Originally published by Londnr Magazine November 29, 2017
London and gin have serious history. Back in the 1730s, the rate of gin consumption was so extreme it reached the level of a full-blown epidemic. The refreshing spirit might be the toast of the town now, but it was once the cause of all bedlam in the city.
Thousands of people were routinely swilling down unregulated, lethal gin, getting absolutely paralytic on bootleg booze laced with turpentine and sulphuric acid – to remove the foul taste – as well as arsenic from poor grain. If the gin didn’t kill you, the hangovers must have made you wish it had. With the death rate so high, and the birth rate so low, Georgian Londoners were quite literally dying out as a result of their relentless addiction to gin.
And why not? After all, the poor masses of London faced a fairly bleak alternative: long, back-breaking hours of menial work, with multiple families crammed into filthy houses, open sewers, rat-infested streets and contaminated drinking water. In the working class quarters, the city was a hive of squalor. This period of almost 50 years of drunken debauchery would go on to be known as the “Gin Craze”, and it was sparked by series of tactical political manoeuvres.
Late in the previous century, William of Orange ascended to the British throne through his marriage to Queen Mary II of England in the hope of cementing an Anglo-Dutch alliance against King Louis of France. In a bid to damage the French economy, he raised taxes on foreign imports (such as French grain and brandy) and disbanded the London Guild of Distillers, a group who controlled the production of spirits in the UK at the time.
The new king, who as a Dutchman was partial to genever – the mother of modern gin – hoped that by making it easier for Britons to brew themselves, the lagging grain economy would also receive a much needed boost. Low corn prices and lax distilling laws meant that almost anyone could now brew gin – or something that passed for it, at least. Immediately the cheap and easy to access spirit became a quick escape from the immense hardship of daily life for those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The floodgates opened, and the capital was swamped with dangerous concoctions.
By 1740, the annual consumption of gin was estimated at six gallons per person – that’s nearly 40 bottles of 70cl Bombay Sapphire – while gin was reportedly being sold in over 6,000 establishments across London. As well as the dangerously high mortality rates, crime rates were spiralling out of control and productivity was at rock bottom.