In-Depth: The Georgians And Their Gin

It’s London, it’s a sweltering summer’s day and you’ve arrived here for the first time. You are young and you have ambitions. This is your chance to make your mark on the world. However, your hopes that the streets would be paved with gold and opportunity were dashed before you even set foot in the city.

You could smell London before you arrived.

Now you’re struggling to navigate your way through it. Dust is billowing up into the air from the ground. You cough, trying to turn your face away from the worst of it, but instead end up swallowing in the rancid smell coming from the open sewer running down the street. A laugh makes you look up. A woman is watching you. She laughs again, looks away, and reaches out for the hand of a passing man. They disappear into the rest of the crowd; the jostling, fighting, whirling motion of a packed street. There’s a cry to make way for a sedan chair, which is in turn almost drowned out by the merchants hawking their wares. The road is narrow, and at the end, two carriages have nearly collided and caused a jam. The coachmen are red-faced and shouting at each other.

Children, thin themselves and dressed in thinner rags, run past you. They knock into you and you stagger backwards, almost falling into a figure you hadn’t noticed before. It’s a man. He’s sprawled on the ground, pushed up against a wall, and his eyes are closed. He seems to be mumbling something, so you bend over to listen, but whatever he’s saying is incoherent, and you would never be able to hear him properly over the surrounding din. Then, a man and a woman emerge from the dark and murky building behind him. They’re arm-in-arm, and you can’t tell if they’re laughing or crying.

This is Georgian London, and you’re witnessing the Gin Craze.

A Vicious Cycle of Gin

The 1720s and 1730s were the height of the Gin Craze, although the problem of excessive gin consumption had started before then and continued for many years after. By 1726 there were 1,500 stills in London alone. [1] It’s been estimated that, in the capital, the total consumotion of gin averaged out at 7 gallons a year.[2] This picture of London was part of a vicious cycle. Terrible, rampant poverty turned people towards a cheap oblivion in gin, which in turn fuelled more poverty. Some of the names for gin in this period are indicative of destitution: the Blue Ruin, the Mother’s Ruin, the Heart’s Ease and Rag Water.[3]

London at this time was a city unable to keep pace with its growing population and whole families could live in one room.[4] This overcrowding and terrible sanitation led to disease and desperation. There were few places for people to turn to for help. The workhouse was rarely an enticing prospect, and one statistics suggests that the child mortality rate for London workhouses was 90%.[5]

Confusion and Contradiction

Poverty, and the image of poverty, was problematic. It’s during this period that one of Britain’s most famous charitable endeavours, the Foundling Hospital, was created. However, the gin-drinking poor were also condemned as a reckless, disreputable underclass.

A number of Gin Acts were introduced, aiming both to decrease consumption and raise revenue from it. It wasn’t until the 1750s that the craze really began to fade away, although many of the social problems it highlighted remained.

Conclusion

Our young person, arriving in London for the first time, was just one of many migrants making their way to the city. They were part of an influx which fundamentally changed the social and cultural landscape of Britain.  The Gin Craze was more than the issue of public and private drunkenness. The question of the Georgians, their gin and what they did with it is about far more than alcohol consumption alone. The Gin Craze was intrinsically bound with questions of poverty, charity, welfare, social class and sanitation. In many ways, it is a history of human desperation.

 

Footnotes

[1] Lee, Emery, ‘A Poisonous Potion’, Georgian Junkie, https://georgianjunkie.wordpress.com/tag/gin-craze/ [accessed 30.05.2015].

[2] Harris, Rhian, ‘The Foundling Hospital’, BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/foundling_01.shtml [accessed 30.05.2015].

[3] Bonenfant, Pascal, ‘18th Century Thieves’ Cant’ http://www.pascalbonenfant.com/18c/cant/foodanddrink.html [accessed 30.05.2015].

[4] White, Matthew, ‘Health, Hygiene and the Rise of ‘Mother Gin’ in the 18th Century’, The British Library, http://www.bl.uk/georgian-britain/articles/health-hygiene-and-the-rise-of-mother-gin-in-the-18th-century [accessed 30.05.2015].

[5] Harris, Rhian, ‘The Foundling Hospital’, BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/foundling_01.shtml [accessed 30.05.2015].

 

Bibliography

Bonenfant, Pascal, ‘18th Century Thieves’ Cant’ http://www.pascalbonenfant.com/18c/cant/foodanddrink.html [accessed 30.05.2015].

Lee, Emery, ‘A Poisonous Potion’, Georgian Junkie, https://georgianjunkie.wordpress.com/tag/gin-craze/ [accessed 30.05.2015].

Harris, Rhian, ‘The Foundling Hospital’, BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/foundling_01.shtml [accessed 30.05.2015].

‘Hogarth’s Grim Depiction Of A Society Addicted To Gin’, The British Library, http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/hogarths-grim-depiction-of-a-society-addicted-to-gin-1768, [accessed 04.03.2016].

Hughes, Kathryn, ‘Threads of Feelings’, The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/oct/09/foundling-hospital-museum-threads-feeling [accessed 04.03.2016].

White, Matthew, ‘Health, Hygiene and the Rise of ‘Mother Gin’ in the 18th Century’, The British Library, http://www.bl.uk/georgian-britain/articles/health-hygiene-and-the-rise-of-mother-gin-in-the-18th-century [accessed 30.05.2015].

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