The War Against Gin
In the early to mid-eighteenth century London was in crisis. The birth rate was falling and the death rate rising, infant mortality averaged 242 in 1000 from 1730-79, and gin was often blamed for this. Gin was also linked to unruly behaviour and mob rule. The Old Bailey records from this time show that lots of criminal cases were closely associated with drinking gin and the places gin was drunk. Gin was also linked to a reduction in labourers’ productivity and a reduction in healthy eating. The latter, more specifically, meant a reduction in the number of poor people eating offal that then had to go to the dogs. This highlights one of the many complaints people had against gin, that the poor were becoming luxurious in their habits and not staying in their place. Furthermore, troops returning from war were seen as causing a gin-fuelled crime wave. These social problems were very focused and localised as 80% of England’s gin drinking was happening in London.
Throughout the century the Government made various efforts to control the rapid rise in gin drinking. The first Act in 1729 included making the licence to sell gin more expensive, but it had little effect on sales or drinking. Many of the Acts targeted the smaller sellers and distillers, those selling from backrooms, carts, and gin dens, rather than the wealthy, influential distillers. For example, in the Act of 1733 street vendors were banned and in 1736 it became illegal to sell less than two gallons wholesale. Further Acts were introduced in 1743 and 1746 which were also fairly ineffectual.
Informers joined together in gangs to report those who broke the laws but it was a very dangerous business. Informers were often attacked and beaten up. Eventually, juries and magistrates wouldn’t convict because they were scared of the consequences of going against the gin drinking masses.
The fashion for gin had begun to wane when the government brought in the most effective Act in 1751. This Act prohibited the distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants. It brought down the price of a licence to make it worth purchasing for many of the more respectable drinking establishments of the city. Thus many small gin shops were effectually shut down, restricting sales of gin to larger retailers.
There was also lots of opposition to gin on moral grounds, with sermons, pamphlets, and plays all speaking out against the evils of the drink. A famous example is Hogarth’s pair of illustrations, Beer Lane and Gin Street.
This is Hogarth’s famous illustration of Gin Lane, demonstrating the evils of gin. In the foreground a syphilitic mother in a drunken state lets her child fall to his death as she take a sophisticate pinch of snuff. A starved man lies, eyes closed, his gin glass grasped in his hand. On the left of the image people push and shove to pawn their belongings in order to get some cash for gin. On the right we see children drinking gin, evidence of gin-caused blindness, and, above the distillers, a suicide. An old lady is being fed gin whilst in the background London is seen falling into ruins. A body is being placed into a coffin in the middle of the street. Through these, and other, not so subtle hints, Hogarth illustrates the dangers, physical and moral, of the drink.
These two images were published side-by-side to illustrate the difference between the evil gin and the benign beer. Here, in Beer Street we have a much more wholesome scene as well dressed citizens drink from large tankards. In the foreground there is evidence of bountiful food, in the background, wealth as a rich figure is transported by his servants. There is also evidence of building, rather than deterioration of the city. In the right hand corner, even a man of the cloth is indulging in a sip of beer.The pawnbroker is struggling, his building propped up, rather than a crowd at his door, he is receiving a small beer. As always with Hogarth, I’m sure there is more to notice!
Often the problems found were with the poor drinking. Rich gin drinkers were rarely found themselves in trouble. Thomas Fielding, writing at the time said the following in his political pamphlet of 1751,
“A new kind of drunkenness, unknown to our ancestors, is lately sprung up among us, and which if not put a stop to, will infallibly destroy a great part of the inferior people. The drunkenness I here intend is … by this poison called Gin … the principal sustenance (if it may be so called) of more than a hundred thousand people in this Metropolis.”
As we can see, this is presented very much as a class issue revolving around the ‘inferior people’ inhabiting the slums of the city.
The Fight Back
There was much resistance to the war against gin and many ways of getting hold of a dram for those who wanted it – and lots did. One amusing example is the ‘Puss and Mew’ devices. People would queue up by a painted or wooden cat and say ‘puss’, if the response was ‘mew’ it meant that gin was available. A small drawer would slide out – maybe from the cat’s mouth – and the patron would put 2 pennies into it. Then a dram of gin would be dispensed through a lead pipe, perhaps straight into a mouth or into a small container.
Sellers were creative about ducking round awkward legislation, for example, as gin was associated with juniper some distillers simply removed the juniper and used other flavourings such as aniseed. Thus it was not gin.
Gin drinking was an act of civil disobedience. After some of the Acts were passed there were street riots with chants such as ‘No gin, no King’. The poor, as well as the wealthier, found pleasure in gin drinking. Eventually magistrates gave up attempting to enforce the law. In 1742 8 million gallons of gin were produced in England and only 40 gallons of licenced gin was sold.
Consumption of gin began to fall naturally in the 1740s. The fashion for the gin was cooling off and other new drinks, such as porter, took its place. Believe it or not, tea would be the next fashion to sweep the city. A series of bad harvests from 1757-63 meant that, legally, no grain was allowed to be distilled. Therefore, gin became very expensive and the majority of small distillers shut up shop. Following these years, gin distilleries were owned almost exclusively by wealthy men. In 1769 Alexander Gordon begun distilling in South London, yet London no longer had a monopoly on gin. Dakin in Warrington, in the North West set up a distillery in 1761, Stein in Fife, Scotland in the 1780s. Distillers sprung up in Bristol and Liverpool as well. Back in the hands of the wealthy, gin was becoming an acceptable drink. Of course, Gin never went away. It was popular in the nineteenth century with both positive and negative associations, however, the craze was all but over.
This drink with its fascinating history still holds a special place in the nations heart, as we are, even now, a nation of drunkards.