In 1736, the Gin Act, introduced heavy excise duties on gin production, and licensing to restrict its distribution, to try to reduce the English love of getting hammered on ‘Madam Geneva’). These measures aroused popular rage, and led to riots, widespread illegal gin-selling and scares of an uprising…
A spike in gin drinking had become the moral panic of its day. Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers increasingly had the opportunity to spend their meagre excess funds on liquor.
Much of the gin on sale, though, was not as fragrant as your modern Spiced Pink Rhubarb number… This was often raw stuff, barely twice distilled, sometimes flavoured with turpentine and other industrial solvents if juniper was out of your price range. As parliament had abolished restrictions on distilling the stuff in the late 17th century, there followed a mass proliferation of small-scale distillers, knocking up bathtub gin by dubious methods and selling it at a knockdown price. An explosion of production and an explosion of consumption – soon all sorts of spirits were for sale on every corner. Pissed Londoners abounded.
By 1721, the Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”.
As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for a crackdown on gin drinking began to emerge, usually envisioned as being effected by more restrictive legislation. The calls for new laws were led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson who, in 1736, complained that gin produced a “drunken ungovernable set of people”. He was to be proved correct…
Prominent anti-gin campaigners from the 1730s to the 1750s included the writer and magistrate Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), 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 – briefly – artist 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.
Pressure from prominent magistrates in Westminster and Middlesex, and well-connected moral reform organisation the Society for the Reformation of manners had whipped up a campaign of outrage at the drunkenness of the poor, blaming much of the ills of London life on the availability of cheap gin. Their thesis went that poor Londoners were poor and many degenerate or desperate, and drinking gin was to blame. Clearly this is ass-backwards, as even commentators of the time pointed out – poor folk drank gin to blot out the desperate misery and poverty of the daily lives. Puritans generally get cause and effect all wonky, however; and when they managed to persuade Prime Minister Robert Walpole that higher duties on grain used for gin distilling and licences to sell spirits would bring in lots of lovely readies for the government coffers (much of it meant to slosh the king’s way), the way was paved for the Gin Act. It was passed in April 1736, and stipulated a twenty-shilling duty on gin sold in small quantities, a retain licence of £50 (quite a sum at the time), and a £10 fine for anyone selling gin ‘about the streets, highways or fields… on stalls, or ins any shed…’ Sellers who defaulted on the fine could be summarily sent down for two months hard labour.
However, cheap gin had become so much a part of London life that people were simply not prepared to pay more for it or do without it. A rising climate of anger against the Act saw tensions rise across the capital, already troubled with xenophobic anti-Irish rioting and shadowy Jacobite plots. Londoners were boosted by the knowledge that they had already seen off one of Walpole’s schemes to raise cash (the Excise Bill debacle in 1733)…
Anti-prohibition ballads were hawked through the streets. Seditious plays and articles mocked the government’s attack on ‘Madame Geneva’ and satirically compared the plans to heavily tax the cheap pleasures of the poor with the luxurious vice of the upper classes.
And rumours of an impending revolt spread, a rebellion, to be fuelled by gin, and launched on September 29th, Michaelmas Day, the day the Act was to come into force. Letters seized by Excise officers and constables showed that someone had circulated notes to a number of gin sellers and publicans, alerting them to the plans for an uprising and exhorting them to give away gin to the crowds to steel them for the fight. The codeword for the uprising to kick off was to be ‘Sir Robert and Sir Joseph” (namechecking PM Walpole and Joseph Jekyll, the Master of the Rolls, the leading advocate for the Act)… The letters hinted at support in the army for a revolt, and called on
“The dealers in distill’d liquors to keep open shop on Tuesday next, being the eve of the day on which the act is to take place and give gratis what quantities of Gin, or other liquors, shall be call’d for by the populace… then christen the streets with the remainder, & conclude with bonfires… All retailers whose circumstances will not permit them to contribute to the festival shall have quantities of liquor sent before the time… Invite as many neighbours as you can conveniently, & be under no apprehension of the Riot Act, but whenever you hear the words Sir Robert and Sir Joseph joyne in the huzza.”
The suggestions of a revolt, with the implication of possible jacobite influence, and possible disaffection among the troops, terrified the government. Rumours had been spreading for weeks that arms had been landed from abroad on various beaches for distribution among the poor.
The army was called into the capital to be ready for any trouble; a double guard was mounted at Kensington palace, the guards at St James, Horseguards and Whitehall reinforced, and 300 lifeguards and grenadiers were paraded through Covent Garden, to overawe the crowds… Other detachments were stationed in Hyde Park and the Westminster suburbs, and at the Master of the Rolls house in Chancery Lane. The prime minster and other notables had left London a few days earlier, just in case…
However, in the event, the plot came to nothing. There was no uprising. Whether it had been a piece of satirical propaganda, or wishful thinking of behalf of the jacobite underground, no mobs took to the streets to drown the government in gin. There was some rowdiness: “When Discontents express’d the bitterness in their Hearts by committing Violences, the Horse and Foot-Guards and Train’d Bands were order’d to be properly station’d to repel the Populace where it might gather. Some Shots were necessitated to be fired when, after the reading of the Riot Act, those inflamed by the Spirit of Madame Genever, failed to lawfully disperse while seeking to petition his Majesty at St James’ Palace at Midnight. Disturbances occurr’d through the night, in divers Locations, with some of damaging of Property and House breaking, but the Mob dispersed at the merest Hint of Authority and few firm Encounters are reported, though many spent an unquiet Night in pursuit.”
Quite a number did take to the street to carry on drinking, and some arrests were made in the subsequent days, mainly for selling gin. On 1st October a group were apparently nicked for conducting a mock funeral and wake for ‘Madame Geneva’ in Swallow Street, a notorious Soho rookery off Piccadilly. A procession gin distillers also marched to the Excise office. [Possibly shown in the illustration at the beginning of this post…] Apart from this, the only other protest seems to have involved ‘punch’ sellers draping their shops and painting their punchbowls in black. A paper reported that ‘Mother Gin’ had “died very quietly”.
This was, however, a somewhat premature obituary. There may have bene no gin-soaked revolt in September 1736 (though you could make a case that it was delayed 43 years and manifested itself in the Gordon Riots of 1780). But the struggle against the Gin Act in fact intensified. Over the next year and a half, London saw a spate of attacks on the magistrates enforcing the rules against gin-selling, and violent mobbings and lynchings of informers, a number of whom tried to make some cash grassing up unlicensed distillers… Several informers were killed, rioters grabbed during protests acquitted, and constable put to flight when they tried to arrest ginsellers.
Illegal gin production rocketed, and exciting new ways of distributing the product clandestinely were developed… including the possible invention of the slot machine:
“The Mob being very noisy and clamourous for want of their beloved Liquor, which few or none at last dared to sell, 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 open Doors, and that the Informer must know the Name of the Person who rented the House it was sold in. To evade this, I go an Acquaintance to take a Hosue in Blue Anchor Alley, in St Luke’s Parish, who privately convey’d his bargain to me” I then got it well secured… and purchased in Moorfields the Sign of a Cat, and had it nailed to a Street Window; I then caused a Leaden pipe, the small End out about an Inch, to be placed under the Paw of the Cat; the End that was within had a funnel in it.
When my House was ready for Business… I got a Person to inform a few of the mob, that Gin would be sold by the Cat at my Window next day, provided they put the Money in its Mouth, from whence there was a Hole that conveyed it to me… 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 the paw, and the measured and poured it into the Funnel, from when they soon received it. Before Night I took six Shillings, the next Day above Thirty shillings, and afterwards three or four Pound a Day…”
(The Life and Uncommon Adventures of Captain Dudley Bradstreet, 1755)
Amidst the riots and murders, what did for the 1736 Gin Act in the end was evasion – the Act was simply widely ignored, and the law could not enforce it as effectively as it could be dodged.
A series of acts of parliament followed the 1736 and law, which variously introduced higher duties on distillers, brought in licences to try to prevent small-scale sellers dealing in cheap drams, or altered these laws (sometimes liberalising and sometimes jacking up the repressive measures – depending on the government of the day’s need for cash, as the licences and duties on grain for distilling brought in tidy sums…) Hardline campaigners for repression on moral grounds sometimes had the upper hand; at others the more pragmatic reformers prevailed.
In the end it was rising grain prices and falling wages that restricted gin’s appeal, and mass consumption began to decline in the 1750s… though it would make comeback in the 19th century with the rise of the Gin Palace, sparking a whole new moral panic.
No-one has yet blamed all our modern troubles on the new 21st century hipster Gin Craze… but there’s still time…
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar