Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On This Day...

Combined image of Beer Street and Gin LaneImage via Wikipedia 1736 the British Government passed the second of the Gin Acts, the idea of this act, by forcing retailers to purchase a £50 licence and charging a duty of 20 schillings a gallon, was to render the gin trade economically unviable. Instead after a brief dip in gin consumption, the gin trade went underground and by 1743 the average gin consumption was 2.2 gallons annually per head of the population.

The gin craze raised moral heckles in church, Parliament and beyond.  Much like today's condemnation of on street binge drinking, the Middlesex Magistrates in 1736 wrote "It is with the deepest concern your committee observe the strong Inclination of the inferior Sort of People to these destructive Liquors, and how surprisingly this Infection has spread within these few Years … it is scarce possible for Persons in low Life to go anywhere or to be anywhere, without being drawn in to taste, and, by Degrees, to like and approve of this pernicious Liquor."

The artist William Hogarth produced the two pictures Beer Street and Gin Lane, combined above.  The drinkers in Beer Street are portrayed as a fat, happy, avuncular bunch, rowdy perhaps as illustrated by the foolhardy souls on the rooftop, but mostly without malice or threat.  Gin Lane is in direct opposition to its happy partner, Gin soaked alcoholics starve in the gutters and fight with dogs for bones thrown in the street, a man maddened by a vast quantity of Gin dances with a baby impaled on a staff, people brawl with furniture used as weapons, and an orphan cries as its mother is loaded into a coffin.

This poem was published along with Hogath's pictures...

Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught,
Makes human Race a Prey.
It enters by a deadly Draught
And steals our Life away.

Virtue and Truth, driv'n to Despair
Its Rage compells to fly,
But cherishes with hellish Care
Theft, Murder, Perjury.

Damned Cup! that on the Vitals preys
That liquid Fire contains,
Which Madness to the heart conveys,
And rolls it thro' the Veins.
Fifteen years later, the Gin Craze was just starting to wane, but was still very much in the public consciousness, as this poem from the London Evening Post of March 1751 shows...
This wicked gin, of all Defence bereft,
And guilty found of Whoredom, Murder, Theft,
Of rank Sedition, Treason, Blasphemy,
Should suffer Death, the Judges all agree.
By 1757 the craze had all but died out, due largely to price changes for grain and land use rather than the series of Gin Laws launched against it, it would make a resurgence in the Gin Palaces of the Victorian era though.  Throughout the 20th Century numerous governments, most famously that of the USA, showed that they had not learned any lessons from Britain's failed Gin Laws by instituting Prohibition laws of their own.  A swathe of such laws were passed from 1907-33 in Russia, Canada, Norway, Iceland and Hungary, none were to prove a lasting success.
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