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The gin of the 18th century bore no relation to the respectable expensive spirit of today. A Dutch import, Madam Geneva (as she was called) was cheap and lethal. 'This new drink from Holland suddenly arrived among a people who weren't used to drinking spirits,' says Patrick Dillon. 'The strongest thing they had drunk before was strong beer, and suddenly for a penny a dram they could get this fantastic new drug.

Stronger than anything they'd tasted before, it would instantly get them drunk. There was a famous signboard over gin shops that said: "Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, straw for nothing" – of course, you got the straw to crash out on once you had drunk too much.'

The government fuelled London's gin craze by removing the restrictions on distilling, and soon the city was awash with gin shops. If you couldn't afford a glass of the spirit, you could buy a gin-soaked rag. It was estimated that a quarter of the buildings in St Giles were drinking dens. Its residents were infamous for guzzling vast quantities of gin and for a few hours escaping their miserable lives.

'The real villains of this debauchery, drunkenness and destruction of human life,' says Professor Dabydeen, 'were the landowners who made tons of money by selling their corn for the purposes of gin distillation. So there was an economic stranglehold on the poor. They were encouraged to consume something that would destroy their lives – a kind of a drug, the equivalent of crack cocaine.'

According to Patrick Dillon, 'London was seen as a town spinning out of control. There was a crime wave, and gin was seen to be associated with crime and prostitution. In addition, the spread of syphilis, which was the big health scare at the time, was seen to be associated with gin because women were thought to be turning to prostitution to fund their drinking habits.

'Gin was also seen as attacking the economy. At the time, the wealth of the nation was thought to depend on how much poor people could make. If poor people, instead of working hard, were lying slumped in the doorway of a gin shop, then they weren't making anything.'

Backlash against the new drug

Gin was assumed to be a London problem, and in the 1720s, a backlash against it began, led by Christian reformers. In 1729, the government took the first official step towards clamping down on this new urban drug. The first Gin Act increased the duty paid on gin from five pence to five shillings and forced gin sellers to buy licences. But Londoners soon found a way around the rules. The law only applied to flavoured spirits, so distillers simply removed the juniper from the gin and renamed it 'Parliamentary brandy'.

By the 1730s, tales of gin-induced crime and depravity were again dominating the papers. One story in particular rekindled gin hysteria – the case of a poor woman, Judith Defor. Her child was cared for by the parish in a local workhouse. One Sunday she took the infant out for the day, strangled it and sold its clothes to buy gin.

The artist William Hogarth was so moved by the devastation wreaked by gin that he produced his most famous engraving set in the slum of St Giles: Gin Lane. 'One of the most powerful images of social degradation in all of 18th-century art is in the foreground – the drunken woman with a leg full of syphilitic sores,' says Professor Dabydeen. 'As she tries to get her snuff, her baby falls from her arms and topples to its death. It's an extraordinary image because there's an echo of a Madonna and child. And when the baby falls with its arms spread wide, it looks like an upside-down crucifixion and the woman like a drunken Mary. So it's showing how Christian values had been absolutely depraved and destroyed by this addiction to gin.'

Controlling the gin craze

Over the next 30 years, the government introduced a series of measures aimed at controlling the gin craze. First, they tried the radical step of prohibition, which simply drove gin underground. People set up illegal stills, women sold drams from underneath their skirts, and there was no let up in gin-fuelled violence. So the authorities brought in a series of acts that gradually brought distilling back within the law, and slowly raised the tax on gin.

But the gin craze only finally fizzled out because the world was changing. In the 1750s, the economic boom came to an end. The poor couldn't afford a drink that was becoming increasingly expensive. And, in the second half of the 18th century, there was a new mood of zealous social reform abroad in the capital.

'People write tracts about how to improve London,' says Patrick Dillon, 'and express shock that the greatest city in the world, the city of the world's greatest power, should be full of these terrible sights – of prostitution, of people drinking too much and lying drunk in the gutters, and all the things that parliamentarians, writers and reformers say have to be cleaned up.'

Poverty and excess would never leave London. St Giles remained a notorious slum into the 19th century, until it was finally knocked down to ease the congestion on London streets caused by the arrival of the railways.

Source: Channel4.com

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