[Is there a bottle of gin in our liquor closet? Yes. How long has it been there? Since early summer. SB Sandy and I are gin lovers, but not gin drinkers. Sandy is good for one martini per decade, but we both enjoy a crackling gin & tonic on a warm summer evening.
Gin Drinking in England, 1700–1850
By James Brown
Like tea and saloop (a hot Ottoman drink made from powdered orchid roots), the “infernal combustible” also found itself outside in the open air; indeed, Gin Lane is a nightmarish vision of alfresco consumption. As well as being sold in dedicated shops, gin was retailed from sheds, stalls, and lean-tos in “holes and by-alleys”, was enjoyed on thoroughfares, and — like other comestibles throughout the period — was hawked on the street by mobile vendors, especially during mass entertainments such as executions.15 The best-known depiction of this practice is Hogarth’s The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn, which features a street retailer slinging gin from a wagon at a public hanging, although a lesser-known glimpse is provided by James Gillray’s 1795 etching Copenhagen House, which shows a hawker plying gin at a crowded and raucous meeting of the London Corresponding Society. Like coffee, gin was also sold from temporary or “pop-up” venues in parks and during fairs. Frost fairs were a regular occurrence whenever the Thames froze over, and during the 1814 freeze, gin was being sold from marquees called the “Orange Boven” and the “City of Moscow”, the latter topped with a life-size effigy of the Duke of Wellington.
William Hogarth, The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn, 1747. At the right of this engraving, a street seller dispenses glasses of gin from a cart — Source.
James Gillray, Copenhagen House, 1795. In the left-centre foreground of this hand-coloured etching, a female retailer in a headscarf sells gin at a meeting of the London Corresponding Society, a debating society that advocated for the democratic reform of parliament, inspired by the French Revolution. On the far left, three chimney sweeps, whose brass caps bear the names of their masters, add their own names to a list of well-known political rebels. The gin barrel upon which they sign reads: “Real Democratic Gin by Thelwall & Co.”, a reference to John Thelwall, the radical journalist and political reformer who co-founded the Society. The association with gin here is probably due to its low cost and ready availability to the poor, making it a democratic and accessible form of intoxication — Source.
Hand-coloured 1814 woodcut titled Frost Fair on the River Thames. In the centre, gin is being retailed from two temporary tents — Source (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0).
A raft of increasingly effective central government legislation between 1729 and 1751 led to a steady decline in gin drinking and its associated sites and spaces over the later decades of the eighteenth century, although the “diabolical liquor” received a second wind in the early nineteenth century, when reductions in duties engendered a resurgence of consumption and another innovative breed of space: the gin palace. Appearing from the 1820s, and experiencing their heyday the following decade (when the term was coined), these sumptuous locales were characterised by a number of architectural novelties that were again borrowed from the retail sector: the ever-present counter, but now also large glass frontages punctuated by columns or pilasters, rococo detailing and enrichments, gas lighting internally and externally, outsized vats containing gins of various stripes, and extensive textual inscription. The latter underscored long-standing associations between intoxicating spaces and textuality (drinking houses and coffeehouses were key settings for the circulation and consumption of books, newspapers, and other printed materials), and, as we will see below, the extensiveness of labels and legends in gin palaces proved something of a gift for caricaturists. Charles Dickens described a typical gin palace in 1836:
All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. The interior is even gayer than the exterior. A bar of French-polished mahogany, elegantly carved, extends the whole width of the place; and there are two side-aisles of great casks, painted green and gold, enclosed within a light brass rail, and bearing such inscriptions, as ‘Old Tom, 549’; ‘Young Tom, 360’; ‘Samson, 1421’ – the figures agreeing, we presume, with ‘gallons’, understood. Beyond the bar is a lofty and spacious saloon, full of the same enticing vessels, with a gallery running round it, equally well furnished.16
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.