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The Gin Craze: When 18th Century London Tried to Drink Itself to Death

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This piece is part of a series of essays on alcohol history. You can see more here.

Gazing around the globe at a broad history of human intoxication, there are moments where, from a distance, an entire population essentially seems to lose its mind and descend into a collective stupor. It was the case in the U.S. in the early 1800s, as the dirt-cheap price of newly available whiskey led directly to soaring rates of alcohol consumption, in a moment when whiskey became essentially the cheapest potable someone could purchase. These drinking rates peaked in 1830, when Americans were consuming on average a staggering 7 gallons of pure ethanol per year, a figure that is almost three times higher than the current figure of around 2.4 gallons. It’s entirely safe to say that we were a nation of sodden drunks, and it becomes much easier to understand the roots of the temperance movement, which first began gathering strength at the same time.

Across the pond, however, the British had gone through a similar period of intense consumption almost exactly a century earlier (roughly 1720-1751), as the spirit of independence was fomenting in their North American colonies. We now call it the Gin Craze—a period of gaudy, over-the-top consumption of the titular spirit so long associated with Britain and the U.K., which at its worst was seen by the British government as a full-blown (and deadly) epidemic of intoxication. It was the birth of one of Europe’s first true megalopolises in the form of London, and it was utterly awash in foul, searingly strong gin.

As with America’s drunken heyday, however, the reasons for the Gin Craze weren’t so simple as a great, unrequited thirst for booze among the populace. There were economic trade factors that suddenly made liquor far more available to the population at the time than it ever had been before, in a city (London) that had swollen to a dangerously large new size. Many factors ultimately came together to create a uniquely volatile, juniper-scented situation. We’ll try to dive into some of them here.

The Gift of Spirits, Gin Included

Although it is thought that the earliest distillation of spirits may have occurred as early as the 13th century, distilled spirits—what we’d also refer to as “liquor”—weren’t truly accessible or popular for recreational drinking for hundreds of years afterward. They were, after all, far more complicated and dangerous to produce than beer, wine or cider, which could be (and were) produced by servants or kitchen staff on practically every large homestead or piece of property. Distillation, on the other hand, required significantly more knowledge and specialized equipment, and the earliest spirits were therefore often in the hands of alchemists and apothecaries, who viewed them as potent medicines rather than everyday tipples.

Nevertheless, many 15th, 16th and 17th century spirits likely did bear some resemblance to gin, given that juniper berries were one of the earliest and most widely used flavorings for neutral grain spirits. As the decades advanced, various regions likewise began to develop their own styles of spirit. The French and Dutch developed brandewijn, meaning “burnt wine” although it’s literally distilled wine, which would eventually be called brandy. The Russians left the juniper out of their neutral grain spirits, and it developed into vodka. The Irish and Scots developed poitín and then whisky. And the Dutch created genever, the juniper-accented spirit that the English would refer to as “Madam Geneva,” and eventually just “gin.” As with modern gins, the products created by the Dutch were infused with a variety of botanicals, from the signature juniper to spices such as clove, coriander, caraway and anise.

Regarded as possibly the world’s first commercial gin brand.

It wasn’t until the later half of the 1600s, though, that enough small-scale spirits producers were producing enough spirit for its popularity to begin to rise as a commercially available beverage. And even as the century came to a close, gin was still more of a novelty than anything in London, the most commonly available (and popular) spirits of the day being French brandies. So how did gin consumption reach epidemic levels only a few decades later?

Well, turns out the government had a hand in it. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which placed Dutch King William III/William of Orange on the throne, harsh punitive trade measures were put in place to target the French economy. This included blockades and heavy tariffs on French goods such as wine and brandy, greatly raising the price of imported spirits in England. At the same time, the 1690 “Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn” opened the floodgates on unlicensed spirits production in England, intended to help make use of excess grains. Only the British didn’t really produce much in the way of brandy—what instead rolled out of the thousands of newly established (and unregulated) stills was a flood of dirt cheap, barely palatable gin, given that it could easily be made from sub-standard grain that was unfit for beer brewing.

In the course of a few decades, thousands upon thousands of low-rent gin shops saturated London in particular, exposing the working poor and the destitute to a spirit that was suddenly much cheaper (often cheaper than beer, even) and more available than it ever had been before. Both production and consumption subsequently skyrocketed, going from roughly 500,000 gallons of gin in 1685 (just before the Glorious Revolution) to a gaudy 11 million gallons in 1733. In less than half a century, production in London had increased a tidy 2,100 percent.

Life in the Gin Craze

It is important to remember that the late 17th and early 18th centuries in London were a period of dramatic population upheaval and growth, in which the working poor of the nation first flooded into the country’s only true megalopolis looking for work. For many, only destitution awaited, and the move from small villages to the huge city removed a chunk of the social safety net that an average person might have been able to rely on “back home.” As HistoryExtra put it:

London’s population was around 600,000. There were only two other towns in England with populations of 20,000. London was the first grand, anonymous city. There were none of the social constraints of a village where everybody knew everybody’s business. And there were none of the financial safeguards either, with a parish that would support its native poor, or the family and friends who might have looked after you at home. Instead, there was gin.

You had, then, an influx of poor residents who had relatively little experience consuming liquor and little social reason not to drink liquor, combined with rock-bottom liquor prices brought on by governmental decree, and a booming market of underhanded (and downright dangerous) gin distillers and gin shops ready to prey on them. The stage was set quite adequately for disastrous results.

William Hogarth’s famous 1751 print “Gin Lane” depicts all the debauchery and death of the craze in its heyday, as mothers endanger their children, men starve and desperate gin drinkers dig up the dead to sell their clothes and trinkets.

We should also state, for the record, that the spirits themselves being consumed by the poor during the height of the Gin Craze would have had little to no resemblance to artisanal gin as we know it today. Yes, some juniper would likely have been involved, but most of this stuff was pure rotgut, plagued by distilling imperfections and dangerous additives (including even small amounts of sulphuric acid). It could also be insanely strong—Mark Forsyth, the author of A Short History of Drunkenness wrote that liquors of the era described as “gin” could be up to twice as strong as they commonly are today. That’s all the more mind-blowing considering that pretty much all of this liquor was being consumed neat—the Londoners of the day weren’t taking this gin and mixing it with tonic or lime juice, which wasn’t popularized by the British navy until the end of the century. In fact, the rotgut gin of the day was even being consumed warm or hot at times—in the winter, when the Thames would freeze, makeshift fairs and markets would spring up on the ice, complete with hot gin and gingerbread. Nothing more festive than a pint of hot, heavily adultered gin, right?

Perhaps most infamously, public perception of the Gin Craze and its effects came to a head in 1734, when a Londoner named Judith Dufour was convicted of and executed for the crime of either abandoning or strangling her own two-year-old daughter in order to sell her clothing for gin money. The fact that those clothes had come from a public workhouse that Dufour had previously placed her daughter into in order to bilk the system provoked exactly the kind of righteous fury you’d expect to see in the present day, when addicts among the homeless or impoverished population are still often demonized. It seemed clear enough to social crusaders and emerging industrialists of the day that some kind of intervention against gin needed to take place.

The Crackdown on Gin

As gin production and public drunkenness soared, it naturally gave birth to a moral panic centered around that rampant liquor consumption. Social critics and upper class writers of the day bemoaned the ugliness of this apparent plague on the city streets, and several attempts were made by the English government to dissuade gin drinkers or increase taxes on gin merchants, with little success. The well-to-do had seen such things before, but never in such volume, and they did little to hide their contempt, even as they imbibed finer, less poisonous spirits of their own. Social historian Thomas Fielding, in his 1751 political pamphlet Enquiry into the causes of the late increase of Robbers, summed up that attitude by terming it “a new kind of dunkenness” that preyed upon “the inferior people.” The full quote:

“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.”

“The Gin Shop,” an anti-gin etching by artist George Cruikshank from 1829. Mothers, children and men alike are pictured standing in the bear trap that represents the deadly effects of cheap, toxic gin.

In response to mounting pressure for government intervention, Parliament first passed the Gin Control Act of 1729 to raise taxes on gin merchants, but the act was repealed only four years later after proving ineffective at curbing public drunkenness. Parliament then tried again in 1736 with the much more restrictive Gin Act, which required the purchase of extremely expensive licenses (around £8,000 in modern currency) for any vendor of gin, as well as rewarding informants who reported unlicensed gin sales. Unfortunately, the result this time around was simply mass lawlessness as gin merchants and distillers simply took their ventures underground—in fact, only two of the licenses were ever purchased. Gin consumption would only increase into the 1740s, accomplished through increasingly outlandish (and creative) means.

The most famous of these means, and a direct response to the 1736 Gin Act, was the creation of something that has been referred to as one of the first “vending machines,” the Puss and Mew. Conceived by a clever if rather unsympathetic entrepreneur named Captain Dudley Bradstreet, the Puss and Mew was a large metal statue of a cat built into the wall of an unassuming building, which contained a metal spout and slots in the mouth for coins to pass through. Once word hit the street that gin was available, the local lushes merely had to insert a few coins into the cat’s mouth in order to be rewarded with a flow of gin by the person standing on the other side of the wall—thus keeping the identity of the gin merchant a secret. And because the Gin Act failed to give police the authority to enter a building without the testimony of an informant as to a seller’s identity, the “Puss” could essentially sell all the gin it wanted while acting as a shield of anonymity. As a very self-satisfied Bradstreet put it in his own memoir The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet:

The Mob being very noisy and clamorous for want of their beloved Liquor…it soon occurred to me to venture upon that Trade. I bought the Act, and read it over several times, and found no Authority by it to break ones Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the house it was sold in. To evade this, I got an Acquaintance to take a House in Blue Anchor Alley…and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window. I then caused a Leaden Pipe… to be placed under the Paw of the Cat…When the Liquor was properly disposed, I got a Person to inform a few of the Mob that Gin would be sold by the Cat at my Window the Next Day, provided they put money in its mouth… I heard the Chink of Money, and a comfortable voice say, “Puss, give me two Pennyworth of Gin.” I instantly put my mouth to the tube, and bid them receive it from the Pipe under her Paw…. from all parts of London People used to resort to me in such Numbers, that my neighbors could scarcely get in or out of their Houses.

Finally, around 1743 the Gin Craze reached its peak, with more than 18 million gallons of gin being consumed in England, almost entirely in a handful of major city centers, and the vast majority in London. Consumption then began to sharply decrease on a yearly basis, being cut in half by the end of the next decade. Some credit for the decrease is directed at the eventual Gin Act of 1751, which restricted retail licenses to venues with higher property values and made it illegal for distillers to sell to anyone but licensed retailers, which subsequently lowered gin production and raised gin prices. At the same time, however, a bevy of social factors also began to cut down gin consumption, from an increasing stigmatization of drunkenness, to the increasing popularity of tea and coffee, to the demands of a London economy that was growing more industrial and mechanized every year. Beer, ever labeled as the “beverage of moderation,” was likewise poised for a comeback.

William Hogarth’s depiction of “Beer Street” was decidedly more sunny, healthful and temperate than the deadly revels of “Gin Lane.”

Eventually, the tide of public opinion simply turned against gin, and everything it had represented in English society for the past 30 years. These sentiments were immortalized in the form of a duo of famous prints from English satirist/propagandist William Hogarth entitled Beer Street and Gin Lane, seen above. They depict the supposedly “healthful,” creative and industrial effects of beer, counterpointed with the ruinous calamity, idleness, starvation, sickness and death associated with gin, even as Gin Lane visually references key moments of the Gin Craze such as the crime of Judith Dufour. The print, now considered one of the most famous images of the era, was accompanied by verse from dramatist James Townley, tying a bow on what would more or less be the end of the Gin Craze. To close, with Townley’s words:

“Gin cursed fiend, with fury fraught; makes human race a prey; it enters by a deadly draught; and steals our life away. Virtue and truth, driven to despair; its rage compels to fly; but cherishes with hellish car; theft, murder, perjury. Damned cup! That on the vitals preys; that liquid fire contains; which madness to the heart conveys; and rolls it through the veins.”

Fun thoughts for your next martini, right?

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident alcohol geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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