Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Gin Crazes: Georgian England and Beyond

If you search the internet for "Gin Craze" these days you will probably find information about two such crazes. One is the current craze for craft, artisan, and boutique gins with alll sorts of added flavorings, including asparagus. 

The number of gin distilleries in the UK increased from 152 to 315 between 2013 and 2018. In 2016 a gin hotel opened, run by the Portobello Road Distillery, where over indulgers can spend the night. That may be a first for modern London, but perhaps not for an earlier age, as we will see. "Gin craze sees number of UK distilleries double in five years."

The other craze, which comes up in searches far more frequently, has a much longer pedigree. This is the original Gin Craze that  swept over England, especially London, in the early 18th century. Gin, or geneva, as it was often called, was a new drink in the British Isles. It was introduced by Dutch producers and drinkers who arrived after their ruler, Willliam of Orange, became king of England in 1689, as William III (1689-1702). 

The government under William and his successor, Queen Anne (1702-1714), promoted gin as an alternative to brandy, a French import. During most of this period, Britain was at war with France. (Image: William III)

The new spirit caught on quickly, especially in London and among the lower orders. Producers and sellers touted gin as a medicine that could cure gout and indigestion. But it soon became popular for other reasons. One is that it was untaxed and therefore cheaper than beer and other drinks such as brandy. No license was required to distill or sell gin, unlike other alcoholic drinks.

Another reason is that gin promised a quick route from misery to oblivion, an obvious attraction to the wretched masses of London's slums. "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence. Clean straw for nothing," as William Hogarth put it. The straw indicates a possible connection with today's gin hotel. The intoxicated could  sleep off their inebriation on the straw. Perhaps not an ideal accommodation for today's gin tourist.

Gin shops proliferated rapidly in the poorer parts of the capital. According to an estimate in the 1730s, one London house in five contained a gin shop. By the 1740s, consumption of gin in London had reached astounding levels, on average more than two pints per person per week. The gin they drank was roughly twice as strong as that sold today. 

Many people denounced the situation, among them novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding and artist William Hogarth. They blamed gin for an upsurge in mortality, poverty, and crime. 

In 1751 Fielding, founder of the Bow Street Runners, argued that if consumption was not curbed, there would soon be "few of the common people left to drink it." Fielding claimed that "gin alone" was responsible for a large proportion of theft and robbery in his jurisdiction.

Hogarth agreed. In the same year, he tackled the gin problem in his classic engravings "Gin Lane" and "Beer Street." "Gin Lane" highlights the destructive effects of excessive gin drinking on London's populace. Desolation and death reign everywhere in this grim work, centered on the intoxicated woman whose child is falling from her arms, probably to its death. This part of the scene recalls another nickname for gin, "Mother's Ruin." Fighting, theft, and suicide are hallmarks of this neighborhood. Buildings are falling down, shops decrepit. Only the pawnbroker and undertaker are prospering.

"Beer Street" is the complete opposite. Here, everyone is prospering except the pawnbroker, whose services are unneeded and whose shop is decrepit. Crime and violence are absent. Happiness, robust health, and good cheer reign. 

The government's response to the gin craze was to tax the production and sale of gin heavily, thereby raising its price, as well as the Crown's revenue. Parliament passed a series of gin acts between the 1720s and 1750s. The Gin Act of 1736 introduced prohibitive licensing fees. It inspired the cartoon below, which celebrates the "funeral of  Madame Geneva." Her death, as it turns out, was greatly exaggerated.

Enforcement of the act relied on paid informers, who were often victims of crowd violence, the so-called "Gin Riots." Producers and sellers largly ignored the law, and consumption continued to rise. Critics claimed that the illegal gin was improperly distilled and often poisoned.

The 1736 act was repealed in 1743 and replaced by a more moderate, more workable law in 1751. Consumption dropped after 1743, and more in the 1750s, probably more for economic reasons than legislative ones. 

In the early 19th century gin enjoyed a major renaissance with the opening of "gin palaces," establishments much more attractive than the dingy gin shops of the previous century.  One of these "palaces" is pictured below. The unknown artist portrays it as a convivial enough place, but the drunks and young children indicate cause for concern. 

Gin drinking reached near its 18th century levels again and aroused renewed condemnation. The renowned caricaturist George Cruikshank produced the cartoon below in 1829, "The Gin Shop." Once again, gin was equated with destruction. At the left, Death chortles cheerlily that he will "have them all dead drunk presently. They have nearly had their last glass." 

The various gins in the shop are stored in coffins. Signs indicate that gin is the road to the workhouse, financial and physcical ruin. Parents have brought their children to the shop, and the mother is forcing her infant to drink gin. The "woman" serving the gin is actually a skeleton wearing a mask. 

Cruikshank reiterated the point in other works, such as the one below, "The Battle of A-Gin-Court," (1838). In obvious reference to one of England's greatest medieval victories in the Hundred Year War, Agincourt, Cruikshank emphasizes the message that gin is bringing about the disintegration of a once great nation.

Cruikshank certainly convinced himself. He became a teetotaler in the 1840s. Gin consumption fell with the growing strength of the Temperance Movement during the Victorian Age, but the advent of the gin and quinine tonic as an antidote to malaria in Britain's tropical possessions helped keep the gin industry alive. Today's gin craze is helping it to thrive again, for good or ill. 

Further Reading: 
Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason. (London, 2003)

Patrick Dillon, The Much Lamented Death of Madame Geneva: The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze. (London, 2003)

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