Dutch prince William II of Orange ascends the throne of England after successfully deposing King James II in what is known as the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution.
Britain’s political elite already felt threatened by King James due to his strong Catholic beliefs and French sympathies yet it wasn’t until he produced an heir that a plot was hatched to replace James with a more suitable King. The protestant William II of Orange, having married into the British throne to Mary Stuart (daughter of King James) 10 years prior, was the natural choice. The new King William III and Queen Mary II of England, having been granted the unique right from the House of Commons to share the power of the throne, were formally crowned at a coronation in Westminster Abby on April, 1689. Later that same year one of England’s most important constitutional documents would be passed – the Bill of Rights, opening up freedom of speech and limiting the powers of the sovereign monarchy. Despite the defining impact of the Bill of Rights, another influence of Williams reign would lead to almost 60 years of unprecedented societal degradation – gin.
At this time gin was already being produced in England having been discovered as “Dutch Courage” by British naval sailors when supporting Holland during the Dutch War of Independence in 1568. William began by imposing high taxes on the popular imports of other spirits (such as French brandy) while equally offering tax benefits to help drive British subjects to distil their own spirits from, “good English corn” in an attempt to increase sale of national produce. Up to that point the production of national spirits were well controlled and monopolised through the London Guild of Distillers, a guild who was promptly disbanded as part of William’s grand plan. By the end of the first two years of activation, national gin production rocketed to 500,000 gallons a year. Enter “Madam Geneva”.
By 1721 English Excise and Revenue accounts noted that approximately one quarter of London’s residents were employed in the production of gin, equating for almost 2 million gallons (9.1 million litres) of tax free product a year. Over the following decade, gin consumption (by the average adult over the age of 15) would double again and the cities half a million population would be able to purchase a dram of gin for little more than a penny at a choice of almost 7000 gin shops. Naturally the major cities in England began to fall into a “well-documented drunken stupor”.
A 1736 pamphlet from some of the teetotal minority entitled, Distilled Liquors: The Bane of the Nation mentioned,
“In one place not far from East Smithfield, a trader has a large empty room where, as his wretched guests get intoxicated, they are laid together in heaps, men women and children, until they recover their senses, when they proceed to drink on, or having spent all they had, go out to find the means to return to the same dreadful pursuit”.
Possibly the most horrendous crime in the name of gin was the case of Judith Defour and her female accomplice known simply as Sukey. The statement recorded during her trail at the Old Bailey, London on 27th February, 1734 – recorded the following confession from Miss Defour; “On Sunday [sic] 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 most sobering piece of this story lies in the fact that the victim was Miss Defours two year old daughter Mary…and all for 60 mls each of Gin.
When the parliament finally passed the first Gin Act in 1736, the nation (long addicted) rioted from Bristol to London, Norwich to Warrington and Liverpool to Plymouth with mock funeral processions held by some in protest to, “The death of Madam Geneva”. Despite this first regulatory action, gin madness continued to rise and reached an all time high in 1743 when it was recorded that 2.2 gallons (8 litres) were consumed per person per year (of ALL ages).
Consumption of gin finally began to decline with the passing of a second official Gin Act in 1751. The success of this Act placed limitations on the production and retail of the spirit including increased excise taxes along with the manpower to help enforce it. Despite these final regulations coming into effect it was estimated that 9000 children in London alone died of alcohol poisoning that single year.
The excessive consumption by the general English population during the gin epidemic is difficult to comprehend by today’s comforts. The two key elements of note to help understand the times were that Europe was undergoing what is known as “The Mini Ice Age” with frequent snow storms and even the River Thames commonly freezing over completely. As such, drinking spirits was a cheap and relatively simple way to help escape the chill. Additionally the general hygiene conditions of the time and the poor state of available drinking water meant that a distilled liquid guaranteed a purified hydration from any disease or parasites that were commonly found therein, and therefore gin not just safe to drink but very easy and cheap to obtain.
In 1751, famous artist and brutally honest social critic William Hogarth, captured the darkest moments of London’s Gin epidemic in his etching entitled “Gin Lane”. The scene captured by Hogarth represents the slum of London’s St Giles district, a neighborhood understandably described by the artists as where, “nothing but idleness, poverty, misery and ruin are to be seen”. In the background is the spire of St George’s church in Bloomsbury, normally a symbol of London’s elegance yet in stark contrast to events below showing brawling drunkards, ruined buildings, housewives pawning goods for gin, babies being fed on gin, scenes of murder, suicide and various other images of inhumanity with the most prosperous house in the scene belonging to the undertaker. In the bottom left hand corner of this image is a local gin-palace (a cheap spirit shop) called “Gin Royal” with a sign above the door which famously states;
“Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two pence, clean straw for nothing”.
Popular London novelist and Court Justice Henry Fielding would describe the life in such slums as, “excessive misery…oppressed with want, and sunk in every species of debauchery”. Fielding was also a close friend and partner at cards of Hogarth.
In a stark comparison to the messages in Gin Lane was its counterpart entitled “Beer Street”, showing a more civil and humane society who imbibe beer instead of those who partake of ruinous gin. As explained by Hogarth himself, “[Beer Street] was given as a contrast, w[h]ere the invigorating liquor is recommend[ed] in order [to] drive the other out of vogue. Here all is joyous and thriving [.] industry and jollity go hand in hand“. Beer street shows us jovial people who are fat (therefore healthy), buildings rising up instead of falling down, a church spire flying the King’s standard high in the background against a pawnbrokers sign falling down in the foreground.
Hogarth was well-known to represent many topics of alcoholic reform in his works, a subject which is suggested is closer to Hogarth than most after his mother died “of a fright” in a brandy-shop fire 36 years previously. Hogarth also lived near the popular Fullers Brewery in London and as such would have been well experienced in the difference between these two juxtaposed drinking societies.
[For further reading see - Gin: The Complete History, Part 1]
- Gin: The Much Lamented Death of Madam Geneva, the Eighteenth Century Gin Craze. Patrick Dillon, 2004.
- Gin: A Global History. Lesley Solmonson, Edible Series, 2012
- Spirituous Journey – Book One: From the birth of spirits to the birth of the cocktail. Jared Brown + Anistatia Miller 2009
- Old Bailey Online Archives – London Central Criminal Court, 1673-1913