Gin Drinking in England, 1700–1850
By James Brown
Like other novel intoxicants, gin created an entirely new species of urban space organised around its sale and consumption . As cocoa spawned the chocolate house, coffee the coffeehouse, opium the opium den, and tea the tearoom and tea garden, so gin brought into being the gin or dram shop.10 Described variously by contemporaries as “receptacles for wretches”, “seminaries of mischief”, or “the nurseries of all . . . vice and wickedness”, these unfamiliar environments were mainly a metropolitan phenomenon, and proliferated from the early decades of the eighteenth century. A committee of Middlesex justices convened in 1726 estimated there to be six thousand gin shops in that outlying London county alone, a ratio of up to one in five houses in some parishes.11 As the below mezzotint intimates, gin shops were far more rudimentary than the traditional inns, taverns, and alehouses that had hitherto made up England’s victualling hierarchy, and which, by the Hanoverian period, had become increasingly sophisticated and regulated under licensing laws. All that was needed to begin trading was a supply of the “pestiferous draught” (either distilled on the premises or acquired from a boutique manufacturer). Chairs and tables in these shops were kept deliberately sparse to encourage off-sales as well as “perpendicular drinking”, both guaranteeing rapid churn of a predominantly poor clientele who lacked the funds for lengthy on-site drinking sessions.12
Anonymous mezzotint titled The Gin Shop Displayed, ca. 1765 — Source.
One spatial innovation of the gin shop was the counter or bar, an appropriation from the burgeoning retail sector. Despite conventional wisdom, these were not a feature of established drinking places, in which alcohol was ferried directly from cellars or storage rooms to customers in halls, parlours, and chambers via a battalion of hosts, drawers, pot boys, and tapsters. As the architectural historian Mark Girouard has noted, the counter was a revolutionary “time-and-motion breakthrough” that made for much more rapid and efficient service; it conferred the additional advantages of separating servers from customers, providing a surface for measuring and pouring drinks, and forming a barrier behind which drink, serving vessels, and takings could be securely stored.13
As well as being vended and enjoyed within these specialised settings, gin was a promiscuous and ubiquitous substance that insinuated itself into a variety of preexisting sites and spaces. As suggested by the barmaid missing the pour in the mezzotint above, gin proved impossible to contain.14 The “maddening drench” was incorporated into the repertoires of traditional innholders, taverners, and alehouse-keepers, especially in the provinces, and — mainly because retailers who traded primarily in commodities other than alcohol could sell gin without licence or scrutiny — was sold extensively in coffeehouses, chandleries, groceries, cookshops, pawnbroker’s premises, and tobacconists. Because takeaways and off-sales comprised an important part of the business of dram shops, gin was widely consumed in homes and private residences — such as by the sex worker and sailor in the mezzotint and etching below — and it could even be enjoyed with a haircut or shave. Etchings of gin served in barbershops (like this one) offer a visual counterpoint to the deceased barber in Hogarth’s Gin Lane, who has been driven to the end of a noose by bankruptcy brought on by a lack of business from his bedraggled and gin-addled clientele.
Hand-coloured mezzotint titled The Last Shift, ca. 1792, which depicts a sex worker in her chamber. A small gin tankard is visible next to the washtub — Source.
George Cruikshank, Mrs Topper’s Dream, ca. 1812. In this hand-coloured etching depicting a sailor and his wife in bed, as well as coffee and tea paraphernalia, a small bottle of gin can be seen on the table — Source.
Hand-coloured 1793 etching, whose caption reads “Shave For a Penny, Hair Dres’t for Two Pence, and a Glass of Gin Into the Bargain” — Source.
Dr. James Brown is currently Knowledge Exchange Programme Manager at the University of Sheffield. He has a background in academic history, specialising in cultures of drinking and intoxication in early modern England, and was previously Research Associate on and Project Manager of the HERA-funded research project Intoxicating Spaces: The Impact of New Intoxicants on Urban Spaces in Europe, 1600-1850. He is also interested in the digital humanities; project and programme management; and public engagement, knowledge exchange, and impact.