Record has it that MLA Thomas Uphill didn’t go into pubs, and rarely partook in a drink.
And yet, the Fernie resident and the longest serving MLA in B.C. history from 1920-60, has quietly gone into the archives as a torchbearer who defended the right of B.C.’s 20th century working class to enjoy drink at the end of the day.
When the same movement that led to the 1917-21 prohibition reared its head during the Second World War, Uphill notably brandished a bottle of beer at the legislature, making this gem of a quote.
“Beer is as necessary to the worker as milk is to the baby…Hands off the workers’ beer,” he said.
The story is captured by local author and historian Wayne Norton, who revisits Uphill’s legacy around the issue of prohibition in an upcoming piece for Canada History magazine. It’s also being celebrated as a new beer, the Thomas Uphill Amber Ale, thanks to Chris Lukie, head brewer (and history fan) at Swans Brewpub. At least six descendants of Uphill will be at Swans for the Thursday (Oct. 26) launch where the beer will be available on tap and in 650ml bottles.
“When I heard Norton was hoping to have a beer in his honour I wanted to do it,” Lukie said. “That’s the cool thing about our industry, beer brings people together.”
The Thomas Uphill Amber Ale is a seasonal beer, an amber ale with a lower bitterness, more of a malt character and a reddish colour, almost like an English style, but North American, Lukie said.
“It’s the type of beer a worker could have at the and of the day, after one you feel refreshed, you could stop, or you could have more.”
Before moving to B.C. in 1906 Uphill worked in a Welsh coal mine where he gained respect for the labourious life of the working class, not just miners, but fishermen, loggers and others. When he was elected to provincial office in 1920, he wasn’t shy to go against the prohibition laws of the day.
“It wasn’t a popular decision to defend the working class men’s right to have beer,” Norton said. “The working class men were feared by the middle class anyways, and Uphill was swinging against the tide on this one.”
But to Uphill, it wasn’t the white collar occupation’s right to deny the working class the right to imbibe.
And besides, prohibition was a joke, and the public knew it. Booze was available with a prescription, and bootlegging charges were common in B.C., including that of Walter Findlay, B.C.’s corrupt prohibition commissioner who was arrested in 1918 for smuggling alcohol into B.C., part of a diverse distribution racket.
And yet, Uphill, ironically, was not much of a drinker, but did have some socially, Norton said.
“He did not go into pubs, but he believed men in hot conditions deserved the right to a drink.”
As the story goes, Uphill also agreed with a woman’s right to drink.
He died in 1962, and to this day remains the longest serving MLA in B.C. history.