How a Gin Craze Nearly Destroyed 18th-Century London
By 1730, an estimated 7,000 gin shops were turning Londoners into degenerate alcoholics. Historical accounts of violence, widespread addiction, and social devastation call to mind the early 80s crack epidemic.
Foto via Wikimedia Commons
Between 1700 and 1760, London was involved in a passionate but staggeringly destructive love affair with gin, popularly known as "the mother's ruin." The city was positively drowning in the stuff.
By 1730, an estimated 7,000 gin shops (and probably many more if one was somehow able to count the untold illegal drinking dens) were catering to the trade, with some 10 million gallons of the spirit distilled each year. Historical accounts of violence, widespread addiction, and social devastation call to mind the early 80s crack epidemic that hit the US with ferocity.
For many working-class Londoners, gin became more than a drink. It sated desperate hunger pangs, offered relief from the perpetual cold, and was a blessed escape from the brutal drudgery of life in the slums and workhouses. It was a cheap buzz that could be had for pennies on any decrepit street corner stand or in the bowels of some stinking cellar—and it quickly wrecked havoc on inner city London.
Thomas Fielding, a social historian of the time, wrote about the ravages of the trade on what he termed the "inferior people" in his 1751 political pamphlet Enquiry into the causes of the late increase of Robbers:
"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."
But why gin? Why did this particular spirit—rather than whiskey or brandy, say—cause such widespread devastation?
Make no mistake: we're not talking any kind of "dry," botanical-based sophistication here. The gin of the 18th century was a throat-searing, eye-reddening, vomit-churning hell broth.
During Britain's many years of war with France, the French brandy that had previously flowed in London pubs became unfashionable—unpatriotic, even—and was thus increasingly difficult to get hold of. Parliament then passed a number of legislative measures designed to increase domestic spirit production and break the French stranglehold on the market.
A corresponding drop in food prices ensured that working people had a larger disposable income to spend on booze. Thus was born the perfect storm.
While gin maintained a generally urbane and sophisticated image in the 20th century—bringing to mind the world-weary crumple chic of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, or perhaps Ian Fleming propping up the bar on his third industrial-strength martini—it bears mentioning that the drink consumed in 18th-century London was a far grizzlier beast.
Originally imported from Holland in the late 17th century, the original Dutch spirit known a jenever was a weaker (at around 30 percent alcohol by volume) drink. But the gin distilled in London was fiendishly strong and very often adulterated with hideous impurities. Make no mistake: we're not talking any kind of "dry," botanical-based sophistication here. It was more of a throat-searing, eye-reddening, vomit-churning hell broth.
Turpentine spirit and sulphuric acid were common additions, and—as with American moonshine or Irish poteen—tales of blindness among those who frequented the drinking dens and gin shops in the teeming London slums were not infrequent. The infamous signage above the gas-lit gin cellars read: "Drunk for a penny; dead drunk for two pennies; clean straw for nothing." The assumption was that after spending more than a few pennies, you'd be so hammered that the only option would be to pass out on a bed of straw. ("Clean"—yeah, right.)
One tragic event, however, captured the zeitgeist and caused public outcry that led to the beginning of the end for the gin craze. In 1734, a woman named Judith Dufour strangled her two-year-old son and sold his clothes for gin. The attendant coverage ensured that Parliament—though enjoying pretty hefty taxes from the trade—had to act. Over the course of the next two decades, it passed a number of bills aimed at slowing the city's seemingly unquenchable thirst for gin.
Foremost among these was the 1751 Gin Act, which prohibited distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants and also increased the fees charged to small-time merchants—a decision that led to gin no longer being sold in small gin shops, but rather the bigger pubs where quality control was tighter.
As historian GM Trevelyan described in volume three of his Illustrated Social History:
"The Act of 1751 really did reduce the excesses of spirit drinking. It was a turning point in the social history of London and was so considered when this time was still within living memory, but even after that blessed date medical men still attributed an eighth of the deaths of London adults to spirit drinking; but the worst was over, and after the middle years of the century tea became a formidable rival to alcohol with all classes, both in the capital and in the country at large."
After the act was passed, the Gin Craze was immortalised in Hogarth's notorious 1751 print Gin Lane.
The artist depicted an inner London slum ravaged by drunkenness. A shocking social document at the time, Gin Lane showed a tableau of deprivation: a baby dangles from a railing while the mother sits in a drunken stupor; a beggar and his dog hungrily fight over a bone; brawling breaks out over the street and a dead body is stripped of valuables; a pawnbroker does a roaring trade as people swap their goods for money to buy more gin.
The print was accompanied by a fiery verse from James Townley: "Gin cursed fiend, with fury fraught; makes human race a prey; it enters by a deadly draught; and steals our life away."
Gin Lane was accompanied by another print by Hogarth called Beer Street, which extolled the happy and carefree virtues of vast tankards of foaming ale, depicting a hive of industry as rotund and happy Englishmen down pints of beer, the "happy produce of our isle … we quaff thy balmy juice with glee and water leave to France."
But although cheap gin was held in disrepute for some time, in recent years the real thing has returned to favour in the capital. A selection of small distilleries have opened up in London and are winning accolades for their botanical-laden distillations. Sipsmiths has won awards for its London Dry Gin, while the East London Liquor Company is equally interested in (quality) old methods of distillation, infusing its gin with grapefruit peel, cardamon, and cubeb berries, among many other botanicals.
It's all rather polite, and certainly far removed from the days of staggering out of the gin shop with a pint of poisonous fight juice. Just don't call it a craze.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.