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How the Birth of Gin Created a System of Poverty for Profit
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JULY 27, 2021

How the Birth of Gin Created a System of Poverty for Profit

A distillation of the history of the London Gin Craze of the 18th century.

Words By Lauren Richeson
Photography by Katrina Frederick

Society has been under the influence of alcohol as far back as human history can define. Cultures across every continent experimented with the organically occurring process of fermentation long before there was the language to describe it. Early fermentation began as food preservation, mostly for animal milk and fruits, but when our ancestors discovered alcohol from grains, our relationship and its effects on our cultures proved to be a polarizing innovation. 

Since its discovery, alcohol has been a unique luxury. The transition from religious to medicinal to a morally accepted recreational drug has been publicly supported despite its destructive effects on our physical and societal wellbeing.

The duplicity of drinking has made alcohol an irreplaceable mechanism in economic development while also being an anchor in classism and economic oppression. One of the clearest illustrations, and perhaps the onset of these constructs, can be seen in the events surrounding the introduction and production of grain alcohol gin in 18th-century London.

Over 30 years, the streets of Britain became saturated with this new spirit, stirring up a wave of revelry like never before. An epidemic of influence arose, sweeping all levels of society under its drunken wing. Men, women and even children were succumbing to the effects of the effervescent gin, resulting in a wave of immorality and vagrancy that threatened the safety and health of the public. Images of urban decay, poverty, madness and misery became synonymous with the era, blaming the power gin for the unraveling of the thin fabric of civility that started to begin.

Referred to as the London Gin Craze, this moment in time is a microcosm of how addiction and poverty are used to create economic and class division, as well as the way society benefits from perpetuating these issues. The motives and mechanisms that fueled this epidemic foreshadowed and influenced the way alcohol is controlled and accepted around the world to this day. 

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At the end of the 17th century, the vastly Protestant England was determined to rid itself of Catholicism’s religious and political rule. Upon catching wind of an impending revolt, King James II chose to flee the throne. In a historically conflictless takeover known as The Glorious Revolution of 1688, he was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary II and her Dutch husband, William of Orange (William III).

But while England was busy addressing political change, the ongoing conflict between the majority of Europe versus France raged on. 

William III spent years on the frontlines of the nearly decade-long war against France and was determined to use his new power as king to protect Britain and the Dutch Republic from its rivals, while draining as much power from France as he could. He set his targets on the French economy, and with the support of Parliament, passed a series of laws prohibiting all trade and commerce with France, including a ban on wine and brandy, France’s most profitable goods. 

Although Britain was still actively consuming ale, the absence of French brandy and wines left a noticeable void in the alcoholic beverage market. Simultaneously, farmers across the country faced an unprecedented surplus of cheap grains like corn and barley, setting the stage for England to establish its own nationally distilled spirits for sale and trade.

Presented with a solution for the excess of grains as well as the tax revenue that could be generated from trade, Parliament passed the 1690 Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn, lifting restrictions on domestic distilling. This opened the market to anyone to begin producing and selling spirits, such as the grain-based tonic jenever from Holland—which became known as gin in Britain.

At first, the production and consumption of gin were creating economic stimulus and community coercion, the morale of Britain was high, and food prices were low. But as the national distilling industry continued to grow, drastic shifts in the new and somewhat fragile socio-economic structure of London started to show.

By the early 18th century, London was the first metropolis in the country with a population of 600,000, with a constant flow of people pouring new life into the city from all over the world with hopes of escaping poverty. 

In any other town, being an uneducated, unskilled and unprepared immigrant made it nearly impossible to survive, let alone thrive; but in London, the only thing you needed to make money was a still. 

As of 1730, London had over 7,000-dram shops throughout the city, distilling 10 million gallons of gin per year. And with the rising demand fueling the spirits supply, the output of gin only continued to expand.

The government-sanctioned mass-market gin flooding the streets of London was menacingly strong. With no regulation on the ingredients or ability to measure its proof, the typical concoction included additives like sulphuric acid and turpentine, a far stretch from the botanical tonics and upper-class beverage of the bourgeoisie. 

Gin quickly grew to be more common than beer ale, and even water, and was consumed in high quantities across all levels and ages in society. However, as the grip gin had on London’s large working class grew, their productivity declined. Combined with the unending availability of alcohol, a culture of drunkenness set in.

For the city’s working class, gin was not only a means of income, but also provided an escape from the dismal living conditions and harsh realities of their daily lives. The gin shops thrived in the dangerous London suburbs; these were the neighborhoods where local authorities were either too weak, corrupt or apathetic to police.

Until this point in time, drunkenness was a vice not commonly dealt with in the public eye, but now, the addiction was impossible to overlook. It was ever apparent that London developed an alcohol problem—specifically, a noxious relationship with gin, which many believed correlated to the rise in crime, debauchery and sin. 

In 1751, Thomas Fielding, an English historian, wrote of gin in a political pamphlet: “A new kind of drunkenness, unknown to our ancestors, is lately sprung up among us, and which if not put a stop to, will infallibly destroy a great part of the inferior people. The drunkenness I here intend is … by this poison called Gin … the principal sustenance (if it may be so-called) of more than a hundred thousand people in this Metropolis.”

However, it wasn’t just the alcoholism seeping its way into mainstream life causing social reformers, the church and politicians of the time to take the wind. Publicly, the conversations around laboring-class gin drinking focused on the emerging issues of addiction and increasing crime, but underneath was also the concern of how growing economic freedom was beginning to affect the nature of London’s social structure as a whole. 

The traditionalism that society was built upon depended greatly on the division of the lower classes and their social superiors. The architects of the aristocracy feared that if the working poor evolved into a class of consumers, their upward mobility would lead to the deterioration of the existing social hierarchy. 

This could not be promoted outright, of course. Instead, the campaign against gin became focused around crime, poverty and the threat gin posed to social morality—and most notably, to women. 

Opening the marketplace of gin distilling introduced women to a new social and economic position. Not only were they now openly drinking with men, but many of the gin sellers of the time were women. 

The fact that younger women were abandoning their matriarchal expectations to raise their standard of living threatened the patriarchal standards that had always been status quo. The relationship between gin and women grew to be vilified, becoming synonymous with the rise in crime, promiscuity and moral demise.

The gin shops ran by women became associated with prostitution and were often deemed responsible for the spread of venereal disease. Women who drank were considered loud and disorderly, and when under the influence, were more prone to making lustful and adulterous decisions. 

The child mortality rate was blamed specifically on gin-consuming women, with the scholars of the time using their medieval medical science to claim gin posed irreversible metabolic dangers that would forever endanger the health of generations to come. 

To drive home this narrative, reformers reverted to the zeitgeist of witchcraft that was still a widespread undercurrent of the time. The personification of the evils of female gin drinking was publicly depicted in art and literature as “Madam Geneva,” an unholy creature described as “part witch and part whore,” according to Patrick Dillon’s Gin: The Much-lamented Death of Madam Genevaa name that would also become a label for the spirit itself. Madam Geneva is most notably featured in William Hogarth’s infamous prints of Beer Street and Gin Lane as a woman dressed in disheveled clothing, deep in the throes of intoxication with her child falling ominously from her arms surrounded by a mosaic of drunken mishaps.

Although persistent, these initial endeavors to problematize the behavior of women and gin did little to sway people away from the still. That is until, one of the era’s most prolific crimes would occur and drastically shift the public’s perception of gin, attaching it to the stigma of a “mother’s ruin.” 

In 1734, after a long night at the gin shop, single mother Judith Dufour murdered her two-year-old, stripping the child naked and leaving the body in a ditch. She then returned to the gin shop and peddled her child’s clothing for money to continue drinking. Dufour’s crime was met with a justifiable uproar and her subsequent trial and conviction were widely publicized and used to emphasize the perils of women’s drinking and that gin was single-handedly responsible for the detriment of motherhood.

Almost immediately, anti-gin propaganda began to surge with newspapers plastering horror stories from the intoxicated underworld and pamphlets portraying gin’s illicit lifestyle littering London’s drier lanes. 

The outcry for the regulation of gin was led by prominent upper-class reformers such as Sir Robert Walpole and Sir Joseph Jekyll, but as their message gained momentum, members of the church and the more sober sections of society began to rally behind them.

Faced with mounting pressures from all walks of British life, Parliament was forced to step in and address the national epidemic of gin that for so long was overlooked in part due to the immense income being generated by its open sale and consumption.

Between 1735 and 1751, a series of laws known as The Gin Acts were passed, each with a different level of regulation aimed at controlling the production and curbing the access to raw spirits made from grains. 

The Spirit Duties Act of 1735 applied a retail tax on the sale of gin and required yearly paid licensees for all distillers. However, these new rules were widely ignored and nearly impossible to enforce, so over the following years, the back-alley gin sensation continued to flourish. 

By 1743, London’s gin production was at its peak and the outline of an alcohol industry was starting to appear. With the support of the larger distillers, the Gin Act of 1736 was repealed and a softer law with lower taxes and fees were introduced; it also carried stricter enforcement on black market vendors, which would help to narrow the market of gin production while simultaneously stifling its use. 

For Parliament, these lighter laws were a means of financial gain, and for the reformers, it played directly into their larger campaign. Masked as morality, at the core of their plight against gin was the desire to control and contain the social and economic advancement of the working class. 

So while regulation was indeed thin, it was disproportionately focused on gin shops operated by the urban poor, immigrants and particularly women. Under the first Gin Act of 1736, nearly 70% of the retailers charged and convicted of selling gin without a license were women. 

The trials were a spectacle and used as proof of the reprehensible moral and now legal damage gin had on women, while also stripping away one of the few profit-making opportunities available to them. 

By 1751, London’s relationship with gin reached an impasse, and after years of unremitting protests from politicians and religious leaders, the last and harshest Gin Act was passed. 

This final decree put an end to small-market gin by banning distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants and charging license holders with astronomical fees. As a result, the only people who could afford to distribute gin were larger distillers and property holders, thus shifting the economic control of alcohol to the bourgeoisie. 

While legislation played a significant role in tempering London’s gin situation, it was a few acts of nature—human and environmental—that called curtains on the entire craze. 

Alongside England’s other challenges, the 1750s brought long bouts of inclement weather, which all but depleted the country’s once abundant crops of grains. 

As a result, corn was no longer a cheap commodity, so fewer merchants could afford to continue grain distilling, and with the production of gin starting to decline, its price and market value began to rise. 

Due to the poor harvest of wheat, barley and rye, food costs were also at an all-time high and the diminishing need for farm help made work increasingly harder to come by. Over time, the lifestyle of London’s laboring class reverted to basic survival and necessity with fewer jobs, less disposable income, and less interest in drinking gin. 

In 1757, after another disastrous harvest threatened London with a shortage of bread, Parliament passed a three-year ban on the production of all distilled grain spirits to allow farmers and their crops to get ahead. 

Prohibition was praised by the leaders of reform, citing the revival of sobriety and return to social civility as the definitive end to London’s decades-long gin epidemic. 

Free from the grievous grips of Madam Geneva, the Gin Craze chapter came to a close, but the next intoxicating tale in London’s spirit saga was just starting to unfold. 

Over the years, the British economy developed an addiction to the extremely lucrative alcohol industry, now seriously impacted by prohibition. In 1760, the ban was lifted, but before the world embraced grain spirits again, the entire distilling industry had to reinvent itself. 

In this same year, a small group of distillers arose, determined to rewrite the story of London gin. These founding fathers—G&J Greenall’s, Gordon’s, Burnett’s, Tanqueray and Plymouth—were the architects of the big gin spin, their names known around the world as purveyors of the finest gin.

These distilleries formulated new recipes using bespoke, high-end botanical ingredients, exclusively marketing these superior quality gins to the wealthy, upper echelon of London society. Similar to its ancient alcohol origins, this new gin was shrouded in rituals and rites. What was once called a mother’s ruin became a prized elixir that represented prosperity and the elite. 

While these distilleries succeeded in giving this hard-washed grain spirit a softer story and cultural identity, the undistilled history of gin will always be just as toxic as its original recipe. 

It’s impossible to escape the power of alcohol. As long as it lines pockets, it will always line the shelves. 

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