The Gin Craze was a period in the first half of the 18th century when the consumption of gin increased rapidly in Great Britain, especially in London. The heavy drinking culture of the time became a virtual epidemic of extreme drunkenness; this provoked moral outrage and a legislative backlash that some have compare to the modern drug wars… Although more recent parallels with minimum alcohol pricing spring to mind…
Cheap gin, first imported from the Netherlands in the 1690s, became an extremely popular drink in the early 18th century. Politicians and religious leaders began to argue that gin drinking encouraged laziness and criminal behaviour. In 1729 Parliament passed a Gin Act that increased the tax on the drink. This law was deeply unpopular with the working classes (or at least the drinking strata thereof), which resulted in mass agitation against the laws, widespread avoidance, attacks on the numerous informers out to make money by dobbing in unlicensed ginsellers, and to a number of riots in London. The government eventually gave in, reducing duties and penalties, claiming that moderate measures would be easier to enforce.
The British government tried a number of times to stop the flow of gin. The Gin Act 1736 taxed retail sales at a rate of 20 shillings a gallon on spirits and required licensees to take out a £50 annual licence to sell gin, a fee equivalent to about £7,000 today. The aim was to effectively prohibit the trade by making it economically unfeasible. Only two licences were ever taken out. The trade became illegal, consumption dipped but then continued to rise and the law was effectively repealed in 1743 following mass law-breaking and violence (particularly towards informers who were paid £5 to reveal the whereabouts of illegal gin shops). The illegally distilled gin which was produced following the 1736 Act was less reliable and more likely to result in poisoning.
By 1743, England was drinking 2.2 gallons (10 litres) of gin per person per year. As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson, who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’. We we’ll drink to that…
Prominent anti-gin campaigners included Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers. Arf arf.
The Gin Craze began to diminish after the Gin Act 1751. This Act lowered the annual licence fees, but encouraged ‘respectable’ gin selling by requiring licensees to trade from premises rented for at least £10 a year. Historians suggest that gin consumption was reduced not as a result of legislation but because of the rising cost of grain. Landowners could afford to abandon the production of gin, and this fact, coupled with population growth and a series of poor harvests, resulted in lower wages and increased food prices. The Gin Craze had mostly ended by 1757. The government tried to ensure this by temporarily banning the manufacture of spirits from domestic grain. There was a resurgence of gin consumption during the Victorian era, with numerous ‘Gin Palaces’ appearing.
The late 1730s saw a constant battle in the streets over gin, with the ‘mob’ targeting informers, fight off the constables, and, if possible, grab as much free booze as they could… In 1735, one small riot seems to have involved the simple storming of a gin shop…
“Tuesday, 8. At Seven Dials occurred a Riot at the closing of a Gin Shop owned by Captain Speke. When the Mob became outrageous in their attempts to force the stoutly defended Building, Justice of the Peace Mr Maitland read the Riot Act but the Mob refused to disperse peaceably as required, the Guard of the Tower was called to enforce the Peace with Ball, Butt and Bayonet, after which all was quiet. The Shop was wrecked by Intruders and all the Genever Spirits lost.”
The attack is also referred to in a bizarre satirical report, attributed to ‘Charles Cholmondeley-Fitzroy, Lord Foppingham’, which contains cryptical references and head-scratching complexities… (Note that ginsellers had invented the slot machine by 1735…)
“To : Mr Berry, Secretary, Society for Effectual Redress.
In accordance with the customs of our esteemed Society, I have the honour to submit for your Observation the following Intelligence, being an Account of the recent Motions of those worthy Fellows of our Club, Messrs Church, Elmhill, ben Ezra, and the Rev Munro, somewhat aided by Myself. For all that no one Principal, in search of Redress, has enlisted our Aid, we nonetheless hold it True that some Deviltry is plainly afoot, and have taken up the Burden of combating these latest dark Manifestations of the Juniper Scourge.
The business in hand was first observed thanks to the vigilance of some of the Hon Members above, they having witnessed a Riot in the street, evidently occasioned by mass consumption of Gin. Notwithstanding the commonplace nature of this event, they (being Gentlemen of some penetration) decried some Singular factors in the business. For one, the mobile nature of this disturbance. The odd behaviour of some members of the mob; viz, that they rallied to the cry “get the monsters!”, even though none such were evident. More singular still, one of the rioters, a strumpet, was seen to dive into an alley, and entice therefrom a worthy footpad of the town; who had, but moments before been lurking about his improper trade, as befitted any trueborn English criminal. But one kiss of the Maenad’s gin-sodden lips had him dancing along with the rest. Much effort was expended by the crazed mob in the destruction of any glass, windows and mirrors alike becoming objects of their wrath. And yet, within a very short time, this revelry petered out, as though a summer storm had passed. Seeking for some intelligence as to the cause of this baseless riot, Jack Church was able to divine that, before reaching its apogee in the destruction of a glaziers shop, the disturbance had its origin by the gin shop of one Capt. Speke.
Of this remarkable emporium, I shall have more to impart in due course. Suffice to report, that, upon meeting at Kent’s, we formed the opinion that the business had been the work of no common distillate. The antiquary ben Ezra identified one kind at least of monstrous agent with an affinity for mirrors, the Geburith of ancient fable. Having been but lately pursued by just such a creature, I thought it sufficient reason to take such warnings with no small gravity. Thus encouraged we paid a visit to the glazier whose shop had suffered at the hands of the mob. From this worthy, one Sydenham, we obtained the information that the broken mirrors (fine quality Venice glasses, tho sadly but poor trumpery work for the settings) had been obtained as a job lot from a vessel in the Pool, one “Black Pig”. Bespeaking a few samples, we left.
Here I must add, the remarkable facts that the honest builder Jack Church had obtained in regard of the gin shop of Captain Speke. This novel innovation of trade has no entrance, doors, nor any visible shop-man. In their stead, one pays custom by introducing coin into a slot, whereupon gin issues forth from a spout below. The expense is of the common sort for such trade – perhaps one shilling for a pint bottle. Their trade was brisk. Church struck up an acquaintance with two Tipstaffs, there to serve a summons (Sir John, naturally, being vigilant against this new outrage). They had, he heard, been unable to serve it, their diligence baffled by the extraordinary nature of the place. None had been observed to enter or leave. Boldly, that night, Church effected an entry to the premises, in search of incriminating evidence. He reports that the place is so shuttered as to be wholly dark within. The gin is stacked up, crammed into every space. Once in, he was accosted by a crone, who in some fashion, overwhelmed his will, and forced him to consume the raw Geneva. Being of stout heart, he was able to recover his senses and escape; tho he has informed me, that the noxious liquor engendered fantastickal visions akin to waking nightmares. Some light was to be shed on this the next day. Having been at study, ben Ezra confirmed that, while mirrors were innocent, the Gin sampled from Captain Speke’s carried a taint, for those who could sense it. It reeked mightily of the Geburim.
It is at this juncture that I must acknowledge a great debt to Old blind Tom. Hearing of our difficulty, (we being somewhat at a stand) this gentleman examined the bottle and gin from Speke’s. Wise in the ways of these things, he imparted to us the name of both bottle manufactory, and of distiller. The Gin was made, it seemed, at Danvers distillery in Southwark. Naturally, we repaired to Danvers forthwith. Through the agency of Jeremiah Elmhill, we heard tell that a new process had of late been introduced, one that had allowed the manufacturer to make do with fewer workers. However that may be we soon determined that all the products of Danvers work had the taint of Geburim.
It was clearly to be seen that, once more, confidential nocturnal investigations would be needed. On this occasion, Church took ben Ezra as his guide to unravel any mysteries of antiquity. It was well that he did so. In the distillery hall, but one of the five vats was alight. This last was raised on a most unusual brickwork wall. To their eyes the resemblance of this to the brickwork of Capt Speke’s shop was unmistakeable. More than this; stamped into the bricks was some strange writing. Even our Mosaic Sage could not decipher these. Indeed, it was only after great effort that he found an answer, by consulting his coreligionst, one Mendoza the Apothecary. From this learned son of Abraham we heard that the inscription – cuneiform, a writing used perhaps before the Flood – was an incantation. The purpose of the sorcery, in design, was to make good gin. In execution, thanks to a mistake in the script, rather a different result was obtained. Few living men, of any creed, would have known how to make the writing. We hold that the brick makers may be but dupes or tools in the affair; they being the Tom Yardsman company. ’Twas in the exact placing of the bricks, said Mendoza, that the Art consisted. So it is that our efforts must now turn to how we can identify that person.
As I finish this summary, I have from my fellow members one further receipt of news, touching the investors in the Danvers company. One Downsman, whose son Cartmel so heroically and tragically met his end at the hands of a beast in the affair of the Guys, was an investor. You will, Sir, doubtless remark the coincidence that those plotters against the realm, also had at their command one of the Geburim.
Of our continued efforts to root out this, latest, mischief from the hands of Bottled Ruin, you may be assured.
I remain, with the highest deference and respect,
And most obliged,
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar