The temperance movement: Richard Crabb the controversial anti-liquor lecturer

A Good Templars’ demonstration in Brisbane, Queensland. Picture: Brisbane Telegraph, September 8, 1934. Inset: A cartoon of the incomparable temperance lecturer, Richard Crabb, from the 1890s. Picture: Supplied


THEY travelled the country preaching the evils of drink; colourful characters with the gift of the gab and often with a tale of their remarkable transformation from drunkard to teetotaller – they were the temperance lecturers.

Of all the temperance lecturers touring the colonies around the turn of last century, Richard Crabb was one of the most notorious and successful. He was described in the New Zealand press in 1895 as the “versatile Sydney Domain stump orator, with the sharp tongue” and gained a reputation for his ‘no holds barred’ approach to persuading drinkers to sign the pledge.

Larger temperance societies, like the Independent Order of Good Templars and the Sons of Temperance, employed men and women to tour colonial settlements, recruiting members, preaching their message of the demon drink, and persuading tipplers to sign a pledge to denounce alcohol.

The teetotalling orators’ efforts resulted in the transformation of many drunkards, with some becoming missionaries, and joining the lecturing circuits, touring colonial Australia and New Zealand.

The two most successful temperance organisations in colonial Australia were The Sons and Daughters of Temperance, and the Independent Order of Good Templars.

The Sons and Daughters of Temperance embraced three distinct branches: a local division, a state division, and a national division.

The Sons of Temperance organisation was first formed in the United States of America in 1842 and assumed a prominent place among the fraternal and benevolent anti-liquor societies. Their motto was “to shield themselves from the evils of intemperance, to afford mutual assistance in case of sickness and to elevate their character as men”.

A children’s temperance demonstration at Circular Quay, Sydney, 1894. Picture: Supplied.

The organisation had a highly restricted membership. In order to become a member a person had to be nominated by an existing ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Three other brothers or sisters would then investigate his or her life to determine if they thought they were worthy of membership.

The Sons and Daughters of Temperance required an initiation fee, an amount equal to a week’s wages of an ordinary worker. Its constitution required members to pay a charge to cover the burial costs of any brother who died. It also required the payment for the funeral costs of a member’s dead wife.

Another membership requirement was to visit a sick brother at least once a day, and one of the orders of business at each meeting was to identify any brothers who were ill.

In NSW a man aged from 45 to 50 years could join the division for the sum of 7 shillings and 6 pence, plus a monthly contribution of 2 shillings and 6 pence. On the death of a ‘brother’ his wife received 20 pounds, while if the wife died, a survivor would be paid 10 pounds. Medical insurance was afforded to every member, their wives, and families.

There were secret rituals, passwords and handshakes, with members wearing regalia. The book, Temperance in Australia (1889) states: “This organisation exercises a very powerful political influence, and it is ever ready to use it in support of candidates for parliamentary honours who are prepared to favour temperance legislation”.

The Southern Cross Division of the Sons of Temperance was formed at Kiama, on the NSW South Coast, in February 1868 – a month before a National Division was created. The Hope of Illawarra was established at nearby Wollongong in May 1868 and the Illawarra divisions grew to be a dominant force in the fight against drunkenness over the following decades.

The Sydney Sons of Temperance Brass Band headed over 60 marchers decked-out in the movement’s regalia carrying banners in a parade of strength from the Wollongong School of Arts, down Smith Street, to Harbour Street, Market Square, Corrimal Street and onto “Mr Fraser’s Temperance Hotel” in Crown Street in January 1869.

Twenty members of the Daughters of Temperance joined the march before over 200 gathered for a picnic and entertainments at Sunny Bank near the corner of Dapto Road and Mt Keira Road west of Wollongong.

The march was careful orchestrated to pass-by most of Wollongong’s pubs and was obviously designed to send a clear message to the town’s publicans.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Society was a powerful anti-liquor organisation during the 1890s and early 1900s. Picture: Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser, April 14, 1894

Meanwhile the Independent order of Good Templars – the only temperance organisation that has survived to the present day (although not in Australia) – was founded in New York in 1851. It used a three-degree system, collars and aprons like in Freemasonry. However, regalia are no longer worn by the modern counterpart, which has expanded their abstinence message to other drugs.

The Good Templars never sold life insurance to their membership, something their predecessors encouraged.

In 1865 the order had 60,000 members and by 1869 over 400,000 was on their books. The Templars would grow to become the world’s largest temperance society.

The Good Templars came to Wollongong in 1879. The Queen Victoria Lodge made their first public appearance at the Wollongong Temperance Hall in August where they staged a concert. By the end of the 19th century the Templars were rapidly increasing in numbers “and usefulness”. The Illawarra Mercury reported on 30 April 1892:

Six months ago there were only two lodges in the district, viz., those at Bulli [Nil Desperandum] and Wollongong [Beacon Light], with a membership of about 80. There are now five lodges, with a membership of 285. Three juvenile Temples have also been established numbering over 90 members, making a total strength of 375 enrolled under the flag of state prohibition. The latest addition to the ranks was made last Thursday night, when a large number of the local (Beacon Light) lodge proceeded by coach to Balgownie in compliance with an invitation from some friends in that locality to resuscitate the Miners Friend Lodge, which has been in abeyance for some considerable time. A large number of the Pride of Bellambi members were also present to assist in the opening ceremony.

Showing off their strength, temperance groups held grand demonstrations and marches up and down Crown Street from time to time to show their solidarity for prohibition.  Led by town bands, the Salvation Army joined the various lodges of the Good Templars, Sons and Daughters of Temperance, Rachabites and junior temperance groups such as Bands of Hope, wearing their full regalia and bearing colourful banners. The marches numbered in the hundreds before they gathered at the Wollongong Protestant Hall to preach to the converted for total liquor prohibition.

A demonstration of women, organised by the W.C.T.U., was made at Parliament House, when the Licensing Bill was under discussion. Carrying umbrellas bearing temperance slogans, the women advocated the retention of 6 o’clock closing of bars in 1938. Picture: Supplied.

Meanwhile, Richard Crabb, the sharp tongued teetotaller, was making a name for himself as one of Australia’s most successful temperance lecturers. His effectiveness in persuading drinkers to sign the pledge and become paid members of temperance organisations, meant he was a much sought after lecturer.

Crabb stirred-up the debate on liquor prohibition and abstinence everywhere he spoke. He was often heckled, harassed, spat at and had eggs thrown at him for inciting rage among those who enjoyed a drink. However, he also had a strong following of devoted teetotallers, who filled the lecture halls where he spoke and were quick to defend his unconventional method of preaching liquor abstinence.

A newspaper cartoon of temperance lecturer, Richard Crabb, 1894. Picture: Supplied

Richard Crabb was born on January 13 1851 to Cornish parents in the South Australian copper mining town of Kapunda. He married at the age of 25 in 1875, and settled with his wife Louisa in Echuca Victoria where he opened a drapery business.

A teetotaler, he soon found himself a passionate advocate for liquor prohibition, and he joined the local temperance group, The Reform League.

Crabb was also interested in politics, particularly with laws to curb liquor. While Crabb failed at his first attempt at becoming an alderman on the Echuca council in 1876, he was successful the following year. He began his wandering ways about this time, after leaving the drapery business and taking up a full time position as an agent for The Australian Widows’ Fund Life Assurance Society.

By the 1880s he had established himself as a noted speaker, especially on the campaign of liquor prohibition, and had become the Good Templars star performer. On the eve of speaking in Maitland he was described by a local journalist as a temperance lecturer of no small fame. The Maitland reported on April 2 1885:

LECTURE.-Mr. Crabb, an itinerant lecturer on temperance, but more especially engaged in promulgating the views and principles of Good Templary, lectured here on the 26th inst., in the hall of the School of Arts, the subject being Happy Homes, and how to make them. This gentleman evidently has studied, and made himself master of his subject, for although his ostensible object is a crusade against the demon of intemperance, he makes known his discoveries of the one thousand and one other causes that make homes unhappy. He enters the dwelling, opens the cupboard, and there discovers the hidden skeleton, drags it forth, and exposes it to public view. Entrance to the lecture was free to all, and consequently the attendance was large. The discourse was attentively listened to, and even young persons who on other occasions are inclined to misconduct themselves, did on this occasion make an exception to the rule. The lecture was instructive and entertaining. Everybody was convinced of its truth as applied to themselves, and no doubt will give Mr. Crabb a hearty welcome when next he pays us a visit.

Crabb toured exhaustively through New South Wales, persuading hundreds, if not thousands to sign the pledge. He eventually made his way to the Illawarra in the mid 1880s.
The Illawarra Good Templars employed the services of the “apt and entertaining speaker”, who dealt “heavy blows at alcohol and the liquor traffic” to tour the region.

A correspondent reported in the Illawarra Mercury on February 11 1888 that Crabb made over 60 new members of the IOGT at Bulli, and whilst there, a publican’s wife spat at Mr Crabb as he walked up the street.

These temperance lecturers were often savage in their relentless attacks on the liquor industry – particularly publicans, who were accused of being “unchristian” and raised the ire of many in the trade.

An example of the heat that existed between landlords and temperance spin doctors is revealed in the following Bulli correspondents report in the Illawarra Mercury on February 21 1888:

Mr Crabb, the total abstinence lecturer, and Mr Orvad, of the Denmark Hotel, crossed swords a day or two ago on the main road or street in front of the hotel. Peter [Orvad] was ‘crabbed’ so much that ‘he went for’ the lecturer by insinuating that he must be in the habit of taking something stronger than cordials to make him as fat and podgy as he is. And to merely look at the two men one would be inclined to believe, if they knew no better, that spare Mr Orvad was the teetotal man and the stout Mr Crabb ‘mine host’.

Crabb also made his way to Kiama in 1888, when the Kiama Good Templars engaged him to lecture in the village. The Kiama Independent reported “he roused up numbers” both in a financial and numerical way” for the lodge while in town.

As the 1880s drew to a close the popularity of the Templars began to wain in certain parts of the region. The cause of the disinterest was “the suicidal influence of our local hop beer” and “additional attractions in the pubs”, the newspapers reported at the time.

The services of Crabb were again summoned and he made a second assault on the Illawarra in 1891.

In a letter to the editor of the Illawarra Mercury on December 12 1891, a writer signing off as Delta, explained to readers how “sorely disappointed” he was after attending one of Crabb’s lectures.

Does Mr Crabb think that the community of Wollongong are as full of ignorance as himself? If so, he is mistaken. I will admit he has the gift of manufacturing funny little sarcastic stories of very questionable truth. In a portion of his oration he went through dramatic performance imitating a poor unfortunate suffering the toothache. A man in the audience hearing him ask for a cure promptly suggested a drop of rum as medicine. No one had just reason sir to doubt that it was an honest conviction, but this insulting gab-gifted reformer instantly called the man a fool!… Mr Crabb gave us some astonishing figures concerning the drink traffic, but he omitted to give us an estimate of what it took to keep the likes of him stumping about the country. I do not wish to be misunderstood. I am an advocate of temperance, and have been for the last seven years, but I have, as you see, no sympathy with such a ranter as Mr Crabb. I believe Sir that such lectures as Mr Crabb’s do as much good as a poultice on a wooden leg.

The Illawarra Mercury reported on December 19 1891 Mr Crabb’s temperance mission began at the Bulli Primitive Methodist Church. He “had a good following at his various places of meeting, and loudly denounced the drunkards and drink sellers”. The Mercury reported that he “bitterly attacked district aldermen, magistrates and church officers who were patrons of public houses and addicted to drunkenness”.

Funded again by the Good Templars, Crabb headed across the Tasman Sea in 1894 where he went on temperance mission in New Zealand for at least three years. His sojourn in that colony was just as controversial as in NSW. While in New Zealand he was sued by a publican for slander [see a New Zealand newspaper cartoonist’s impression at the time above], he and his followers were often assaulted during lectures, and he was awarded £50 damages for slander after an article in the New Zealand Times. He returned to Sydney in 1898, continuing his lecturing around the Colony before turning his attentions northward to Queensland.

The Brisbane Courier reported on August 31 1898: Tonight Mr. Crabb and the Rev. Mr. Pike addressed a crowded meeting. Mr. Crabb, who is a very witty speaker, made quite a sensation, and got a unanimous vote from the 1000 people present.

Like elsewhere Crabb soon found himself in controversy again and the Brisbane Courier reported on November 9 1899:

TOWNSVILLE, November 8. The defamation case, Parkes v. Crabb, was concluded today. The plaintiff, who alleged that the defendant publicly stated that he was guilty of corruption in connection with his position as a member of the Licensing Board, claimed £1,000 damages. The jury found that the defendant did not use the words, and a verdict was given for defendant, with costs.

Crabb, who was living in Bowen, continued lecturing in the remote settlements of far north Queensland until shortly before his death, at the age of 64.  The Townsville Daily Bulletin reported on October 27 1915:

The death of Richard Crabbe [Sic.] took place at Bowen on Tuesday last. As a temperance lecturer Mr Crabbe many years ago toured North Queensland and was well known in Charters Towers. At the time of his death at the age of 64 years, he was an alderman on Bowen, and had been a resident of that port for some time.

Updated 2021© Copyright Mick Roberts 2015

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