Points 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.

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