The rise and fall of Gin: Part II
11 March 2015
Within 50 years of its introduction to England, London was home to over 7,000 gin shops, in a city with less than half the population of modern Dublin, where there are less than 1,000 pubs today.
It’s estimated that in the 1730s, 10million gallons of gin were being distilled annually in London alone. Less than a century since its introduction into English society gin, consumption had reached epidemic proportions. Some estimates conclude that the average Londoner drank more than 14 gallons of gin a year!
Parliament was slow to act to calm the beast that William III created.
The vast majority of the grain from which poor quality gin was made was grown and sold at a huge profit by MPs. Furthermore, the government were profiting from taxes from the duties on gin, even though those duties were less than those on other alcoholic drinks. (Duty paid on gin was 2 pence a gallon, as opposed to 4 shillings and nine pence per gallon on strong beer.)
Flooding a society populated mainly by illiterate, uneducated and unskilled labourers with a highly alcoholic spirit had a devastating effect. Gin was (accurately) blamed for misery, rising crime, prostitution, madness, and higher death rates and falling birth rates.
Gin for all
The vice-chamberlain Lord Hervey remarked that,
“Drunkenness of the common people was universal, the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.”
Women were especially vulnerable to addiction as they were less likely to be employed and as a result more free time. A disproportionate amount of gin was drunk by women and consequently the children were neglected, daughters were sold into prostitution, and wet nurses gave gin to babies to quieten them.
Common reports from the 1730s highlight the lengths people would go to get gin; a cattle drover sold his eleven-year-old daughter to a trader for a gallon of gin, and a coachman pawned his wife for a quart bottle.
Gin truly was the opium of the people. It led them to the debtors’ prison or the gallows, ruined them, drove them to madness, suicide and death, but it kept them warm in winter, and allayed the terrible hunger pangs of the poorest. A myth developed, still popular today, that gin led to depression but rumours could not stop addicts. Alcohol, in the quantities drank by the poor wretches of the mid 18th century has numerous horrific side effects, depression being just one.
A sharp tax increase
Unsurprisingly to us Irish, the government’s initial reaction was to raise taxes.
The main effect of this tax hike was to force those legitimate sellers out of business, and made way for the ‘bootleggers’ who sold their wares under such fancy names as Cuckold’s Comfort, Ladies Delight and Knock Me Down.
Overnight, gin sales went underground. Dealers, pushers and runners sold their illegal ‘hooch’ in what became a Black Market. This product was more likely to be flavoured with turpentine than juniper. At worst, it was poisonous, containing horrifying ingredients such as sulphuric acid.
The 1736 Gin Act forbade anyone to sell ‘Distilled spirituous liquor’ without first taking out a licence costing £50. On the last night before the Gin Act became law, as the last gallons of gin were sold off cheaply by the retailers who could not afford the duty, more alcohol was drunk on one occasion than ever before or since.
The authorities believed there would be trouble the following day but nothing happened. The mob lay insensible in the streets, too drunk to know or care. The peoples’ thirst for gin appeared insatiable. They continued to sell their furnishings, their homes and even their families to get money to buy their hooch.
The 1751 Gin Act
Reluctantly the government was forced into action. The 1751 Gin Act was successful in curtailing the effects of the long epidemic. It lowered the licence fee and forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers trading from respectable premises. No longer could distillers, grocers, chandlers, jails or workhouses sell gin.
A change in the economy also helped turn the tide. A series of bad harvests forced grain prices up, making landowners less dependent on income from gin production. They also forced food prices up and wages down, so the poor were less able to afford their drug of choice.
Gin was never again quite so much of a scourge and consumption fell dramatically through the rest of the eighteenth century. In 1830 Dubliner Sit Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, passed the Sale of Beer Act, this removed all taxes on beer, and permitted anyone to open a Beer Shop on payment of a two-guinea fee. This Bill virtually ended the traffic in gin smuggling.
The Sale of Beer Act changed the way the public consumed alcohol, the “popularity” of gin would never be so great, gin now became one spirit among a few (rum and whiskey being the others) which would become a commodity that was traded across the largest empire the world has known.
To be continued…
By Anthony Ryan, Rustic Stone