The Great London Gin Craze

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BYCU
William Hogarth, “Gin Lane” (1751)

Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

For years, I foolishly assumed GKC disapproved of hard liquor, or at least gin.

I don’t think that’s the case. Rum, for instance, plays a central in his entertaining frolic, The Flying Inn.

But he counseled moderation in drinking, as evidenced by these famous words from Orthodoxy: “We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them” (even though it’s not always clear to me whether he followed his own advice in this regard).

Gin in Moderation?


Gin had a history of immoderation in England, staring with a gin craze that took hold of the country in 1720 (it was first made available with the Glorious Revolution in 1688).

The narrative of the gin craze is incredible.

By the mid-1730s, there were 8,659 gin shops in London, where 5.5 million gallons were purchased in 1735. The sheer number of distilleries cast a nasty fog over the city.

It was cheap, so it was the drink of choice for beggars and vagrants, but also of women. It was known as “the ladies’ delight.”

Children drank it too. Mothers gave it their babies to keep them quiet. Older children drink in gin shops until they couldn’t move. Drunk and destitute girls (as young as 12) sold themselves as prostitutes.

Men and women died in the gutters from drinking too much.

When Parliament passed laws to discourage its consumption (raising taxes on it and requiring a costly license to sell it), speakeasy-practices became rampant. Informants were beaten to death by mobs.

The laws didn’t quell the craze much, but it started to calm down in the 1750s.

Why?

Because of a general religious re-awakening sparked by the Wesley brothers and Methodism.

And also due to a new craze: tea.

(Most facts about the gin craze are taken from Chapter 14 of Peter Ackroyd’s Revolution: The History of England from the Battle of the Boyne to the Battle of Waterloo. I read years ago that Ackroyd is a lifelong Londoner who absolutely loves the great city. Based on this new history he has produced, it’s evident that he loves his country as well. Highly recommended.)