The word ‘gin’ didn’t appear in the Oxford English Dictionary until 1714. Defined as ‘an infamous liquor’ it had clearly made its mark already. During the early days of the ‘craze’ gin was known as geneva or ‘Madame Geneva’. Probably no coincidence that gin’s entry in to the dictionary coincided with Bernard Mandevilles’ ‘Fable of the Bees’, a poem that was published in 1705, followed by a book, which first appeared in 1714. In his frank and detailed description of London’s various vices and corruptions Mandeville gives us one of the earliest insights in to gin as a purely ruinous force, as well as one of the earliest uses of the word ‘gin’.
Nothing is more destructive, either in regard to the Health or the Vigilance and Industry of the Poor than the infamous Liquor, the name of which, deriv’d from Junipera in Dutch, is now by frequent use and the laconic spirit of the nation, from a word of middling length shrunk into a monosyllable, intoxicating GIN.
Slowly at first but gathering pace, the overconsumption of gin became endemic, far removed from the blithe alcoholism associated with beer and wine, it was perceived by those lucky enough to escape its clutches as perfectly abhorrent. Gin was the widespread social drug of the time that preyed on the poor and vulnerable, gutting London from the inside out. Dr Stephen Hales, an anti-gin campaigner wrote in 1734 that “Man, has unhappily found means to extract, from what God intended for his refreshment, a most pernicious and intoxicating liquor.” In the 1730’s around five million gallons of raw spirits were being distilled in London every year, less than 10% of it would ever leave the city.
The population of London as a whole was relatively stagnant between 1725 and 1750, but this was only due to the steady influx of migrants. More people died in London during the mid-1700’s than were being born. In the worst areas a newborn had less than an 80% chance of making it to the age of two. Many families were forced to live in single rooms in ramshackle tenements or in damp cellars, with no sanitation or fresh air. Drinking water was often contaminated by raw sewage and garbage was left rotting in the street. Problems with the disposal of the dead often added to the stench and decay. Many London graveyards became full to capacity, and coffins were sometimes left partially uncovered in ‘poor holes’ close to local houses and businesses. It’s little wonder that the poor turned to gin as a release from the hardships of survival.
Imagine every single newsagent, store, supermarket and street vendor in central London turning their hand to selling gin. Then imagine that it’s cheaper than bread or milk and that anyone can buy it: violent drunks, the elderly and infirm, children. Finally, imagine that it’s not only highly addictive, but poisonous, laced with added ‘flavour enhancing’ properties that when consumed in large quantities cause blindness, death, or the loss of ones mind.
It’s easy to imagine widespread turmoil throughout the entire city, but ‘dramming’ was really only centred around the poorest districts. In 1700 London had a population of 575,000, which made it the largest metropolis in Europe. While the residents of St Giles got drunk for (literally) a penny, the city could press on with business as usual, preoccupied and only vaguely aware of the horrors taking place around the corner. Gentleman, politicians, merchants, and scholars wouldn’t venture in to fleshpots of Holborn or Shoreditch. They would meet in nearby Cornhill to drink coffee and discuss politics, trade, the colonies, science, or poetry. Perhaps some might have indulged in glass of gin on occasion, but it would imported Holland’s Gin, not the ghastly stuff produced in some squalid basement. The single biggest reason that the gin craze lasted so long and its affects were so brutal is ignorance of the upper classes to what was taking place under their noses.
If the gin craze was a storm then the area of St Giles in the Fields, near Charring Cross Road, was the centre of the deluge. Renowned as one of the countries biggest slums, for the 20,000 people living there gin was a a simple, cheap and accessible solution to all of their problems.
As you might expect, there’re no shortage of harrowing stories from the period. As a researcher it becomes a macabre process of selection, sifting through the fallout and singling-out the accounts that best represent the grim horror of the gin craze. William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ etching might seem a grizzly exaggeration of events, but the true plight of the people embroiled in the gin craze was perhaps even worse.
One of the most disturbing and notorious tales from the period is of Judith Dafour. In 1734 Dafour deposited her unclothed two-year-old daughter, Mary, at the workhouse where she was employed, then returned the following day to claim her. Now fully clothed, she stripped the child of his clothes then strangled her to death, dumped his body in a ditch. She then sold the clothes for 1s and 4d and used her earnings to buy gin.
Spare a thought too for Joseph Barret too. A 42 year old labourer, who was hung in 1728 for beating his son to death. Barret’s final confession is an harrowing account of how his son (James) spent his days begging for money and his nights “drinking until he appeared worse than a beast, quite out of his senses.” Garret apparently had “no evil intention” and planned only to “reclaim [James] from his wild courses.” Barrett’s punishment was too savage however, and James died in his bed. He was eleven years old.
By 1751 half of all the British wheat harvest was used to make spirits. There were reportedly 17,000 ‘private gin shops’ in London and almost half of them were in Holborn. That’s approximately one shop for every black cab in Greater London today. And that figure only represents the gin specialists! It doesn’t include all the taverns and public houses that also sold gin by the bucket load. Neither does it include the street markets, grocers, chandlers, barbers, barrows and brothels that also did a roaring trade. Some estimates — and they can really only be estimates — suggest that over 10 million gallons of gin were consumed in London that year. A worthy effort for a population of only 700,000, helped along by the fact that many factory workers were partly paid in gin. Follow the maths down and you’re looking a pint of of gin per week for every single London citizen. The novelist Henry Fielding argued that there would soon be "too few of the common people left to drink it" if the situation continued.