A sobering anniversary: Prohibition in British Columbia, 1917-1921



  • 1.the action of forbidding something, especially by law
  • 2.the prevention by law of the manufacture and sale of alcohol, especially in the US between 1920 and 1933.
October 2017 marks a sobering anniversary. Prohibition in British Columbia came into force October 1, 1917 after a controversial referendum that had arisen largely as a result of the Temperance movement and the pressures of wartime. The September 1916 vote was close, 41,904 voted for prohibition, and 36,102 voted against. But the No side actually won – the votes of many of the beer thirsty soldiers serving overseas did not arrive in time. Once these had been counted it showed a final count of 42,736 for Prohibition and 43,558 against. In an affront to democracy (and good whisky!), Prohibition was enacted anyway. Initially, it was more of an inconvenience; people stockpiled booze prior to the ban and others got round it by ordering alcohol in from outside of the province.
another prohibition ad
A Pither & Leiser ad from the Victoria Colonist in 1917 encouraging people to purchase ‘high quality’ supplies from ‘one of the largest and choicest stocks’
Liquid prescriptions and rum runners
Prohibition really began to bite in March 1918 when the Federal Government banned the inter-provincial trade of liquor into any province under prohibition. But even this did not stem the flow of booze completely. Many physicians and pharmacists became wealthy writing prescriptions for medicinal alcohol for their ‘ill’ patients and these tended to be whiskies of the smoky, peated Islay variety! In 1919 alone, 181,000 prescriptions for alcohol were issued to treat any acute cases of sobriety. Ironically, a similar approach to a prohibited substance is in evidence today with the ubiquitous medicinal marijuana dispensaries dotted around BC.
Sailors, rum runners and bootleggers also played their part. The five-masted Malahat schooner was B.C.’s most notorious rum-running ship between 1920 and 1933. She was known as “the Queen of Rum Row” in her day. She was essentially a floating warehouse based off the Pacific Coast. Smaller, faster ‘mosquito’ vessels would buzz back and forth to re-stock. The Malahat is said to have delivered more contraband liquor than any other ship.
The Malahat Schooner in all her rum running glory
Prohibition in British Columbia effectively ended in British Columbia in 1921 with the introduction of liquor control legislation and government liquor stores. To this day BC remains one of the most regulated liquor markets in the world. Good luck trying to buy a bottle of whisky from your local supermarket. However, due to the insatiable appetite of the pioneering, saloon loving BC population, prohibition was always doomed to failure!
Some fun Prohibition propaganda!

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