The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze

In today’s world gin has seen something of  a resurgence, with gin bars popping up everywhere and flavoured gins becoming the drink of choice for many. So how do you take yours? Pink perhaps, with a tonic, ice and a slice – sound good, yes? Well, if we take you back to the 18th century we can offer you gin, but would have been a somewhat weaker gin than you’re used to today, as it was only about 30% proof – but how does the addition of oil of turpentine and sulphuric acid oil of vitriol (better known today as sulphuric acid or drain cleaner!) sound? No takers then, presumably? Despite this, gin became the drink of choice for the poor, including children, although, people really had little idea of what it was they were actually consuming.

'The Gin-Juggernath, or the worship of the Great Spirit of the age'. Wellcome Collection
‘The Gin-Juggernath, or the worship of the Great Spirit of the age’. Wellcome Collection

We can but hope that lessons have been learnt since the 18th century as can be seen in Hogarth’s caricature of Gin Lane which shows just what the effects of it could be. The detail in this caricature show the link between poverty and the demon drink, with people taking anything they owned to the pawn broker just to raise enough money to worship at ‘The Temple of Juniper’ and to feed their addiction to ‘Juniper water’ or ‘Madam Geneva’ as it was often referred to as.

Gin Lane.
Gin Lane. Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

Gin became much more the drink of choice for England in the 1720s as it came from Holland, whereas, although available, it was brandy that had been the number one best seller, but as brandy was from France whom the British had been at war with, people were much more suspicious of anything French.

Gin houses were popping up everywhere, you could pretty much buy it in all the shops in London. It was even sold from wheelbarrows and ‘pop-up stalls’.

The battle of A-gin-court.
Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library

There were several Acts of Parliament designed to raise revenue, but also to reduce the obsession for gin drinking, the first being in 1732, when an Act was passed raising the retail tax to five shilling per gallon, but this didn’t stop people finding the money from somewhere, beg, borrow or steal, to buy what had arguably become an addiction.

The consumption of gin was becoming a real problem, with more women than men drinking it. The death rate was higher than the birth rate and infertility was on the rise. Hence the name ‘mother’s ruin’ a term for gin, which survives to this day.

'The Gin shop'. A satirical sketch on the dangers of drinking alcohol. British Museum
‘The Gin shop’. A satirical sketch on the dangers of drinking alcohol. British Museum

Gin drinking even led to one famous case heard at the Old Bailey where gin led to an horrific event. Just in case you’ve never heard of it, Judith Defour found herself on trial for the murder of her two and half year old daughter, Mary Defour, otherwise Cullinder.

Judith had placed her daughter in a London workhouse, but on the 27th February 1734, she took the child out for a few hours as she was permitted to do. Then she met up with a friend who was simply named Sukey.

The court document records the tragic story:

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.

Judith and her friend simply left the child to die in a ditch. Defour was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death on February 27, 1734. She was hanged at Tyburn on the 8th of March 1734.

Two years later in 1736, the famous Gin Act came into force. The tax paid by the retailer was raised to a whopping twenty shillings per gallon and the price of holding a spirit licence also increased. It was reported in The Scots Magazine in 1743, that:

The number of gin retailers in Westminster, Holborn, the Tower and Finsbury division, exclusive of London and Southwark was 7,044 plus 3,209 alehouses that did not sell spiritous liquors, and besides a great number of persons who retailed gin privately in garrets, cellars and back rooms or places not exposed to public view.

This increase in tax led to rioting in the streets of London. The passion for gin remained and was forced underground, so in 1743 the government had little choice to but to loosen its restrictions and allowed gin-shops to operate under the same terms as ale-houses.

Lettering within the image on a shop sign reads "Shave for a penny and a glass of gin." Wellcome Collection
Lettering within the image on a shop sign reads “Shave for a penny and a glass of gin.” Wellcome Collection

According to the Ipswich Journal of October 1736, licensees found ways of avoiding paying this hefty tax by selling the drink using somewhat fancy names, i.e. implying that it wasn’t actually gin, such as ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’, ‘Make shift’, ‘The Ladies Delight’ and ‘Sangree’.

The Gin Acts of 1736 and 1742 failed to be effective with an increase in crime, violent and the production of illegally distilled gin – it was a failure and was repealed.

People were actively encouraged to shop to the law anyone they believed to be producing or selling gin illegally, this simply led to more violence. In 1738 the next Gin Act all but outlawed gin and made it crime to attack informers. Yet again, it simply drove the trade underground.

By 1743 the population of England was just over six million and some seven million gallons of spirits was being consumed by them, a tenfold increase in only sixty years. Half a penny’s worth of gin was having more effect on a person than a pint of strong beer, which cost three times as much, so it’s hardly surprising people switched to the cheaper option.

The 1743 Gin Act failed too, as informers were being paid a £5 reward to inform, but those caught were being fined £10, which of course most simply couldn’t afford to pay, so the Commissioners ran out of money to pay informers.

The funeral procession of Madam Geneva, Sepr 29, 1751. Yale University Library
The funeral procession of Madam Geneva, Sepr 29, 1751. Yale University Library

The government eventually realised that there were major problems associated with gin drinking and in 1751 they bought in the Gin Act as a way to reduce consumption but raising taxes and fees for retailers to £2 and made licences only available to inns and taverns. Actively promoting of beer and tea as alternatives and eventually the mass craze for gin subsided and people simply switched their choice of beverage.

Sources

London Journal, Saturday, March 9, 1734

Caledonian Mercury 10 January 1744

The Scots Magazine 01 April 1743

Chester Courant 29 December 1829

A Collection of such Statues relating to his Majesty’s Customs 1734

Header Image

Allegory of Drink: Effects of Intemperance (verso) British School. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

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One thought on “The Eighteenth Century Gin Craze

  1. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 24) | www.weyerman.nl

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