addiction in eighteenth century England was a national
scandal. Gin is a distilled alcohol flavored with juniper
berries. The drink originated in The Netherlands and had
been introduced by William of Orange into the country
in the late seventeenth century. In 1690, intending to
find a market for poor-quality grain, the English government
put a high import tax on foreign liquor while at the same
time making it possible to make and sell gin without a
license. This made gin cheaper than beer. The result?
By 1750 one in four houses in the St. Giles section of
London was a gin shop. Gin shops were houses of ill-repute
and often had prostitutes and fencers of stolen items
working out of them as well.
In 1736, the government passed the first Gin Act, which was supposed
to make distributors pay a fifty pound license. Mostly, however, the act drove
the making and selling of gin underground without abating the problem. A second
Gin Act in 1751 had a little more success, but it wasn’t until the government
passed a Sale of Beer act in 1830 which removed the tax on beer, that gin lost
its stranglehold on the poor.
During the height of the London Gin Craze,
William Hogarth, the artist and social commentator, produced
and published two engravings contrasting beer and gin.
In Gin Lane, a pawnbroker haggles in the corner, a man
fights with a dog over a bone, an ex-soldier dies in the
foreground, a woman forces gin down the throat of a baby
(to keep the child quiet), the coffin maker does a brisk
trade, and there’s a house literally falling down
in the background. In contrast, the happy people in Beer
Street are fat and their buildings are being repaired.
By far the most striking image in Gin Lane, is the nursing mother
dead center of the illustration. She’s so drunk on gin that she doesn’t
notice her baby falling presumably to its death as she takes snuff. It’s
a melodramatic scene, but one that’s probably based on a real one: the case
of Judith Dufour. In 1735, Judith took her two-year-old toddler to the local workhouse
and left the child there. She returned a few days later and claimed the toddler—and
his new clothes. She then strangled her child, left the naked body in a ditch,
and sold the clothes for sixteen pence…which she spent on gin.