THE TERRIBLE TALE OF GIN
A review of our April talk - by Anna Alexander
On 11th April the Gateacre Society welcomed back Mike Murphy for another of his excellent talks, this time on gin, a spirit with an unsavoury reputation. His main topic was the gin craze in the eighteenth century, when for a while London was totally besotted with the spirit. In the sixteenth century the Russians of Muscovy invented Vodka and the Germans and the Dutch improved the recipe in the 1630s with their own distillation processes. Indeed 'spirits' are known as such because in the distillation process, the original liquid evaporates, the vapour moves down a tube (is spirited away) and then becomes liquid again. The Dutch distilled their spirit from barley and experimented with different herbs and spices to flavour it until they hit on the addition of the juniper berry (known in Dutch as Jenever) and thus was born Jenever, which the English called Geneva. It was just a short step then for the name to be shortened to GIN.
With great humour, Mike regaled us with stories about gin and its history. For example, Dutch sailors used to have a mug of gin before going into battle, and this became known as Dutch courage. When in 1689, Dutch William of Orange became King William III of England, he encouraged the export of Jenever to England and in the early eighteenth century, the distillation of gin became established in England. Farmers sold their gluts of grain to the distillers and gin soon became a popular drink in London. Unlike ale and beer which were taxed and licensed by law, there were very loose regulations on the sale of gin and excise duties were imperfectly collected. In 1722 it was estimated that five and a half million gallons of gin were produced and there were up to 16,000 outlets selling it.
The main market for gin was London north of the Thames, where the population lived in a small area of tightly packed streets in squalid conditions. Life was brutal and short and gin brought people brief relief from reality. But it became a major problem with a huge amount of drunkenness and people even dropped dead in the streets. The government made half-hearted attempts to control the problem with an Act in 1729, which said it could only be sold for medicinal purposes, so the spirit was relabelled and sales went on. Mike mentioned horror stories such as that of Judith Dufour, a woman who was executed for apparently murdering her child whilst drunk with gin, and of a woman who died of spontaneous combustion caused by gin.
The most famous depictions of the horrors of the effects of gin were of course created by artist William Hogarth and in particular his drawing "Gin Lane". Campaigners continued to speak of the dangers of gin and in 1751, an Act at last laid down firm principles for the manufacture, sale and tax of the spirit. By the 1760s the problem had faded away.