Gin Craze


Gin Lane

The Gin Craze was a period in the first half of the 18th century when the consumption of gin increased rapidly in Great Britain, especially in London. Many people overconsumed and the city had a virtual epidemic of extreme drunkenness; this provoked moral outrage and a legislative backlash that some compare to the modern drug wars.

Parliament passed five major Acts, in 1729, 1736, 1743, 1747 and 1751, designed to control the consumption of gin. Though many similar drinks were available, and alcohol consumption was considerable at all levels of society, it was gin (otherwise known as ‘Mother’s Ruin’ or ‘Madam Geneva,’ a misspelling of the original drink called ‘jenever’) which caused the greatest public concern.

Gin was popularized in England following the accession of William of Orange in 1688. Gin provided an alternative to French brandy at a time of both political and religious conflict between Britain and France. Between 1689 and 1697, the Government passed a range of legislation aimed at restricting brandy imports and encouraging gin production. Most importantly, the monopoly of the ‘London Guild of Distillers’ was broken in 1690, thereby opening up the market in gin distillation. The production and consumption of English gin, which was then popular among politicians and even Queen Anne, was encouraged by the government.

Economic protectionism was a major factor in beginning the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers suddenly had the opportunity to spend excess funds on liquor. By 1721, however, Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as ‘the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people.’ In 1736, the Middlesex Magistrates complained, ‘It is with the deepest concern your committee observe the strong Inclination of the inferior Sort of People to these destructive Liquors, and 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.’ The British government tried a number of times to stop the flow of gin.

The ‘1736 Gin Act’ taxed retail sales at a rate of 20 shillings a gallon on spirits and required a £50 annual licence to sell gin. The aim was to effectively prohibit the trade by making it economically unfeasible. Only two licences were ever taken out. The trade became illegal, consumption dipped but then continued to rise and the law was effectively repealed in 1743 following mass law-breaking and violence (particularly towards informers who were paid £5 to reveal the whereabouts of illegal gin shops). The illegally distilled gin which was produced following the 1736 Act was less reliable and more likely to result in poisoning.

By 1743, the people of England were drinking 2.2 gallons (10 liters  of gin annually per head of population. As consumption levels increased, an organized campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson (who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’). Prominent anti-gin campaigners included Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalization of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and – briefly – William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving ‘Gin Lane’ is a well known image of the gin craze.

The Gin Craze began to peter out following the ‘Gin Act 1751.’ This Act lowered the annual licence fees, but encouraged ‘respectable’ gin selling by requiring licensees to trade from premises rented for at least £10 a year. Historians suggest that gin consumption was reduced not as a result of legislation but because of the rising cost of grain. Landowners could afford to abandon the production of gin, and this fact, coupled with population growth and a series of poor harvests, resulted in lower wages and increased food prices. The Gin Craze had mostly ended by 1757. The government tried to ensure this by temporarily banning the manufacture of spirits from domestic grain; there was a resurgence of gin consumption during the Victorian era, with numerous ‘Gin Palaces’ appearing.

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