remember the coffeehouse was in no way a charity. The people paid for what they had, and I was very careful to avoid any idea of the kind, which would certainly not be acceptable in Scotland. At the same time our prices were not exorbitant, as will be seen from the fact that a man could have three excellent meals a day for 1s. This was managed on the plan of the British Public-house Company aforesaid, and cheapness achieved by means of the large quantity required. We called it a coffee-house, but provided a great deal more than tea and coffee, viz.—soup, cold beef, ham, eggs, bread and rolls, butter, some cakes and pastry, and plum-duff for the sailors. For these I took a great deal of pains to provide fresh meat, but found to my surprise and disappointment there was no demand! Thus the Ship Coffee-house was launched at Burntisland in July, 1881.

Finding it likely to succeed, I ventured to try a coffee-barrow on Granton Pier, with a view to possibly starting another Ship Coffee-house there; and finding our earnings justify the effort, I applied to the Duke of Buccleuch for ground on which to erect a wooden building, which was opened in December, 1881, exactly on the plan of the other, and which, since I left Scotland, has been most successfully carried on by a friend in the neighbourhood. The same manager is still there, who began with the coffee-barrow in 1881, Mr. Joseph Gloag. The Burntisland house I disposed of to a suitable purchaser, on condition it should be worked on strictly Temperance principles.

I may mention that in one year the earnings at Burntisland were £600, and at Granton, £500. Since then I hear that the Burntisland house has gradually lapsed, and finally been given up. I fear any such effort requires the active supervision of some one on the spot who is really in earnest in the work. I afterwards opened a third Ship Coffee-house at Kinghorn, at a time when the ship-yard was in full work, and several hundreds of men employed, whose habits and condition certainly seemed to require it very much; but it never prospered so well as the others, and after two years of work I gave it up. There was a fourth house, which was successful while required, at the Binn End shale work, near Burntisland, which I helped the manager of the works to arrange and carry on chiefly at the expense of the Company; but after the village was built for the men to live near their work, this was not found to be necessary, but did well for the time.

The routine business of the coffee-houses was managed on the same plan as the Homes, by having a treasurer for each, who ordered and kept account of the stores, and balanced the sheet of supplies and sales every week.

The Temperance tent was (and still is) a most helpful adjunct, when fairs, games, or any other large gathering were held; to say nothing of supplying Temperance refreshments to the cricket players on Saturday afternoons. Altogether, I am told that at this date the good effect of the coffee-houses is visible in the neighbourhoods in which they were planted eleven years ago.


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