"Slums collapsed in an orgy of lethal drinking, foundling hospitals were established simply to deal with the plight of babies and children orphaned or abandoned by their intoxicated, syphilitic parents, and when the government tried to impose a tax on spirits, there were riots."
This is how Kate Colquhoun describes London’s 18th century gin craze in her book Taste. The Story of Britain through its Cooking (2007, Bloomsbury). The craze refers to a time period (1720-1751 or even 1690-1751) when especially the London poor drank more gin than ever before and were constantly drunk. It has been called “the first modern drug scare”.
There were two main reasons why the both the production and consumption of gin increased at the beginning of the 18th century. First of all, in 1694 beer became heavily taxed making gin cheaper to drink. Secondly, in 1720 the Mutiny Act encouraged local gin production by exempting citizens that distilled spirits from billeting soldiers in their home. However, distillers used low-quality grain to produce spirits that were then cut with substances like oil of turpentine. Finally, in order to mask the drink’s vile taste, ingredients such as sugar, lime or rose water were added.
As a consequence, not only were most poor people intoxicated all the time, but gin was considered to be the cause for all sorts of sinfulness and evilness. Many crimes seemed to have begun in a gin shop and politicians blamed “gin for everything from poverty itself to the undermining of the workforce to promiscuity and the spread of syphilis.”
However, according to L. J. Solmonson:
"it is worth noting that many present-day historians have begun to dispute the actual ‘craze’ itself. True, the poor were indeed alcoholics of epic proportions, but the English had always been keen on drink. Despite its novelty, gin, in and of itself, was not to blame. Rather the physical and psychological effects of poverty led to excessive consumption. Gin was readily available and very cheap; the poor merely found solace where they could."
The end of the craze came in 1751 with the final Gin Act that raised the excises on spirits by more than 50 % and forbade distillers and street vendors to sell the product.
(First picture: William Hogarth, Gin Lane, 1751, engraving. Second picture: BBC News/Cartoon Museum)