In the first half of the 18th century, London slums were rife with an epidemic of drunkeness. With over 7,000 gin shops by 1730, gin was available to buy at every street corner.
The legislative backlash that arose has been compared to modern drug wars.
So how did Hanoverian London reach such levels of depravity?
The ban on brandy
When William of Orange ascended the British throne during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Britain was a staunch enemy of France. Their strict Catholicism and the absolutism of Louis XIV was feared and hated. In 1685 Louis revoked tolerance for French Protestants and propelled fears of a Catholic counter-reformation.
During this time of anti-French feeling, the British government sought to put pressure on the enemy across the channel, restricting imports of French brandy. Of course, once brandy was banned, an alternative would have to be provided. Thus, gin was advocated as the new drink of choice.
Between 1689 and 1697, the government passed legislation preventing brandy imports and encouraging gin production and consumption. In 1690, the monopoly of the London Guild of Distillers was broken, opening up the market in gin distillation.
Taxes on the distillation of spirits were reduced, and licences were removed, so distillers could have smaller, more simple workshops. In contrast, brewers were required to serve food and provide shelter.
This move away from brandy was remarked on by Daniel Defoe, who wrote:
‘the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion’d compound Waters called Geneva, so that the common People seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not to desire it.’
The rise of ‘Madam Geneva’
As the prices of food dropped and incomes grew, consumers had the opportunity to spend on spirits. The production and consumption of gin rocketed, and it soon became wildly out of hand. It began to cause massive social issues as poorer areas of London suffered from widespread drunkenness.
It was declared the major cause of idleness, criminality and moral decline. In 1721, Middlesex magistrates declared gin as
‘the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people’.
Soon after the government had actively encouraged consumption of gin, it was producing legislation to stop the monster it had created, passing four unsuccessful acts in 1729, 1736, 1743, 1747.
The 1736 Gin Act sought to make selling gin economically unfeasible. It introduced a tax on retail sales and required retailers to obtain an annual licence of around £8,000 in today’s money. After only two licences were taken out, the trade was made illegal.
Gin was still mass produced, but became far less reliable and therefore dangerous – poisoning was commonplace. The government began to pay informers a decent sum of £5 to reveal the whereabouts of illegal gin shops, provoking riots so violent that the ban was repealed.
By 1743, the average gin consumption per person each year was 10 litres, and this amount was on the rise. Organised philanthropic campaigns emerged. Daniel Defoe blamed drunken mothers on producing a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children, and Henry Fielding’s report in 1751 blamed gin consumption for crime and poor health.
The original gin drank Britain came from Holland, and this ‘jenever’ was a weaker spirit at 30%. The gin of London was not a botanical drink to enjoy with ice or lemon, but was a throat-searing, eye-reddening cheap escape from daily life.
For some, it was the only way to ease pangs of hunger, or provide relief from the bitter cold. Turpentine spirit and sulphuric acid were often added, frequently leading to blindness. The signage on shops read ‘Drunk for a penny; dead drunk for two pennies; clean straw for nothing’ – the clean straw referring to passing out in a bed of straw.
Hogarth’s Gin Lane and Beer Street
Perhaps the most famous imagery surrounding the Gin Craze was Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’, depicting a community destroyed by gin. An inebriated mother is ignorant to her infant falling to its probable death below.
This scene of maternal abandonment was familiar to Hogarth’s contemporaries, and gin was considered a particular vice of urban women, earning the names ‘Ladies Delight’, ‘Madam Geneva’, and ‘Mother Gin’.
In 1734, Judith Dufour retrieved her infant child from the workhouse complete with a new set of clothes. After strangling and abandoning the child in a ditch, she
‘sold the Coat and Stay for a Shilling, and the Petticoat and Stockings for a Groat … parted the Money, and join’d for a Quartern of Gin’.
In another case, Mary Estwick drank so much gin she allowed an infant to burn to death.
Much of the benevolent campaigning against gin consumption was driven by general concerns of national prosperity – it compromised trade, affluence and refinement. For example, several proponents of the British Fisheries scheme were also supporters of the Foundling Hospital and Worcester and Bristol infirmaries.
In Henry Fielding’s campaigns, he identified the ‘luxury of the vulgar’ – that is, gin’s removal of fear and shame which enfeebled the labourers, soldiers and sailors so essential to the health of the British nation.
Hogarth’s alternative image, ‘Beer Street’, was described by the artist,
‘Here all is joyous and thriving. Industry and jollity go hand in hand’.
It is a direct argument of gin being consumed at the expense of national prosperity. Although both images depict drinking, those in ‘Beer Street’ are workers recovering from the exertion of labour. However, in ‘Gin Lane’, drinking replaces labour.
Finally, in the mid-century, it seemed the consumption of gin was dropping. The Gin Act of 1751 lowered the licence fees, but encouraged ‘respectable’ gin. However, it seems this was not a result of legislation, but the rising cost of grain, resulting in lower wages and increased food prices.
Gin production decreased from 7 million imperial gallons in 1751, to 4.25 million imperial gallons in 1752 – the lowest level for two decades.
After half a century of catastrophic gin consumption, by 1757, it had almost disappeared. Just in time for the new craze – tea.