The Gin Epidemic
In the 18th century, the British working classes had lives characterized by poverty, malnutrition, harsh work, overcrowding, and disease. Looking for a way to lift their wilting spirits, they turned mostly to beer. But when they got their first taste of gin, it caught on with the British public; it really caught on.
The buzz from a cheap drink was a welcome distraction from horrible living conditions. It soon became too much of a distraction.
Restrictions on Brandy
Late in the 17th century, England and France were having one of their periodic spats, so the British restricted the importation of French brandy.
As a substitute, the government encouraged the distilling of gin by placing almost no tax on it, while there was a heavy tax on strong beer.
Writing for Cultural Shifts, Elise Skinner points out that, “The gin craze was fuelled by the ease of manufacture of gin by small distillers: during the early years of the eighteenth century there was absolutely no control over the production or consumption of gin.”
An Act of Parliament in 1713 gave free rein to anyone who wanted to distill hooch as long as British ingredients were used. The act promised no one would be prosecuted for such activity.
To see why such an apparently counter-productive law was passed, all we have to do is follow the money. Parliament was dominated by landowners who had been enjoying a period of bumper harvests. Consequently, they had a lot of grain on their hands; they were happy to encourage distillers to buy it and use it to make spirits.
Gin Consumption Rises Rapidly
Britain’s urban poor were happy to spend what little money they had on cheap gin.
The main attraction of gin was its price. It was very cheap, as the oft-quoted advertisement of the time put it: “You may here get drunk for one penny. Dead drunk for two pence.”
Hundreds of thousands found that, for once, there was truth in advertising. Even some of the brand names―Cuckold’s Comfort, Knock Me Down―truthfully spoke of future disaster.
The gin on offer was not like the smooth liquor sold under that name today. It was generally called “Old Tom” and was spiked with large amounts of sugar to mask its foul taste. Inside London notes, "It was so disgusting that turpentine and sulphuric acid were also often added in the name of making the drink taste better.” But it delivered a kick, and that was the point of it.
In writing a review of Jessica Warner’s book Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason, Spencer Madden points out that “Across the four decades from 1700, consumption rose sevenfold. Gin was widely sold in streets, houses, shops, and prisons.”
As Historic U.K. reports, “In London alone, there were more than 7,000 dram shops, and 10 million gallons of gin were being distilled annually in the capital.”
Inside London comments that “adults would drink an average of half a pint of gin a day. The gin consumption of the average child's wasn’t far off this either.”
Social Chaos Comes From Gin Craze
With the average Londoner gulping down 14 gallons (63 litres) of the stuff a year, there were going to be problems, violence being prominent among them. Gin drove some people into debtors’ prison and others to the gallows.
People resorted to stealing and prostitution to pay for their habits and others just descended into alcoholic stupors and early death. Children were abandoned by drunken parents.
Quaffing liquor in huge amounts turned men impotent and women sterile. As a result, the death rate in London exceeded the birth rate during the gin craze.
According to Historic U.K., “People would do anything to get gin . . . a cattle drover sold his eleven-year-old daughter to a trader for a gallon of gin, and a coachman pawned his wife for a quart bottle.”
One Judith Defour and a female accomplice confessed to a murder so they could make a little money for gin:
“On Sunday Night we took the Child into the Fields, and stripp’d it, and ty’d a Linen Handkerchief hard about its Neck to keep it from crying, and then laid it in a Ditch. And after that, we went together, and sold the Coat and Stay for a Shilling, and the Petticoat and Stockings for a Groat. We parted the Money, and join’d for a Quartern of Gin.”
The victim of the January 1734 murder was Ms. Defour’s two-year-old daughter, Mary. Three months later, Ms. Defour was swinging at the end of a rope.
Complaints About the Effects of Gin
As early as 1721, a magistrate’s court in Middlesex described gin as “The principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people.”
By March 1751, The London Evening-Post was moved to print a verse condemning the evils of gin.
“This wicked gin, of all Defence bereft,
And guilty found of Whoredom, Murder, Theft,
Of rank Sedition, Treason, Blasphemy,
Should suffer Death, the Judges all agree.”
Government Tries to Curb Gin Sales
Having first encouraged the production and sale of gin, the government was forced to recognize it had been tripped up by the law of unintended consequences. Measures were brought in to cut consumption.
The first Gin Act of 1729 put a tax of five shillings a gallon on the liquor, up from two pence―a thirtyfold increase. In 1736, the tax was raised to 20 shillings, and a license fee of £50 was to be paid by anyone wishing to sell gin. In the following seven years, just three gin-selling licenses were bought.
Did It Work?
The first effect of the jump in taxes was to put reputable distillers out of business and create a lucrative market opportunity for bootleggers, who were not too fussy about the quality of their swill.
One modern commentator has remarked on the illicit trade, noting that the English gin craze “makes the use of drugs today seem almost benign!”
The tightened rules led to riots, and the government-backed off and loosened the laws. Of course, the gin continued to flow freely, and the problems got worse.
History Today records that “By 1750, Londoners were consuming over eleven million gallons of gin a year, and the city again was in despair. It was not until another piece of legislation, prompted by protests from notable figures, that gin sales slowed down.”
The Tippling Act of 1751
Prominent citizens such as the painter William Hogarth and writer Henry Fielding joined the chorus of condemnation against that “poison called gin: which I have great reason to think is the principal sustenance (if it may so be called) of more than a hundred thousand people in this metropolis.”
The campaign led to really tough government measures. The so-called Tippling Act of 1751 marked the beginning of the end of the gin craze. Distillers were restricted in whom they could sell gin to, taxes were raised, and there were stiff penalties for lawbreakers. A first offence meant prison; a second offence brought prison with repeated whipping; the penalty for a third offence was transportation to the colonies.
It worked, and by 1760 gin consumption was down to two million gallons a year.
- In the Netherlands, gin was distilled from wine and flavoured with juniper berries imported from the Spice Islands. The Dutch word for juniper is “geneva,” which was shortened in Britain to gin.
- Within William of Orange’s army, gin was a popular way of stiffening the resolve of soldiers about to go into battle. It became known as “Dutch courage.”
- Today, the people of the Philippines consume more gin than anybody else, accounting for 43 percent of the world’s production.
- “The Gin Craze: Drink, Crime & Women in 18th Century London.” Elise Skinner, Cultural Shifts, January 28, 2008.
- “Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason.” Spencer Madden, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Oxford Journals, January 2004.
- “Mother’s Ruin.” Ellen Castelow, Historic UK, undated.
- “Judith Defour, Killing, murder, 27th February 1734.” The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.
- “Gin and Georgian London.” Thomas Maples, History Today, March 1, 1991.
- “Gin Was the Crack of the 18th Century a Chemist Mixed Alcohol, Water and Juniper Berries, and London Got Sloshed.” Alison Dary-Novey, Philly.com, November 11, 1989.
- “The Evolution of Gin in London, 1750 – 1850.” Insider London, April 19, 2013.
- “A Tonic for the Nation.” Kate Chisholm, The Telegraph, June 9, 2002.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor