Gin Lane. It’s one of the most iconic British images of the 18th century. But behind the familiar characters of Hogarth’s most famous engraving lies a fascinating insight into the highs and lows of the first English gin revolution.
In those days, gin had become a scourge on society. It was cheap, unregulated and having a negative impact on the social fabric of England. There came a point where the problem could no longer be ignored. Hogarth’s extraordinarily detailed “Gin Lane” etching shone a bright light into the darkest corners of this new craze. For the first time, gin was exposed for what it really was and for the damage it was doing to the fabric of society. By 1730, gin consumption in England had spiraled to 13, 638, 276 litres of gin in a single year. Moral opposition was on the rise and gin became the enemy – blamed for everything from moral decay to murder.
London in crisis
This was a bad time for England’s capital city. In the mid-18th century, annual infant mortality soared to more than 240 deaths per 1000. Poverty was driving people to alcohol. And gin was becoming affordable and easy to get. The result of this notoriety was the inevitable passing of another Gin Act to control its sale and to reduce consumption.
Then in 1756 the grain harvest failed and small distillers had to close their doors. Prices rose , as did quality. Gin was no longer so accessible to the masses and returned to its original status as a wealthy persons drink and the big players moved in.
In 1769, Alexander Gordon started his distillery in Bermondsey, south London. Thomas Dakin set up a plant in Warrington and the Coates family started making Plymouth Gin in…
Plymouth! These are names that have stood the test of time and they all have a place in the long history of gin.
The devil is in the detail
The storytelling in these etchings is extraordinary and it illustrates (in graphic detail) the devastating social impact of cheap gin on 18th century society.
But look carefully at this extraordinary piece of satire and you will discover a depressing, but instantly recognisable, scene.
There, in the starkest terms is the story of gin. In the images and the characters Hogarth brings to life so vividly, the grim reality is there for all to see. Drunkenness, hunger, social decay, violence, suicide, murder and madness are all on display. And the warning to society was clear. Beware the evil drink – it will be our destruction.
This is in direct contrast with Hogarth’s twin engraving, Beer Street. This was a civilised, convivial place where people drank, laughed and made merry in clean, safe pleasure palaces nice enough for even children to enjoy. But why this difference in attitudes and what was the point of these two engravings?
The truth is never simple
At the end of the war of Austrian succession, more than 80,000 soldiers returned home to Blighty. With them, they brought the normal demands of life – food, water and shelter. But these fighting men (many of whom had returned psychologically or physically damaged) had a predilection for drinking and fighting. And gin was the perfect lubricant!
The great English public were concerned of the consequences of such an influx and the pressure was on to manage the social problems before they got out of control. They demanded the Government pass another Gin Act to control the scourge before it got out of control.
Social commentary: gin versus beer
And that’s where Hogarth stepped in. As a piece of social commentary it was extraordinary. Satire was at its peak and this graphic expose made it crystal clear. Gin was going to lead to a steady slide towards immorality, violence and eventually death. While beer was a social lubricant to be encouraged for the benefit of society.
Nothing new in this world
If you think the media has been propagandised in the 21st century, it was even worse 300 years ago. This was pure politics. Many believed that Hogarth had been in cahoots with the brewers to demonise gin, their greatest competitor.
In any event, it’s worth taking a detailed look at this painting to reveal the true horror of the warning message that Hogarth was trying to deliver. And it’s one of those pictures where the more you look, the more you see. Even a few minutes of scrutiny reveals a horrific tale.
Gin Street: unsavoury characters on every corner
In Gin Street, right up front, there’s a distressing image of a drunken mother. She has dropped her infant child over the edge of a precarious staircase while she picks at a snuff box. She has a leering, slightly dangerous look on her face. Just in front of her is an emaciated man. He’s clutching a flask of gin while holding a manuscript called “The Downfall of Madam Gin”.
A bit further back an old woman lies in a barrow sharing shots of gin with a group of rioters outside a gin distillery.
And then there’s the pawnbroker sign (in the shape of a cross) indicated the populations preference for a gin spirit over the holy spirit.
But there’s more. The background shows images of death, destruction, self-abuse. If you look carefully, there’s even a dead child on a spike. All very gruesome and the message is clear. Don’t mess with gin. It will be the ruin of you.
Beer Street: happy and glorious
By contrast, Beer Street is a far more salubrious place. Its residents are portrayed as happy and healthy. In contrast to the destitute and immoral citizens of Gin Street, the Beer Street gang are far more wholesome.
Far from being addled by addiction, they appear nourished by the life-giving ale of England. The residents display positive virtues such as good health, trade, community and industry. Everything (and everyone) on Beer Street is happy and healthy. Except for one.
In the Beer Street engraving, the pawnbroker is about to go out of business due to having no customers. He lives in the only crumbling building in the picture.
In contrast the other residents of the street are positively prospering. Sturdy, humorous English workers wander the street. It is the King’s birthday, so the flag is flying over the church. Under the Barley Mow pub sign healthy residents sip foaming ales out of large tankards while eating roasted meats.
All in all, Beer Street doesn’t seem like such a bad place at all. It is heaven to Gin Street’s hell.
The decline of Mother’s Ruin
Between the campaigning engravings of Hogarth, a clear and real social problem that was plain for all to see and Government pressure to stop the scourge, gin’s decline was assured. It eventually returned to the rarified atmosphere of the middle classes and became more refined, safer and fashionable. Major brands such as Gordon’s, Tanqueray, Booths and Langdale’s built gin’s reputation with the more affluent members of society. Prices went up and it was no longer as affordable for the masses. By 1751 gin consumption in London had fallen to less than 20% of its volume a decade earlier.
Then, by the beginning of the 19th century, the upper classes took to gin in their gentleman’s clubs. By the 1820s, its popularity was undoubtedly on the rise again. Prices began to fall so that it was once again, cheaper than beer.
The rise of the gin palace
This time the big distillers spotted a gap in the market and they targeted these working class gin drinkers with a new phenomenon – the gin palace.
These wonderfully extravagant and over the top establishments gave gin some middle class respectability and gave ordinary people a nice place to drink safely and in style.
Later in the 19th century, more distinctive styles of gins started to appear including the classic Old Tom. By the 19th century, with the addition of tonic water with quinine (to prevent malaria) gin became the go-to drink for Britain’s colonial masters and the gin and tonic was born. Later that century, it became popular in gin Punches at Gentlemen’s Clubs such as the Garrick.
From cocktail classic to grubby pub drink
In the 20th century, gin had become a classic cocktail ingredient as sophisticated drinks such as the Negroni and the Dry Martini became fashionable. And then, in the 1970s it fell out of fashion again. The market became dominated by big brands from big businesses who had lost their imagination. Gin became a rather grubby, down market pub drink served without any pretensions of style or sophistication.
The devil made me do it!
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the dawn of the craft gin revolution.
Since 201, there has been an explosion of craft gin making across the world. London and Barcelona became the meccas for sophisticated gin drinking and reinvented the way it was served. The humble G&T was elevated into a deliciously theatrical cocktail served in large copa glasses and garnished with exotic fruits and fancy things like pink peppercorns and grated nutmeg. These days there are literally thousands of imaginative craft gin distilleries, a plethora of flavoured mixers and loads of surprising options. These now include many thousands of distinctive, beautiful gins (flavoured and non-flavoured). And some increasingly bizarre versions made from things as diverse as lobsters and red ants.
Personally, I’ll stick with a nice G&T made with a good craft gin, a squeeze of lemon and a premium tonic water. And I will drink to the return of Mother’s ruin.
The devil made me do it!
Written by Steve (with a little help from Ruddles, the gin dog!)
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