Gin Drinking in England, 1700–1850
By James Brown
At the same time as gin was regaining momentum within these deluxe new venues, an organised temperance movement was starting to take shape. Spearheaded by coffee retailers, doctors, evangelicals, and industrialists, and animated by a fervent belief in the deleterious economic, medical, moral, and social effects of alcohol in general and spirits in particular, temperance societies campaigned vigorously against recreational drinking and ultimately for total abstention. This reforming imagination was fundamentally spatial; if, as Brian Harrison notes, their “vision of recreation [was] centred on the home” (and on the sobering intoxicant of tea), then the newfangled gin palace served as both symptom of and metonym for the corroding evils of alcohol.17 And as well as mobilising pamphlets, maps, and songs, temperance reformers also made their case through the medium of images.18
An 1847 print by Luke Limner comparing a traditional tavern with a modern gin palace — Source.
At the vanguard of this visual and spatial temperance strategy was the graphic satirist George Cruikshank. London born and bred, and (like his near-contemporaries James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson) an inheritor of the visual tradition of Hogarth, Cruikshank was a prolific and successful commercial cartoonist who produced more than six thousand commissions for books, magazines, and pamphlets over the course of his long career. Gin and its palaces featured heavily in the vigorous and immersive scenes of London life in which he specialised. Earlier designs, such as the ones he created for Dickens’ Sketches by Boz (from which the above description is drawn) and Pierce Egan’s picaresque 1821 bestseller Life in London, are broadly benign and affectionate; the premises are attractive, and the customers for the most part convivial, healthy, and respectable. This probably reflects the central and positive role that drinking and gin palaces played in Cruikshank’s own life during this period. While he seems not to have suffered from addictive or pathological drinking, like most nineteenth-century creatives he was a habitual and excessive consumer of alcohol well-known for his love of company-keeping and public sociability.
Illustration by George Cruikshank from Pierce Egan’s Life in London, ca. 1820, which depicts protagonists Tom and Jerry in a gin palace — Source.
Left: Illustration by George Cruikshank for Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz, ca. 1836, depicting the interior of a gin palace. Right: George Cruikshank, The Gin Palace, ca. 1842 — Source: left, right.