01 April 2017

Mother's Ruin - gin

Gin is a spirit which derives its predominant flavour from juniper ber­ries. From its earliest medieval beginnings, gin has evolved from an herbal medicine to the commercial drink that the Dutch physician Franciscus Sylvius (1614-72) invented. By the mid C17th, many small Dutch and Flemish distillers had popularised the re-distill­ation of malt spirit or wine with juniper, anise, caraway and coriander which were sold in pharmacies and used to treat such medical problems as kidney ailments and gout.

Gin was loved by English and Dutch troops who were fighting the Spanish during the Thirty Years War (1618-48). In particular they noticed its calming effects before battle. By 1663, there were c400 Dutch distil­l­ers in Amsterdam alone.

Gin only became pop­ular on English soil when Prince William of Orange and Princess Royal Mary took the English throne in 1688. But note that the original Dutch spirit-jenever was only c30% alcohol. The gin distilled in London was very strong and often mixed with impur­it­ies eg turpentine or sulphuric acid. London gin didn’t have the “dry, botanical-based sophistication” of Amsterdam gin. London’s was more of a hellish drink.

Crocker's Folly Bar. Credit: Adrian Houston
Former Victorian gin palace in London
bought when the new Great Central Railway terminus was to be built in St John’s Wood 
and restored in 2014. 
Photo credit: Britain Magazine

Gin also provided an alternative to French brandy at a time of both political and religious conflict with France. To patriotically protect the economy and the war effort, the English Government passed Acts between 1689-97 aimed at restrict­ing French brandy imports. Furth­er­more the monopoly of the London Guild of Distillers was broken in 1690, opening up the market in gin distillation. Economic protect­ionism and the prod­uction of English gin were actually encouraged by the government.

At the same time, a drop in food prices ensured that working people had a larger disposable income to spend on alcohol. This was a crisis waiting to happen.

So what went so tragically wrong? By 1721 magistrates were already decrying gin as "the principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people". “How surprisingly this Infection has spread within these few Years … it is scarce possible for Persons in low Life to go anywhere or to be anywhere, without being drawn in to taste, and, by Degrees, to like and approve of this pern­ic­ious Liquor." For a few pennies, London’s poor found an escape from cold, hunger and misery.

Yet alcohol consumpt­ion was high at all levels of society, as William Hogarth showed in A Midnight Modern Conversation 1733. Well dressed, bewigged gentlemen were fall-down drunk in a "coffee-house".

By 1730 c7,000 gin shops and street corner stands (plus an unknown number of illegal drinking dens) were in business in London, with millions of litres of gin distilled each year. Though many other drinks were available, it was gin that became known as Moth­er's Ruin and caused the greatest public concern. The British government had to act!

The Gin Act 1736 taxed retail sales at a rate of 20 shillings a gallon on spirits and required licensees to take out a £50 annual licence to sell gin, an impossibly high fee. The intended aim was to eff­ect­ively prohibit the trade by making it economically unfeasible. The actual outcome was mass law-breaking and violence (particularly towards informers who were paid £5 to dob in illegal gin shops).

The illegally distilled gin which was produced following the 1736 Act was less reliable and more likely to result in poisoning. Gin was blamed for misery, rising crime, madness, prostitution, higher death rates and falling birth rates. Drunkenness of the common people was said to be universal. In an infamous case of 1734, one infamous woman collected her toddler from the workhouse, strangled him, dumped the body in a ditch and sold the child’s new set of clothes for 1s 4d to buy gin.

As consumption levels increased in Britain, an organised campaign for more effective legislation was led by Bishop Thomas Wilson; he complained that gin produced a drunken, ungov­ernable set of people. Prominent anti-gin campaigners included authors Henry Fiel­d­ing (who blamed gin for both incr­eas­ed crime and increas­ed children's ill health) and Daniel Defoe (who complain­ed that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a fine spindle-shanked generation of children). The 1736 Act had failed and had to be repealed!

The Gin Craze was satirised in Hogarth's famous engraving called Gin Lane (1751). It depicted a gin-crazed mother, covered in syphilitic sores, mindlessly dropping her baby to its death. A pawnbroker did a roaring trade as people swapped their goods for money to buy more gin.

Image result for a midnight modern conversation hogarth
William Hogarth's print
   A Midnight Modern Conversation, 1733

Related image
William Hogarth's print
   Gin Lane, 1751

Compare Gin Lane with Hogarth’s slightly less famous engraving Beer Street (1751), creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy, enjoyable lives of beer drinkers with their vast tankards of foaming ale. Plump Englishmen downed pints of beer, the "happy prod­uce of our isle … we quaff thy balmy juice with glee”. Aided by powerful propaganda like this, the government had to act again. 

It passed more bills aimed at slow­ing the city's endless love for gin, despite creaming off serious taxes from the trade. The Gin Act of 1751 successfully prohibited distillers from selling to unlicen­s­ed merch­ants. Gin was no longer being sold in small dingy gin shops, but in smarter pubs where quality control was tighter. And another thing. When English grain became more expen­sive, land owners became less dependent on income from gin production. A series of poor harvests resulted in lower wages and increased food priced.

Parliament had passed five major Acts, in 1729, 1736, 1743, 1747 and 1751, designed to control the consumption of gin. But the gin crisis only ended after the 1751 Act. In the later C18th tea, coffee and beer began to rival gin.


There was a resurgence of gin consumption during the Victorian era, but this time the new Gin Palaces were attractive. And welcoming to women. Dropping in for a quick Flash of Lightning was a popular precursor to a night at the theatre or to prepare workers for their evening journey home. Many of London’s gin palaces were centrally located in Bloomsbury or Covent Garden; in outlying suburbs, smaller gin shops served local communities.


Ex-pat said...

If I had been cold and hungry back then, gin would have been my best friend as well. Shame about the added poisons.

Deb said...

Good grief Hogarth was harsh on his fellow citizens. They all looked pretty derelict. I hope he wasn't satirising easily recognised people.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Thanks for tying together the various aspects of the history of gin. My first introduction to this subject was through the characteristic 18-19th century "black' glass gin bottles, also called case bottles, which were long and of a tapering rectangular shape, so they could be packed tightly in a packing case. This was opposed to the typical wine bottles of the time, which were bulbous on the bottom and had long, thin necks, and so could not be packed efficiently. These can be easily seen by searching Ebay or the internet for: black gin case bottle

Hels said...


In the Netherlands, the juniper added the distinctive flavour to gin, so I too wondered why English gin would have really dangerous additives instead of juniper. At least in the illegal gin sites, we know juniper was left out... and turpentine and sulphuric acid added. Presumably turpentine and sulphuric acid had just as powerful an impact on the drinker, but cost the distiller much less.

Hels said...


You have to love biting satire :) Hogarth's prints referenced characters types who were well known to upper middle class and aristocratic London at the time. And just in case any literate viewer back then was uncertain, Hogarth dotted his prints with clues to help them decode the scenes.

Hels said...


Thank you. I had never heard of the black gin case bottles, but I found examples on line very easily. The case gin bottles tapered nicely and were more easily packable in a case than round wine bottles were. And I can easily accept that this shape of bottle was popular in Europe by the mid-17th century.

But the late 17th and 18th century images of poor people drinking gin don't have a bottle in sight. They paid their pennies and had the gin poured straight into their tin, bowl or glass. How awful it must have been :(

Only the wealthier clients had the luxury of bottles.

bazza said...

Coincidentally, I led my Sunday morning walking group on a guided tour of Clerkenwell last week. That was the location for many of London's Victorian Gin Distilleries. We saw the now Grade II listed former Booth's building. The architecture of the Gin Palaces was lush and rich and the model for many later Victorian Public Houses and Music Halls.
Incidentally, you may be interested in this old post of mine:
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


I will let you know next time I am in London. Your Sunday morning tour and your post about the historical importance of beer were fun. Thank you.

Let me focus on one important factor that affected everyone, rich and poor - the normal water was too dirty to drink safely!! Any reasonable alternative to dirty and dangerous drinking water would have been popular... at least until the alternative proved even more dangerous.

Andrew said...

I was once rather fond of Bols. Do you remember the distinctive bottle? Gin has an interesting history and as you allude to, the gin back then must have not at all been like what we may now drink.

mem said...

MMMM sounds rather like the scourge of Meth Amphetamines now .I wonder if generations in the future will be reading about our societal misdemeanors too .

Hels said...


Yes, VERY different! Far from thinking gin was cheap, polluted and nasty, I actually thought our gin (and vodka) cocktails were the height of sophistication. Remember the Gimlet, the Gin Fizz and the Singapore Sling?

Hels said...


Spot on. Every time I read that the desperate gin craze up until the 1750s led to crime, poverty, violence and a soaring death rate, I too think of modern drug crises. We even use the same language these days.

Andrew said...

They were sophisticated, at the time... I don't think I have drunk the former two though I remember them, but I certainly had Singapore Sling in... Raffles in Singapore.

Hels said...


as much as colonialism was largely loathsome, Raffles in Singapore was and is wonderful. The hotel opened in the 1880s so it has needed a few renovations since, but the Long Bar still looks authentic. The hotel's homepage says Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling put away Gin and Tonics while penning stories about the jungles of Malaya, but most people prefer Singapore Slings. In the name of historical tourism, of course.