Sketch of John Gough's life


Background Notes

Although relatively unknown today, the temperance reformer, John B. Gough (1817-1886), was an international celebrity during his own lifetime who delivered some 9,000 lectures to more than nine million people throughout the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Canada, France, and Switzerland. He was credited with inspiring 200,000 people to sign “the pledge” to stop drinking. His success was due in large measure to two factors: first, he was a brilliant performer who impersonated different people and displayed a wide range of emotions in his public addresses. Second, he was a recovering, or as he and his contemporaries would say, a “reformed” alcoholic and he drew upon his own experiences battling “demon rum” to provide insight and inspiration to others.

He first published his autobiography in 1845. Soon it became a bestseller and multiple editions appeared in subsequent years often accompanied by written versions of his most popular lectures. He was often referred to as the “Apostle of Cold Water.” Even two well publicized breaking of his own pledge and lapses into drunkenness could not diminish his popularity. Later in his life he expanded his repertoire to include lectures combating poverty and the promotion of education and the equality of the sexes. Always the showman, Gough died on stage in Pennsylvania in 1886.

This primary source, J.B. Gough: a sketch of his life, work, and orations, in America and Great Britain, with portrait & personal description, was published in London in 1878 as a promotional tract for the temperance cause.

Although Gough is included in most scholarly treatments of the temperance movement no full-length biography has appeared since Tiger! Tiger! The Life of John B. Gough  by Hanoré Morrison in 1930.  The other major biography was written in 1893 by W. Carlos Martyn and is entitled John B. Gough, The Apostle of Cold Water.  See also two other books written by Gough which appeared late in his life:  Sunlight and Shadow (1881) and Platform Echoes (1884).

Transcription of Primary Source


It is gratifying to us as Britons to know that an Englishman is one of the foremost to combat the national vice of drunkenness; in the very forefront of the battle-field of temperance it is remarkable to find “a man of Kent,” a native of that country of which it is said,—

“And foremost ever placed
When they shall reckon’d bee,”

the standard bearer, and most conspicuous figure. In ancient times the “men of Kent” claimed, and were allowed, the privilege of leading the van of the English army to repel invaders of the country. “The Kentish men for their singular vertue then showne haue prerogative always to be in the Vant Guard.” One of the banners used by the county of Kent was a representation of a fighting man. But John B. Gough fights, not against invading Danes and Saxons, but against a deadlier enemy, and long may he be spared to continue the battle with that tenacious endurance which in the end has always ensured victory. To this extreme tenacity of purpose, under very great difficulties, may be attributed the success attending his now well-known exertions, which entitles him to the same epithet of “Unconquered,” the proud motto of his native county. This should be the watchword and rallying cry of all who have to fight the good fight against the vast array and organised forces of the drink-selling interest, which endangers social intercourse, the national prosperity, and the vital interests of the Christian Religion.


John B. Gough is an Englishman, not an American. He was born at Sandgate, Kent, on the 22nd of August, 1817. His father was a pensioner, having served twenty-five years in the Fortieth and Fifty-second Regiments of Light Infantry; but his long period of military service had led him to acquire ways which did not secure the love of John. “His military habits had become a second nature with him, stern discipline had been taught him in a severe school, and, it being impossible for him to cast off old associations, he was not calculated to win the deep affections of a child,—although in every respect he deserved and possessed my love.” Of his mother he speaks in terms of unbounded praise and affection. “Her heart,” he says, “was a fountain whence the pure waters of affection never ceased to flow. Her very being seemed twined with mine, and ardently did I return her love. For the long space of twenty years she had occupied the humble position of a schoolmistress in the village, and frequently planted the first principles of knowledge in the minds of children whose parents had, years before, been benefited by her early instructions, and well qualified, by nature and acquirements, was she for the interesting office she filled,—if a kindly heart and a well-stored mind be the requisites.” From his mother he received his first school lessons, and his second at a school at Folkestone. His education must, however, have been limited, for at ten years of age he left school never to return.

His ability as a reader early showed itself, and he was complimented for his reading abilities by William Wilberforce, who was staying in the neighborhood. His services were frequently in requisition at the village library, and one gentleman once rewarded him with five shillings, which was put into the hands of his mother on her return from Dover, after an unsuccessful errand of selling lace.

Not only did he read, he practised speaking. He says he frequently used to personate a clergyman, being then very fond of imitation; and, having rigged up a chair into some resemblance to a pulpit, he secured his sister’s services in the dressing up of rag dolls, which constituted his congregation, for whose especial benefit he poured forth his oratory, very much to his own amusement, if not to the edification of his dumb friends, who sat stiff and starched, perfect patterns of propriety. Then, as a diversion, he manufactured from an old bottomless chair a very respectable Punch and Judy box; and many a laugh he says he raised among his young companions by his performances. “My puppets were of home manufacture, but they passed muster well enough, especially with the boys and girls who had never been fortunate enough to have seen the genuine personification of these remarkable characters.”

As his father was unable to pay the premium necessary to John’s learning a trade, an arrangement was made with a family in the same village who were emigrating to America, that, in consideration of his paying ten guineas, they would take John with them, teach him a trade, and provide for him until he was twenty-one years of age. Accordingly, John left his native village for London, from whence he sailed on the 10th June, 1829, and arrived at New York on the 3rd of August. Instead of teaching him a trade, however, they employed him in farm work; but at the end of two years he became tired of this life, and found his way to New York with half-a-dollar in his pocket. “Fancy me,” he says, “a boy but fourteen years of age, a stranger, in a strange city;” with no one to guide him, no one to advise, and not a single soul to love or to be loved by. “There I was, three thousand miles distant from home and friends; a ‘waif on life’s wave,’ solitary in the midst of thousands, and with a heart yearning for kindly sympathy, but finding none. Whilst musing on my fortunes, all at once the following passage entered my mind, and afforded me consolation: ‘Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed.’” In a day or two he obtained employment as errand-boy, and as a learner of the bookbinding business. His master recommended him to a cheap boarding house, where, to his surprise, on going to bed he found he had to sleep with an Irishman, who was lying very sick of fever and ague. During the night the Irishman died, and in the morning John was noticed by a young lady to be weeping. Telling her his sad tale she said, “Poor distressed child! you shall go home with me to-night.” John did so, and was kindly treated. Soon after he joined a Methodist church, where an offer was made to him that he should enter the ministry. The offer was accepted; but a “combination of circumstances” led to the project being abandoned, to his withdrawing from the church, and to leaving his situation; but another situation was obtained, and as his prospects improved, he sent for his father, mother, and sister. His father did not accept the invitation, fearing to lose his hard-earned pension; but his mother and sister did, and the meeting on arrival may be imagined. For three months they lived happily, but John lost his situation through bad trade, and they suffered extremely.

But the greatest trouble was the loss of his mother, and it shall be told in his own words. He says: “About eight o’clock I returned home, and was going up the steps, whistling as I went, when my sister met me at the threshold, and seizing me by the hand, exclaimed, ‘John, Mother’s dead!’ What I did, what I said, I cannot remember; but they told me afterwards that I grasped my sister’s arm, laughed frantically in her face, and then for some minutes seemed stunned by the dreadful intelligence. As soon as they permitted me, I visited our garret—now a chamber of death—and there on the floor lay all that remained of her whom I had loved so well, and who had been a friend when all others had forsaken me. There she lay, her face tied up with a handkerchief—

‘By foreign hands her aged eyes were closed;
By foreign hands her decent limbs composed.’”

As soon as he sufficiently recovered from the shock, he visited the family with whom he left England. With them he stayed two months, then returned to New York, where he again obtained employment. The trouble through which he had passed had, he says, produced a bitterness of spirit, hardly to be described or understood. The consequence was, that he accepted introductions to the society of worthless young men, and his talents as a singer, reader, and mimic led to his falling. He began to frequent theatres, and occasionally acted. During this period he says that he worked pretty steadily at his business; but such were his growing habits of dissipation that, although receiving five dollars a week, he was continually in debt. Through a fire at his master’s shop he was thrown out of employment. He next found work as an actor, but failed to get any pay for his services. Again thrown on his own resources he failed to obtain regular work; but it would take too much space to detail his career. Even his marriage failed to wean him from drinking, and so low did he become that even those who had laughed the loudest at his songs and stories, and who had been social enough with him in the bar-room, were ashamed of his acquaintance. “I was now,” he writes, “the slave of a habit which had become completely my master, and which fastened its remorseless fangs in my very vitals. Thought was a torturing thing. When I looked back memory drew fearful pictures in lines of lurid flame; and, whenever I dared anticipate the future, hope refused to illuminate my onward path. I dwelt in one awful present; nothing to solace me—nothing to beckon me onwards to a better state.” To add to his loneliness his wife died, and so little sympathy did he get that he says he would have hugged the dog that licked his hand, and taken to his bosom even a reptile, had he though it loved him.

But the turning point came at last. Whilst wandering in the streets some one tapped him on the shoulder, and the following conversation took place.

“Mr. Gough, I believe?”

“That is my name,” I replied, and was passing on.

“You have been drinking to-day,” said the stranger, in a kind voice, which arrested my attention, and quite dispelled any anger at what I might otherwise have considered an officious interference in my affairs.

“Yes, sir,” I replied, “I have.”

“Why do you not sign the pledge?” was the next query.

The answer was, that he had no hope of ever again becoming a sober man; that he was without a single friend in the world; and that he fully expected to die very soon, and that he did not care how soon, nor whether he died drunk or sober. The stranger, however, obtained from him a promise that he would take the pledge the following day. He kept his promise, signed the pledge, and told the meeting what rum had done for him; but it cost him a horrible struggle to keep his pledge. The second time he attended the meeting, he said, in answer to the chairman, “I am getting on very well, and feel a good deal better than I did a week ago.” This was his second temperance speech. At every weekly meeting he was asked to speak, and invited to visit neighbouring towns. He thus describes an incident in connection with these visits:—

“I had not been able, through scarcity of funds, to procure fitting habiliments in which to appear before a respectable audience, and so I was compelled to wear an old overcoat, which the state of my underclothing obliged me to button closely up to my chin. The place assigned to me was very near a large and well-heated stove. As I spoke I grew warm, and after using a little exertion the heat became so insufferable, that I was drenched in perspiration. My situation was ludicrous in the extreme. I could not, in consequence of the crowd, retreat from the tremendous fire, and unbuttoning my coat was out of the question altogether. What with the warmth imparted by my subject and that which proceeded from the stove, I was fairly between two fires. When I had finished my speech I was all but ‘done’ myself, for my body contained a greater quantity of caloric than it had ever possessed before.”

His next speech was from a pulpit, and the strangeness of his position, he says, made him very nervous; his mouth was dry, his knees were very weak; but he got on, for he had a simple story to tell.

His first remuneration for his services as a lecturer was two dollars, the proceeds of a collection. Invitations to lecture poured in from all quarters, and in December, 1842, a new paper contained the following announcement:—

“We understand that this talented and worthy young mechanic is about to commence the business of lecturer on temperance. We wish him success; and we have no doubt that he will be eminently successful in his labours. He possesses, we believe, most of the elements of a popular speaker. He expresses his views in plain and intelligent language without effort; and what he says comes warm from the heart. With good powers of mind, and a lively fancy, added to wit and humour, he cannot fail to please and amuse with his bright and glowing pictures of things as they exist, while he instructs the mind with sound views and principles, and warms up the heart with kind and generous feeling and sentiments.”

Still, he did not wish to give up a certainty for an uncertainty, and applied to his employer for two weeks’ leave of absence. His application was granted; he went away and never returned.

Unfortunately for himself and for the cause which he had espoused, he broke his pledge after he had been a teetotaler only five months. To those who need an explination he says: “Well and wisely has it been said, by the inspired penman, ‘Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall’; for unassisted human strength is utterly unable to afford adequate support in the hour of weakness or temptation. We are safe only when we depend on a mightier arm than our own for support; our very strength lies in our sense of weakness; and this was to be demonstrated in my experience.” Owing to his hard work as a lecturer, and the weakness of his constitution through its having been constantly saturated with drink, he became so ill that he could rest nowhere. Going to the railway station, and almost without thinking what he was doing, and feeling an irresistible desire to move on, he got into the train for Boston. Whilst there he entered a theatre, fell in with some old companions, and drank a glass of brandy. “And then,” he writes, “suddenly, the horrid thought flashed across my mind, that I had violated my pledge. The horror I felt at the moment, it would be impossible for me to describe. Ruin, inevitable ruin, stared me in the face. By one rash and inconsiderate act, I had undone the work of months, betrayed the confidence reposed in me by friends, and blasted every hope for the future. To say that I felt miserable would only give a faint idea of my state. For five months I had battled with my enemy, and defied him when he appeared armed with all his terrors; but now, when I fondly fancied him a conquered foe, and had sung in the broad face of day my paeans of victory to hundreds and thousands of listeners, he had craftily wrought my downfall. I was like some bark,—

‘Which stood the storm when winds were rough,
But in a sunny hour, fell off;
Like ships that have gone down at sea
When heaven was all tranquility.’

My accursed appetite, too, which I deemed eradicated, I found had only slept; the single glass I had taken roused my powerful and now successful enemy.” Fortunately, however, he had the courage to acquaint a friend with what had transpired, re-signed the pledge, and, what is better, trusted no longer in his own strength, but “on Him who is able to keep me from falling, and render my labours honourable and useful.”

Henceforth, his services were in constant requisition, and in one year he delivered not fewer than three hundred and eighty-three addresses. He had, however, to pay dearly for his popularity. He says that the most bitter opposition he experienced was from the liquor sellers, some of whom threatened him, and laid traps for him. Worse than all, he was accused of secret drinking, and strong adjectives were used respecting his morals. Hence it was found necessary to vindicate his character by legal proceedings.

Once more, however, he broke his pledge under circumstances which led to an official enquiry by the church of which he was a member, but the committee decided that no action was demanded. A tedious illness, which endangered his life, followed; but God was pleased to bless the remedial treatment.

He resumed lecturing, in spite of the opposition of the enemies of temperance; and the publicans did what was not unfrequent in England—filled the halls with drunken ruffians. But opposition on the part of publicans, and abuse on the part of some teetotalers, both failed in their object. His popularity increased; and one of the charges brought against him was, that he was “making money.” Well, is not the labourer worthy of his hire? Had he not a right to use his talent to the best advantage, and to obtain for his services that which was optional for those to pay who employed him?

In 1853, Mr. Gough delivered in Exeter Hall, London, his first lecture in England. The Rev. Dr. Campbell wrote in the British Banner the following account of the man and the lecture:—

“The expectation was obviously very great; and, if we mistake not, a feeling somewhat of disappointment ran through the hall on Mr. Gough’s being introduced side by side with the chairman, whose commanding and dignified presence only tended to make matters worse. There was certainly nothing that gave promise of what was to follow. There stands before the audience, a man of the most unpretending air; apparently about thirty-two or thirty-three years of age, five feet eight inches in height, with a dark and sallow complexion; very plainly dressed; his whole mien bespeaking a person who had still to learn that he was somebody… Mr. Gough is a well-adjusted mixture of the poet, orator, and dramatist,—in fact, an English Gavazzi. Gough is in all respects,—in stature, voice, and force of manner,—on a scale considerably lower than the great Italian orator. Gavazzi is more grand, more tragic, more thoroughly Italian; but much less adapted to an English auditory. In their actual attributes, however, they have much in common. If Gavazzi possesses more power, Gough has more pathos. This is the main difference,—the chief; and here the difference is in favour of Gough. Gough excels Gavazzi in pathos, far more than Gavazzi excels Gough in power. Then Gough is more moderate in his theatrical displays. He paints much more, and acts much less… The conclusion to which we have come, then, is, that the merits of Mr. Gough have by no means been over-rated. Oratorically considered, he is never at fault. While the pronunciation, with scarcely an exception, is perfect, the elocutionary element is every way worthy of it. He is wholly free, on the one hand, from heavy monotony; and, on the other, from declamation, properly so called. There is no mouthing, no stilted shouting. His whole speaking was eminently true; there is nothing false, either in tone or inflection; and the same remark applies to emphasis. All is truth; the result is undeviating pleasure, and irresistible impression. His air is that of a man who never thought five minutes on the subjects of public speaking, but who surrenders himself to the guidance of his genius, while he ofttimes snatches a grace beyond the reach of art. In Mr. Gough, however, there are far higher considerations than those of eloquence. We cannot close without adverting to the highest attribute of his speaking; it is pervaded by a spirit of religion. Not a word escapes him which is objectionable on that score. Other things being equal, this never fails to lift a speaker far above his fellows.”

Mr. Gough remained in England two years, attracting crowds wherever he went. Before leaving for America, he made a three years’ agreement with the London Temperance League and the Scottish Temperance League to return in two years, and to deliver two hundred lectures per year at ten guineas per lecture. Accordingly, in 1857, he returned to London, and again sailed for America in 1860.

On the 24th of November, 1868, his “silver wedding” was celebrated, and a very large number of presents were made to him.

Since becoming a teetotaler, he has given his whole time to lecturing, and from 1843 to 1867 he has delivered 6,064 addresses.

After twenty years’ absence, he now makes his third visit to England. Since his previous visits, the Temperance movement has made great progress; and persons who undoubtedly have religious subjects much at heart are more ready to bring into public notice temperance principles and temperance work. Those principles and that work suffer no mysterious “Taboo” which then forbade, in many cases, the direct advocacy of temperance. The committee of the London Young Men’s Christian Association does not now, as it did twenty years since, demur to the term “Temperance,” nor would they now, as they did in 1858, think it necessary to advise the word “Habit” as a more desirable title to a lecture by Gough than “Temperance.” In our days, such a compromise is not necessary to conciliate public opinion, and no Young Men’s Christian Association would demur at the introduction of the subject. Twenty years of ploughing and sowing the Temperance farm has resulted in one large and fruitful field, ever widening its boundaries, yielding as its increase a majority of two-thirds of members of the Young Men’s Christian Associations as teetotalers, most of whom are earnestly occupied in Temperance work.

Again, social habits have also changed. It is not now thought a breach of hospitality to omit to offer wine to guests. “In many places,” he wrote, “astonishment was expressed that we drank no wine even where we were entertained.” Wine drinking has now become a matter of option. Twenty years ago it was nearly a matter of obligation, in many instances quite so.

To young men whose knees tremble, and whose words come not, when they get up to address a meeting, it will be interesting to read Mr. Gough’s answer to the question, “Were you ever embarrassed before an audience?” He writes: “Often the dread of an audience has well-nigh unfitted me for the evening’s service; and now, after more than twenty-six years of platform speaking, I rarely face an audience without a dryness of my lips, and a weakness in my knees. To be sure, it does not last long; but it is distressing for the time being. There have been occasions when the nervousness and depression previous to addressing an audience, have been of the most intense and distressing character.” Of the use of things to strengthen the voice, he says:—

“I would say to all who are thus engaged, in public speaking avoid all nostrums for the throat. They may give temporary relief in certain cases, such as hoarseness, or in stimulating the throat to moisture when feverish. I have tried them occasionally, and found a momentary relief; but I sincerely believe they are injurious when used continually.”

Mr. Gough is an abstainer, not only from alcohol, but from tobacco also. This consistency in abstaining from all narcotics will, in England, where tobacco is not grown, and not so extensively used as in the United States, add weight to his arguments against drinking. It is desirable that those who advocate abstinence from alcohol should likewise refrain from using other narcotic substances, of which tobacco, recently called in a Times leading article “a powerful drug,” is a most injurious one.

As a speaker on Teetotalism few equal him in his style of advocacy. Intemperance of language he cannot be accused of, and moderate drinkers need not fear being called unpleasant names by him. Against the evil which he fights, his language is strong; but to the men whose complicity in the drinking customs of the country is so much to be deplored, he is not abusive. His speeches are calculated to win rather than repel; and it were much to be desired that teetotalers would, instead of crowding to hear him themselves, give way for non-teetotalers. “The whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.”

Mr. Gough’s reclamation and conversion are very reassuring to Christian workers, and, after reading this sketch no one need doubt the conversion of the most confirmed drunkard.

NOTE.—This account is not intended to supersede, or compete with, the full Autobiography published by Mr. J. B. Gough in the United States, nor the abridged, but very interesting “Autobiography and Personal Recollections of J. B. Gough,” published by the Scottish Temperance League (Glasgow, 1872), but to furnish, briefly, a sketch of the orator and his work, and to promote the Temperance cause.

October 3rd, 1878.


Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
J.B. Gough: a sketch of his life, work, and orations, in America and Great Britain, with portrait & personal description
12 pages
Reade, A. Arthur
F. Pitman
Place of Publication: 
London, England
19 cm.
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: