Gin craze

It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when gin was as popular as it is now. Today, it’s peak gin; yesteryear, it was the Gin Craze.


It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when gin was as popular as it is now. Today, it’s peak gin; yesteryear, it was the Gin Craze. Between 1729 and 1751, so much gin was drunk that the government created not one but eight gin acts designed to curb consumption. You might see why they were worried - by the middle of the eighteenth century, the average person was knocking back two pints a week. This wasn’t a cutesy popularity, with hipster brands and “novel” serving suggestions, this was viewed as a drug addiction that took the nation in its vice-like grip and wouldn’t let go for thirty years.

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Gin, originally the Dutch jenever, was brought back to England at the end of the 16th century by soldiers returning from the Eighty Years War in the Low Countries. The returning fighters’ tales of Dutch soldiers drinking jenever to steady their nerves before battle is believed to have led to the term ‘Dutch courage’ and soon, crude gin was being distilled in the port cities of Plymouth, Portsmouth, London and Bristol. Drunk under the guise of medicinal effects, gin was originally seen as something of a tonic, which wasn’t entirely unfounded, since physicians have observed the diuretic effects of juniper throughout the ages.

When the Dutch William, Prince of Orange was crowned King of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1689, gin became all the more popular. The government allowed unlicensed gin production to prop up low grain prices and distillers produced crude, inferior forms that were more likely flavoured with turpentine than juniper. In the absence of French brandy, which was unavailable because of the Nine Years War with France, and with high beer prices, the people turned to gin for their alcoholic needs, and between 1695 and 1735 thousands of gin shops set up across England. Quickly, this cheap, flavoured alcohol was taking the blame for a whole host of social problems. The rise in London’s population ground still as death rates rose, and the city became known for its epidemic of extreme drunkenness, provoking moral outrage and backlash comparable to today’s drug wars.

Parliament felt forced to act in and in 1729 the first Gin Act increased tax on its sale, and raised the annual gin-selling licence. As so often it goes, this was not a very successful law. The act defined gin in one way, so instead it was sold as another, under creative pseudonyms such as Ladies’ Delight, Bob, and Parliament Brandy. While legitimate distillers were heavily penalised, illicit ones thrived. After four years, the act was repealed. Its replacement went after street hawkers and encouraged sales in taverns, which just saw 1,000s of private homes turned into gin shops, many of which were also meeting points for prostitutes and their suitors. Paid informants were key, which naturally led to violence.

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By the Gin Act 1736, a woman named Judith Derfour had been found guilty of murdering her two-year-old child, Mary, so she could buy gin from the sale of her clothes. Moral outcry was at its height. This third act raised the annual retail licence fee to £50 (the equivalent of about £7,000 today) and retail sales were taxed at a hefty 20 shillings a gallon in an effort to make the business of selling gin prohibitively costly. Only two licenses were ever taken out and the public reaction was one of mass law-breaking and riots. Sadly, the law only forced the sale of gin underground, and the bootleg spirits peddled by street hawkers blinded and killed many of those who drank them. Subsequent acts virtually outlawed gin, and illegal stills and drinking dens took over much of London’s East End. By the time this act was repealed in 1743, England was drinking 10 litres of gin per person per year.

By 1750, the moral reformers required a more coordinated response to tackle their nightmarish problem, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson, who complained that gin produced a “drunken ungovernable set of people”. Other prominent anti-gin campaigners included Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe, who complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a “fine spindle-shanked generation” of children. William Hogarth put his weight behind the campaign with an engraving named Gin Lane, issued in 1751. Depicting a woman dropping her baby down the stairs, starvation, suicide and madness, the aim was to shock the poor into reforming, and support the passage of another law, the eighth Gin Act. Gin Lane prints were advertised in the London Evening Post for one shilling, alongside an accompanying piece named Beer Street, a contrasting image of wealth, happiness and prosperity. Though relatively cheap, it is unlikely that many of the intended poor bought a copy, though many will have viewed it in taverns and coffee houses, and it is thought that this propaganda helped propel to law the Gin Act 1751.

Considered more successful, this act doubled the (previously reduced) retail licence and made it available to inns, alehouses and taverns only. Duties on distilled spirits increased modestly and distillers were only allowed to sell to licensed retailers. Gin shops were now under the jurisdiction of local magistrates; unlicensed sellers were encouraged to grass up their suppliers with the lure of a £5 reward and immunity from prosecution. Consumption was reduced, and production fell from 32 to 19 million litres in just one year. Some historians, though, suggest this was due to the rising cost of grain - landowners need no longer distill for income, and increased food prices meant less money for booze. By 1757, the Gin Craze was all but over. It wasn’t until 1840 that the amount of gin drank in London was the same as levels in 1743 - an era had passed; for now it was the time of the Gin Palace.

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