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Gin - The Heroin of the 18th Century Says History Researcher

Originally published - 19 July 1999

Whilst researching the availability of "Luxury" in the 18th century and in particular the eating and drinking patterns of the poor, Jonathan White, a postgraduate researcher in the History Department at the University of Warwick, has found that the 18th century authorities and media treated Gin drinking in much the same way as we treat heroin consumption today. Gin drinking was seen as a form of generalised insanity to which the lower classes were particularly prone. The fierce debates around Joseph Jekyll’s Gin Act of 1736 Act, (which raised the price of licences for retailers) bears striking resemblance's to the modern debate on hard drugs. eg:-

  • Gin consumed the substance and strength of the labourer’s body. Gin, it was claimed, progressively destroyed the human mechanism, rendered unfit to labour for a living and inflamed by the heat of the spirits, he or she was incited to ‘perpetrate all manner of vices’. Violent insubordination, crime and disorder followed, as the tottering Gin drinker sought new supplies of money and lurched upon an overdetermined career towards death.
  • Gin was depicted as a foreign smuggled luxury. Particularly blamed were the Dutch, who brought Gin into the nation through William III’s ‘standing army’, and the French, who were accused of deliberately creating an English taste for spirits through the activities of Brandy smugglers.
  • Smallpox epidemics and alarming infant mortality levels at the time meant that health issues were taken particularly seriously and made medical arguments against Gin particularly powerful.
  • Pamphlets, and reports from London complained about the proliferation of Gin retailers. Writers remarked on the profusion of Gin shops, but also upon the itinerant traders who swarmed about the streets, so that a labourer might find Gin ‘always at hand, in every Street, Alley and Corner’.

However by the mid 18th century the development of an industrialised consumer society took anti Gin literature into a new approach with the new emphasis upon the national importance of consumption among the poor. Gin, it was argued, did not merely make the labouring poor insubordinate and idle, it decreased their wants and hindered their consumption. One writer asked ‘how many thousand Consumers of the general product and manufactures of this kingdom are annually killed’, and ‘how many Commodities, and how many utensils this pernicious Gin supplants or supply the place of?’ It destroyed and disabled useful consumers as well as labourers.

This shift of concern to what the gin trade was doing to reduce the consumption of commodities can also be seen in the illustrations of Gin literature. In sharp contrast to the literature of the 30s, several pamphlets show the poor Gin drinker by absence of furniture and utensils in the home, all the marks of domestic economy, and by the ragged appearance of their homes' inhabitants.

For further details contact:

Jonathan White, Department of History
University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL
Tel: 020 8 349 2627