The gin craze

Spirit met juniper header.png

We’re in mid-seventeenth century London, and it's all about to kick off. By this time we Brits were already distilling grain to produce the alcohol that would form the basis of gin. But soldiers returning from the Thirty Years War had developed a taste for Dutch courage - that is, the juniper-flavoured spirit known as Genever. And so the tragi-comedy that is the gin craze begins.

William of Orange's grain reforms

Gin soon made its way into taverns, helped along by William of Orange, who was keen to hook his land-owning buddies up by liberalising grain distilling. 

This gave them a market for those crappy bits of grain that weren't good enough to be used in food. And while lowering duty on spirits made from English malted corn, and raising duty on brandy, he dealt a blow to his political enemy, the grape-growing French.

Around the time of William of Orange’s reforms, consumption of spirits almost doubled. City dwellers were ground down by poverty and overcrowding, and really fancied a drink. The Society for the Reformation of Manners, a bunch of terrified clergymen, MPs and magistrates, pissed their pants and started rallying against the sins of the poor - drinking and prostitution. They published cautionary tales that revolved around the lower classes, and/or females, getting their hands on the demon drink. One such example told the terrible tale of a drunken housewife:

She was so much intoxicated with Geneva that she fell on the fire, and was burned in so miserable a manner that she immediately died and her bowels came out.

There was talk of heart disease, spontaneous combustion and the children of drinkers being born undersized and withered like old men.

Overcrowding, poverty and gin

By the 1720s, gin drinking was rife in London. 10% of Britain’s population was crammed into one filthy square mile. Those that came from the countryside to make their fortune in the golden streets of the capital were met with a horror scene. At the heart of the city lay a squalid labyrinth of alleyways called The Rookeries, after the crows that nested there. The streets were crammed with slum dwellings and gin shops. The children were drunk, the women were loose, and at Tyburn the gallows-rope tightened around the necks of many desperate drunks and pickpockets.

Something had to be done, and in 1729, the first of several unsuccessful acts of parliament - known as the Gin Acts - was published. Having lined their pockets, the English ruling class realised they had created a raving, anarchic monster. Large licensing fees were imposed on gin sellers, but given that the gin shops were concentrated in the lawless slums, it was impossible to enforce. The poor had found relief from their pitiful circumstances, and they would let it kill them before they would give it up. In 1734 one Stephen buck put it best when he wrote: “What can impart such solace to mankind as this most powerful dram, which levels all the different ranks in this unequal world? The poor plebeian, elevate by Gin, fancies himself a king.”

Further acts only served to drive gin further underground. Drinking it had become act of revolution, and chants of ‘No gin, no king’ rang out as the public rose up to protect their only means of escapism.

Captain Bradstreet's vending machine

Captain Dudley Bradstreet, the brewer, writer and spy, hatched a clever plan to avoid the licensing laws. In doing so, he invented what was possibly the first every vending machine. Here he describes his invention:

Heyman's Old Tom Brand

Heyman's Old Tom Brand

“I purchased in Moorfields the sign of a cat and had it nailed to a street window. I then caused a leaden pipe to be placed under the paw of the cat. When the liquor was properly disposed, 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 money in his mouth. Atlast 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 her paw.”

Even those who wanted to grass him up couldn’t. The ownership of the house was in dispute, so there was no way of finding out whose name was on the lease. This scheme, known as “ puss and mew” made bradstreet rich, but more importantly this, and similar anecdotes, have helped to elevate gin to cult status. A bit naughty, underground, irreverent of authority. Bradstreet’s Cat has been immortalised on the label of Heymans old Tom brand.

Gin Lane

Nothing could stop London drinking itself into an early grave, and population went into decline. At the height of the gin craze, there were roughly three burials for every two baptisms.

In 1751, William Hogarth published an engraving called Gin Lane, which is perhaps the most iconic image of the damage wrought by the gin craze. Gin Lane is set in the parish of Saint Giles. This was the parish that housed that horrific slum The Rookery. The central figure - a pox-ridden, drunken woman takes a pinch of snuff on a flight of steps, while her baby falls head first from her arms. As the poor wretch falls to its sudden death, at the foot of the stairwell, a sign above a basement archway reads:

Drunk for a penny
Dead drunk for twopence
Clean straw for nothing

It was published in 1751, which is strange, because gin consumption had begun to fall at this time. Consumption had fallen, but the de-mobbing of 80,000 soldiers following the end of the Austrian War of Succession meant rising fears that these ex-soldiers would turn to crime.

The gin craze came to an end when the 1751 gin act successfully clamped down on gin selling. Later, several poor harvests led to an increase in the price of grain, putting the final nail into Madam Geneva's coffin. 

Sarah Donnelly