The New Zealand Evangelist
Magistrates And Their Licenses
Magistrates And Their Licenses.
My Dear Sir,—
I have just perused the strictures that appear in your last number, on the late conduct of the Magistrates in granting so many new lisenses. Had these strictures been conveyed in the usual style of Colonial writing, and had merely appeared as an ephemeral paragraph in a Wellington newspaper, I should not have considered it necessary to expose myself to Colonial abuse, by taking further cogni-page 422zance of the occurrence. But when censures are conveyed in such temperate, and yet such forcible language; when they expose the unanimous sentiments of all the different denominations of christian ministers—and when, moreover, these strictures are as true in fact, as they are unanswerable in argument, I feel anxious to exonerate myself, as one of those Magistrates, from justly deserving any share of that censure which we, as a body, have so richly merited. In truth, as the case now appears, had all the Magistrates who acted on that day, been as much concerned in importing and selling wine and spirits, as those are who did not act, they could not have hit upon a more certain mode of encouraging drunkenness, idleness, and ruin. The old threadbare arguments, (if arguments they can be called), that the more competition, the better will the public be served, and that the free trade principle should be universal, were used, and used successfully by the majority, to sanction this increase of these poison shops.
As these two reasons were urged by some of my friends, whose judgment in many things, is usually very good, I shall repeat the questions you have asked them. Who are “the public,” for whose interest the Magistrates evinced such a spontaneous and energetic concern? The respectable portion of “the Public,” when they want wine or spirits, purchase it at the commercial stores; but the disreputable portion go and tipple it off, in drams, at the low grog shops, or at the Taps of the “Hotels.” Now, there were numerous and strong remonstrances by the respectable portion against any more licenses; but was there a single one from the other portion of the Public, calling on the Magistrates to excite competition, that they, the dram-drinking Public, might be better served? There was not one. The assumption, therefore, of the Magistrates, that the Public, (even the drinking portion of it), required more “competition” was quite gratuitous: unsanctioned and unsupported by even one solitary memorial, or page 423 one solitary fact, which was brought before us on the occasion in question. Truly the successors of “Dicky Barnes,” and “old Roots “may well give a vote of thanks for the additional facilities we have given them to get their morning draughts; and this without their having even asked for our assistance.
But, say these unlimiting Licensers, the evil will cure itself, competition will make the price of spirits fall, and that which is sold will be better in quality. How do they know this? Can any one evil in this world of evil, be expected to be lesssened, far less cured, by increasing its causes? If a man in the early stages of drunkenness, had to go halfway along the Beach to get a glass of “something strong “before breakfast, ten to one he might be too idlo for the walk, and thus be weaned from his new vice; but if he can get this same “something” not two yards from his own door, he will of course avail himself of the temptation which we, the Magistrates, have so kindly put within his reach.
But it is argued “the price of spirits will fall.” And pray what good would result if this happened? Say rather, it would increase the evil. Drinking is somewhat expensive. An habitual drunkard will often make up his mind to spend all his ready money in making a “flare up,” that is, living at the grog shop till all his money is gone. If spirits are dear, he will get and drink less, for his money, and go home sooner. Cheap spirits or liquors therefore, increase the habits of intoxication, and accelerates its final result.
But we do not believe that competition would make spirits fall. The retail trade is a most lucrative one: and being in the hands of, comparatively, a few individuals, they, of course, can easily agree among themselves as to prices, and thus ends the fallacious idea of “competition.”
But let us look a little closer to this plea, that the evil of too many public houses will cure itself. Has this ever been the result in any one colony, where this foolish experiment has been tried? No; but page 424 precisely the reverse. I have never been in Sydney; but people who have, tell me that every tenth house is a grog shop; and therefore, as a matter of course, the scenes of riot, drunkenness, and disgusting conduct, beggar all description. Oh! but said one of us, you forget, Mr. Swainson, that Sydney has a convict population; with us it is quite a different thing. True, Mr. Volpone, but what made the greatest part of the business people convicts? Was not Gin, with more than half of them, the origin and foundation of all the crimes which sent them to Sydney? Has it not been proved by official returns, that more than one half of all the crimes committed in England originated in drunkeness? The way to create drunkards, is to lower the price of liquors by competition (?) to allow a free trade in spirits, and let the poison be hawked about the streets, or sold by as many as wish.
If a principle is sound, the more it is extended in operation, the greater amount of good it creates. If the evil of too many public houses will cure itself, why should we in England prosecute brothel keepers and gambling houses? Surely as much misery is created by grog shops and spirit Taps, as by either of the above receptacles for vice? They are acknowledged evils; but has their frequency in London corrected their demoralising effects? Has their frightful number been “lessened by competition?” I find no distinction made in Scripture between the damnation affixed to habitual drunkenness, and that which is pronounced on lasciviousness and avarice. If therefore it is incumbent on Magistrates, for the well-being of Society merely, to suppress the two latter, it seems to me to be equally their duty, to restrict the temptations of the former sin as much as possible.
You have justy and truly remarked that the memorial, signed by eight ministers; representing every denomination of Christians in Wellington, may be fairly said to have expressed the sentiments of nine tenths of the church going population. And page 425 it is a singular fact, that every one of these leading and most influential denominations were represented by the individual Magistrates who acted on this occasion, viz., the Established Church, the Roman Catholic, the Presbyterian, and the Wesleyan communities, so that had the Magistrates purposely set themselves in the face of public opinion, they could not have acted otherwise than they did. I am quite ready to admit that this memorial should have had far more influence on our decision than it had—which was in fact none at all.
Such are my own sentiments on this question; but, being in a powerless minority, I could do nothing more than strongly recommend that three of the new applications should be refused; and this point, at least, I was mainly instrumental in carrying.
On the other hand, I must do most of my brother Magistrates the justice to say they agreed to the principles here advocated, although they felt a difficulty or hesitation, how to apply these principles when we come to consider the individual applications. One was so numerously and respectably signed; another had kept an old established house for years; a third was a most worthy man; a fourth might be ruined if we suddenly refused his license; and so on. At length it was determined by the majority, to let them all have a years trial, at the end of which time “competition” might reduce the number of next year's applicants, while all those who did not furnish “good entertainment for man and horse,” according to the old English style, but merely sold liquor, would have their next year's application “declined/” or, in plain English, refused. Under all these circumstances therefore, (which may not be generally known) I think you will admit we are not such wholesale promoters of drunkenness, as some have imagined. We have now insisted that every licensed publican shall be able to furnish meat as well as drink, and a bed as well as a bench, to the country settler, or decent page 426 stranger; and also provender and stable for his horse. And thus we expect and hope to do away with the low tippling grog-shops on the beach, and excite an opposition to certain hotel keepers whose charges the public are now compelled to submit to, from the great deficiency of such superior accommodations.
W. Swainson, J.P.