Many are familiar with William Hogarth’s iconic print – Gin Lane. The scene it depicts, one of neglectful mothers and starving syphilitics, is certainly a memorable one. Behind the caricature of a society crippled by alcohol overconsumption, however, there lies an intriguing history of economic, political and social upheaval. In just a few decades, gin went from being a drink unknown to the English people to becoming both their saviour and executioner. In a time both surreal and sobering, the spirit was the craze of London.
Throughout the 17th century, Britain had what might be described as a drinking culture. Beer had traditionally been the booze of choice; much of the population began the day with a small tipple, while taverns and alehouses made handsome profits each day. In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, however, tastes changed. English dissatisfaction with the Catholic King James II had reached a breaking point and, in what was effectively a coup d’etat, the nobility hounded him out of the country and invited James’ Protestant daughter to take the throne. She was backed by her husband, William of Orange (the Stadholder of the Netherlands), who provided the military force needed to ensure success, and was subsequently crowned King. Yet with William and his army came another Dutch invention – gin.
The novel spirit soon enraptured the English populace, and was marketed as a distinctly Protestant drink for Protestant subjects, as opposed to Catholic brandy and wine. Gin only became more successful with the outbreak of war between England and France; heavy import duties were placed on foreign alcohol, and William began encouraging the production of domestic drinks. A range of government laws were passed to drive up spirit production: the market was freed up when the Guild of Distillers was disbanded in 1690, taxes on alcohol production were reduced and no licenses were required.
Meanwhile, economic prosperity further facilitated a growth in alcohol consumption. Due to a series of good harvests at the turn of the 18th century, it was possible to produce record amounts of gin, which is mainly made from grain. At the same time, the increased supply of corn led to a drop in food prices, meaning the populace had more disposable income to spend on goods like alcohol. In 1724, five million gallons of gin were produced – a number that doubled in just six years.
All segments of society enjoyed drinking gin, albeit for very different reasons. For the upper classes, gin-drinking was a fashionable and pleasurable activity. For the lower classes, however, gin consumption was primarily motivated by a need for escapism. This was an era of extensive urbanisation, as the rural poor moved to the capital in search of prosperity, but found only deprivation and debauchery. London’s development into a metropolis 600,000 strong created a competitive society, in which those who floundered financially found few sources of support. For most, life was nasty, brutish and short. Accordingly, the urban poor drank gin less to enhance their situation than to forget about it entirely. This is reflected by the common signage on most gin shops, which read “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pennies, clean straw for nothing” – that is to say, most were expected to end their evening by passing out altogether.
Gin was consumed in a very different manner than beer. Since the latter had for so long been Britain’s staple drink, social conventions had arisen regarding its consumption. As gin was a relative newcomer to the scene, however, there were no such expectations surrounding it. This enabled those who had been excluded from beer-drinking, most notably women, to partake in gin-drinking as much as they pleased, only further increasing the alcohol’s popularity.
Crucially, one of the conventions concerning beer did carry over; people still bought drinks in pints – a reasonable quantity when the drink of the day was beer, but a more dangerous prospect when those pints were filled with gin, which in the 18th Century was approximately twice as strong as its modern variant. On one occasion, a group of Londoners offered a rural labourer a shilling for every pint of gin he could drink. After finishing his third drink, he dropped dead. Indeed, for many, drinking any gin at all was somewhat hazardous; there was a complete lack of regulation concerning alcohol standards, meaning much of the booze was of an extremely poor quality. To give their drink an extra flavour, some vendors were known to add such exotic ingredients as sulphuric acid and turpentine.
Despite these dangers, gin remained immensely popular with the people of London, to the extent that it was personified as dear old ‘Mother Geneva’ – derived from the Dutch ‘jenever’. By the 1730s, the average Londoner was drinking around fourteen gallons of gin per year. As consumption skyrocketed, a moral panic began. As early as 1721, a Middlesex magistrates’ court described gin as “the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people.” While this clearly was an exaggeration, the following decades saw several high profile cases which demonstrated the damage the drink was doing to society. In 1734, Judith Defour collected her two-year-old infant from a workhouse, strangled it and sold the dead child’s clothes to buy gin with the proceeds. In an accidental – though no less horrifying – incident, Mary Estwick, having drunk herself into a stupor, mistook her baby for a log and threw it onto an open fire.
These were, of course, extreme examples, but Lord Hervey’s assessment that “the drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole of London surrounded with drunken people from morning ‘til night” was only partial hyperbole. London’s upper classes looked down with disdain, believing that the poor ought to confront their sorrows rather than drown them in a sea of alcohol. Gin was seen as a source of prostitution, insanity and indolence. Thomas Wilson observed that, under the drink’s influence, the poor forgot the deference the upper echelons thought was owed to them, and became an “ungovernable set of people.” The gravest concern of the capital’s elite, however, was that gin rendered people idle, limiting the productivity which fuelled the British Empire.
Amidst these concerns, the government moved to limit the drink’s influence. The 1736 Gin Act attempted to curb consumption by making the industry economically unfeasible; sales were taxed at twenty shillings per gallon and premises were forbidden from selling gin without paying an exorbitant £50 (£8,000 in today’s money) license fee, which none but the largest breweries could hope to afford. Such was the public outrage following the passage of the Gin Act that mock-funeral processions were held for the beloved ‘Mother Geneva’.
Ultimately, the government’s proto-prohibition completely backfired – only two licenses were taken out in seven years, but that did not mean consumption fell. Legitimate gin sellers were decimated, but less legally concerned suppliers flourished. Anyone attempting to collect the £5 reward for informing on illegal gin vendors could expect to receive a vicious beating from an enraged mob. Court juries and justices refused to convict those accused of gin-related offences for fear of receiving the same treatment. Meanwhile, Londoners developed ingenious methods of purchasing gin covertly – many simply sold the drink as a medicine instead of as a beverage, while others used aniseed rather than juniper in its production, since such a spirit was not technically considered a ‘gin’.
No other tactic, however, was as delightfully devious as the the aptly named ‘Puss and Mew Machine’. One vendor, Dudley Bradstreet, examined the Gin Act and discovered it had several loopholes. The first was that it did not make the act of purchasing or drinking gin provided by an unauthorised seller illegal – only the sale itself was outlawed. The second was that it did not permit police to enter privately owned buildings to investigate the 18th Century speakeasies which were then springing up. The third, and most crucial, was that the police had to be sure of the identity of the gin-provider to arrest him. Exploiting these flaws with a fittingly feline cunning, Bradstreet rented a London house under an assumed name, removed a side window and boarded the gap with a block of wood that had a cat carved into its front.
Customers would approach the cat and make their orders, saying something such as “puss, give me two pennyworth of gin”, and then pass the coins through a slit in the cat’s mouth. Behind the cat, safely hidden inside the house, was Bradstreet, who poured the gin through a lead pipe which emerged from the cat’s paw. The transaction enraged the authorities but was both completely risk free and immensely lucrative; Bradstreet made £4 a day from his invention. Within years of becoming law, the 1736 Gin Act had become a dead letter.
In 1748, a perceived crime wave led to the government resolving to settle the Gin Craze with force, and be done with the matter once and for all. A public relations campaign, which included Henry Fielding, Daniel Defoe and William Hogarth (the creator of Gin Lane), attempted to convince the public of the corrupting impacts of gin consumption. The 1751 Gin Act was far more successful than its predecessor – it lowered license fees but still encouraged gin to be sold only by reputable retailers, since licenses were only given to premises rented for more than £10 a year. Economic factors aided this crusade; a series of bad harvests made grain more scarce, decreasing both the demand for and the supply of gin, whilst lower wages and population growth combined to mean the average Londoner was left without the disposable income once spent on the spirit. Slowly, the London gin craze died down, but not before Hogarth’s nightmarish image of a dysfunctional and self-destructive society came to define a period as intriguing as it was unsettling.