St. Giles and the Gin Craze

Gin drinking became a terrible problem for the people of London in the early eighteenth century because of several converging factors: Britain was at war with France, which put an embargo on the sale of British grain to France. The British landowners—most of whom were active members of Parliament—found themselves with an excess of grain. At the same time distilled liquor came into vogue. Prior to this period “spirits” were mostly used as medicine. People in Britain were used to drinking beer, which has a much lower alcohol content than distilled liquor. But grain—even rotting grain not fit to be made into bread–can be easily distilled into gin, which, as the London poor soon found to their sorrow, is very, very addictive.

London at this time period was the largest city in the world. It drew in people from all over the world, but especially from the countryside of Britain. Many people made their fortune quickly, but many more became impoverished, living in the crowded tenements of St. Giles and the East End of London. Gin was readily available from street hawkers, selling their wares out of wheelbarrows, and from the corner Chandler shops. One in four houses in St. Giles sold gin. Gin was everywhere and very cheap—a penny and a half for a quarter cup. Addiction soon led to rampant crime—remember there was no police force in London at this time—which finally began to worry the elite of London. If the poor were too drink-addled to work, what would happen to England’s industry? Worse, some parts of London were too dangerous to travel during the day, let alone at night.

Something had to be done, but remember, the people in charge of the government were the very ones making the most off the sale of gin. If the drink were outlawed, where were the landowners to sell their excess grain? Some twenty years of legal wrangling followed, with ineffective gin bill after ineffective gin bill being passed by Parliament. It wasn’t until people such as the artist William Hogarth with his scathing engravings (see Gin, Hogarth, and the Horrible Crime of Judith Dufour) and the novelist Daniel Dafoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) started protesting that Parliament eventually passed an effective gin bill. And the gin craze became part of London’s history.