the london gin craze -- 11/17/14

Today's selection -- from The Spirit of Gin by Matt Teacher. In the late 1600s, wealthy British landholders passed legislation to encourage the consumption of liquor, all in an attempt to increase the value of their grain. It worked. The consumption of spirits in Britain increased almost fifteen-fold from 572,000 gallons in 1684 to 8,000,000 gallons in 1743, bringing an epidemic of intoxication and crime known as the London Gin Craze:

"In 1690 land-owning aristocrats, anxious to keep the value of grain up so that their land rents would sustain, passed 'An Act for the Encouraging of the Distillation of Brandy and Spirits from Corn.' This act produced a surge in gin production and consumption, based on several factors:

* Simultaneously lowered the duty on malted corn distillates while raising the tax on beer and spirits made from other sources

* Placed a more severe duty on spirits imported from France

* Allowed an eager distiller, with little capital, to pay a small fee for a license and begin production within ten days

"This first act, which was spectacularly successful in increasing landowners' revenues and Britain's collected duties, set into motion a course that, despite a series of licit attempted remedies, would upset England over the next half century. If this first act had been left alone, perhaps the Gin Craze would not be so notorious today. That is not to say that production and consumption did not rise drastically after the act's implementation, but those who morally objected to the spirit did not do themselves any favors as they attempted to regulate gin's consumption.

"The thirst for gin seemed to have no bounds, and by 1716 gin was being served in all manner of establishments and street-carts that were frequented by London's budding urban populace of over half a million. Enabled by easy access to distilling permits, many adaptations on what was previously considered 'gin' appeared, and not for the better. ...

"Many people -- including women, for the first time in history -- were frequently seen intoxicated in public, and the streets bustled with mischief, gluttony and prostitution. Rumors and stories began circulating about mothers forgetting to feed their babies, men getting into violent fights in the street, and criminals waiting in the alleys for their next target. All this was attributed to the abundance of gin.

"The Society for the Reformation of Manners -- one of many similar socially conservative activist groups of the day -- did not approve of what they witnessed. They considered gin to be a poison that resulted in loosened morals, criminal activity, and indecency, and they took political action to further their position. The society's first 'success' came in 1729 when the first Gin Act was passed. This act attempted to tighten the nation's loose grip on spirits by more than doubling the duty and instating a permit fee for spirit retailers. This measure did not work.

"Although there would soon be fewer distillers on the official books due, the associated fees, a surge in illegal bootlegging quickly took off and people were drinking more than ever. Just four years later, upon seeing what their actions had spurred, the act was repealed in 1733. ...

Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751)

"Whether through poetry or painting, song or sermon, the arts have both captured and skewed public perception with swift efficacy throughout history. In 1751 artist William Hogarth made two engravings, Gin Lane and Beer Street, which were published in the London Evening-Post. Gin Lane illustrates a chaotic city street featuring a bare-breasted drunken mother gazing down with a blank stare and smirk as her baby falls over the railing. All around is madness, death and violence. This image, in conjunction with an anti-gin pamphlet created and distributed by Westminster magistrate Henry Fielding, once again caused a social stir and rallied Parliament to take action. These men wanted nothing more than complete prohibition. Luckily, they would have to compromise. ...

"With the Gin Act of 1751 Britain finally reached a balance between religious and moral groups, and society at large. Duties were raised, but not exorbitantly, and permits were accessible enough to deem illegal operations as futile. Gin was no longer the cheapest high, and the curtain closed on the London Gin Craze."


Matt Teacher


The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival


Cider Mill Press


Copyright 2014 by Matthew Teacher


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