A Stroll down Beer Street and Gin Lane

Posted by A69143a5 tiny Jen Messier on dec 12, 2020 under Blog Post

Guest Blog post by:

David McNicoll
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The city was going to hell in a handcart. So was the received wisdom of the great and good, the movers and shakers of mid-eighteenth-century London, and to their canting moralizing minds the reason was that age-old scapegoat, Gin.

The historical relationship that gin has had with consumers, authority and the public of large is so complex and neurotic that it would give Freud nightmares; and yet for all that it is a stubborn, proven survivor, and at no time was that Teflon survivability at large and more needed than in the crowded, filthy streets of London in the 1740s. The British capital was now the fastest growing city on earth and on the cusp of an industrial and mercantile revolution that would catapult it to the beating heart of a vast global empire; and with it came the growing pains. London is two cities glued together: The Square Mile itself, which is the inheritor of the ancient Roman Londinium, and the City of Westminster, originally a religious settlement built on a sandy islet in the Thames. Following the Great Fire of 1666 most of the conurbation had been rebuilt, but as the place expanded exponentially and the population rose rapidly – from around 450,000 to 650,000 in fifty years (a population growth in itself that surpassed the total population of the next five big British cities combined) – large areas descended into grim, Bacchanalian slumland. Somewhat surprisingly, given how it developed as the administrative hub of the nation, Westminster was one of the worst locations and a shock to the system for country squires heading down to the Big Smoke to represent their constituents.

And it wasn’t just the feral streets of Whitehall, London was really a city made up of villages where the very poorest of society lived cheek-by-jowl with some of the most extravagantly rich; who invariably looked down their noses at their neighbours, and ultimately wanted to wipe out the scourge of poverty, drunkenness and crime. Not for any altruistic reason, but mostly to make them feel better in some sort of warped sense of philanthropy – this was a “don’t do as I do, do as I say” world, and top of the hit list was that most obvious of culprits: The so-called Gin Craze.

Obviously, gin did not cause the abject misery faced by at least seventy percent of Londoners, but it was certainly an escape from it, and was also so visibly seen as such and it did lead to a whole raft of issues which were of genuine concern. Let’s also be clear, the only thing this spirit had in common with modern gin was the name – this was stuff cleaned by distilling with sulphuric acid, and flavoured with the finest turpentine. It was firewater, it was blow the top of your head of juice; and it got a lot of people messed up and plenty would struggle to regain their eyesight of even make it to the next day. Mortality rates grew, including sadly infant mortality, as did crime and a serious loss of workhours, which is really what irked the wealthier industrialists. They pushed, prodded and coerced the government of the day to bring in legislation to curb gin making, its distribution and points of sale. There were laws passed in 1736, another in the 1740s all to little avail, except to provoke the ire of both the end-user and the producers, led by the Worshipful Company of Distillers who harangued the government night and day. But, in 1751 the parliamentarians were ready to give it another go – and this time commissioned the best illustrator to produce some crafty and hard-hitting propaganda to drive the message home.

Born in 1697, William Hogarth was a celebrated printmaker, social critic and all-round satirist who moved effortlessly among the intelligentsia of London society. As the Gin Act was making its way through the legislature, the government hired him to come up with what amounted to an ‘in-your-face’ anti-gin campaign, which would be instantly understood by illiterate lower classes, and carry a word of caution to those in other corners of society to be wary of the evils of the demon drink. It was also to contain a patriotic, xenophobic angle as well – gin was seen as a foreign drink, full of continental mischief, while ales, porters, stouts and ales of ‘Ole England’ were wholesome and good for the nation. But true to form, he used the platform not only to advertise the perils of falling into the dark pit of hard liquor, but as a canvass on which to paint his own brand of social commentary and irony. The result, which would feature as a double-page spread in pamphlets sold around town was one of the greatest pieces of anti-drug campaigning ever, and one of the most brilliant satirical reflections on seventeenth century London. It was entitled: Beer Street and Gin Lane. Let’s take a stroll.

Part of the genius was in setting both places in actual, real and recognizable neighbourhoods in the city. The snapshots of life he portrayed in both were fictitious (to a point), but his surroundings were not. Most of all and crucially for effect, it was very believable.

Beer Street was the very essence of wholesome industry and, well, jolliness – had the ‘feel-good factor’ as we’d say today. In the background a flag is seen fluttering by the steeple of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, which tells us it’s the king’s birthday (George II). Today the church sits at one corner of the famous Trafalgar Square, which was built in the 1820s, but at the time was surrounded by houses, taverns and narrow alleyways. However change was afoot, and the area was undergoing regeneration and with street-widening and new dressed stone buildings replacing older tenements, and our picture certainly gives that impression.

The overall theme of the work is demonstrably about work and industry, rather than the ale itself – although it did see beer sales rocket after it was published. Centre and to the left is group of men, who are a butcher, blacksmith and a pavior (someone who mends roads) respectfully, and known as the ‘Trinity of Worthies’. They represent honest, hard work, but their portly stature is also suggestive of a corpulent lifestyle as they grow chubby on the fruits of their labours. The road fixer is attempting some hanky-panky with a housemaid – the key she’s holding was a symbol of domesticity, and her profession one of courteousness and innocence. Will she be lured by the aspiring capitalist? Notions of capitalism and the free market were only beginning to emerge at this time – Adam Smith and his ‘Wealth of Nations’ was still twenty-five years away. To reinforce this, on the table next to the butcher is a copy of the King’s Speech to Parliament, which makes repeated references to “. . . advancement of our commerce and the cultivating of peace.” The second sentiment coming only six years after the Battle of Culloden, the last fought on British soil, which ended a Jacobite rebellion that a year earlier had threatened the security of the capital itself.

This regal endorsement of labour and rejection of idleness is the central message in the print – everyone in the scene is working, or stopping to have a well-earned beer-break before going back to work again; with the exception of Mr. Pinch the Pawnbroker, who’s dilapidated shop is crumbling off to the right hand side of the illustration. From the broken sign to the collapsing building we can tell things are not going well for the man, but Hogarth really hammers it home – upstairs in the window is a mouse or rat-trap, which suggests that rodent may well feature regularly on the menu; and the fact that he needs to be served his tankard though a small wooden hatch in the door tells us that he’s hiding from the bailiffs or creditors. Things are just too peachy and prosperous down on Beer Street that his business is no longer viable and he’s heading off down skid-row himself. The question that then has to be asked is whether he will escalate from drinking beer to drinking raw spirits and find himself destitute on Gin Lane himself. The disconnect of course is that pawnbrokers worked too and here that labour has not paid off, but they were always seen as a necessary evil and a reflection on the affluence or otherwise of a place. Anyone looking at this in 1751 would be left in no doubt that Beer Street and its residents were doing well.

Others beavering away are the singing fishwives in the foreground, and the builders and tailors in the background, and here Hogarth throws in a little contemporary controversy that passes us by this distance removed, but would have been picked up no doubt by the keen-eyed of the day. While this print was being produced there was an ongoing pay dispute concerning tailors who felt that they were working too long and hard for too little, as depicted here while the boss takes another scoop from the flagon. It was well reported and followed and would not be resolved until later in 1751. By contrast the herring industry was booming, so no wonder the women are sporting broad smiles and singing away. Another piece of commentary added by Hogarth involved the basket full of bound books next to the fish sellers. These were real and imagined books on art critique and political commentary which wrapped satire with art – these books were headed for the scrapheap, which shows Hogarth’s contempt for such self-opinionated works; and the self-effacing irony that these prints themselves were from exactly the same stable.

The link to the horrors and vivid contrast that is Gin Lane is the sign-painter on the left-hand side above the heads of the Worthies. He looks oddly out of place, and that’s deliberate – he’s conspicuous and yet seemingly ignored by the rest of the figures; an allusion to the fact the poor, downtrodden and booze soaked have-nots on the other side of town are also just easily dismissed and unseen by the do-haves. Glaring, this island of wretched poverty amid a sea of riches is nothing new, not then, not now. The tavern sign above shows a scene of people dancing round a haystack which is a reminder that a large number of those living in London had moved there from the countryside in the hope of making their fortunes. Sadly, most would not, and Gin Lane was a more likely final destination than Beer Street. This signage thus gives us both a whiff of nostalgia and the promise of success – while promoting the idea that by working hard those dreams may well come true. Just look around, it was self-evident. The tavern is called the ‘Barley Mow’, and of course barley is what beer is made from, so this was a nod in that direction. But the ragged sign-maker is putting up an advertisement for gin at the establishment – were the times changing? Was beer going out of fashion, and with it this comfortable lifestyle of perceived prosperity? It’s clearly a dire warning not to take the good times for granted and keep grafting away (as the government, church and fat cats encouraged) – for the spectre of gin, the pitiful misery, the destitution and everything else it brings to the party is always there, looming like a shadow over your head, and the barrier between this world and that, ethereal, fleeting and gossamer thin. For once the juxtaposition is none-too-subtle.

Moving across the page to the next in the pamphlet, and figuratively speaking we arrive at the parish of St Giles, which 250 years ago was a notorious slum in the Bloomsbury district of the city – close to the modern day British Museum and to Oxford Street, London’s famous shopping avenue. It was here that the deadly plague of 1665 first broke out, and it was here too that condemned men on the way to the gallows could stop and were entitled to a ‘St Giles Bowl’, which was an actual bowl filled with gin. So, perhaps there was no better real-life location for the master illustrator to set his fictional, and somewhat terrifying Gin Lane.

Drowning in helpless pessimism, the focus of the whole scene is the syphilitic woman in the centre, so drunk that she’s blissfully unaware that her baby is taking a nosedive off the steps to certain death while she pinches at her snuff tin (symbolic of prostitution in the eighteenth century). But Hogarth also wants to draw our eyes towards the church steeple of St. George’s Bartholomew in the background. Like the church in Beer Street its in the middle, but here it’s faintly drawn, and instead the picture is dominated by prominent three-balls of the pawnbroker hanging ominously over the spire like a corrupted, perverted cross. Here on Gin Lane, the forsaken have chosen to follow a different god, and to worship at a very different temple, where desperation and an unholy addiction to hard liquor have replaced holy communion and comfort of the congregation.

If the pawnbroker, Mr. Gripe is the priest to the devoted, he also stands in stark contrast to his erstwhile colleague Mr. Pinch back on Beer Street – not that he seems happy about it, and ‘griping’ is to be constantly grumpy and complaining: perhaps his clientele are running out of decent things to sell. Here on the road to hell, the people have been reduced to begging and selling the very clothes off their backs to get a few shillings which they’ll of course immediately spend on gin and get hammered. Outside the pawnbroker, where the carpenter is selling the tools of his dried-up trade a boy is fighting a dog over a bone, and next to him a woman, so inebriated she’s fallen asleep standing up. Here he adds an brilliant piece of subtle symbolism – on the wall beside the woman is a tiny snail, which was emblematic of sloth, idleness and sin; which is held in contrast to the industry and successes of the butcher or fishwives on Beer Street.

Below them in alley is a dram cellar called ‘Royal Gin’, where a couple of shady characters seem to be cooking up a scheme – perhaps some kind of anti-establishment plot, sitting in a juxtaposition to the ‘royal’ in the name. The sign above the shop says: “Drunk for a penny, blind drunk for twopence, clean straw for free”, which as well as the none too subtle reference to poorly made sprit leading to actual blindness (methanol, which is normally removed during professional distillation, can affect you optic fibres), this was a direct reference to a genuine sign outside a tavern in Croydon, south London. Drinking games usually ended when everyone was either comatose or deceased; and in this establishment, regardless of your state, you’d get a comfy bed for the night.

The buildings are obviously falling down, and everything is corrupted and decaying, but stoned out of their skulls no-one really seems to care. The distillery-cum-gin shop (which were found on every street corner and the most common outlet for drink) is the focal point of the righthand side of the illustration, run by the aptly named ‘Mr. Kilman’, and outside there’s a riot in progress, where a crippled beggar is whacking a blind man with his crutch, probably fighting over a glass. The scene is also full of gin-sellers and drunk characters – indeed, one woman is still having gin decanted down her throat as she’s being wheeled away blitzed in a cart. Perhaps the most horrific is the dancing man bashing his head with a set of bellows, while carrying a child impaled on a spike as his screaming mother runs out of the house after him. Child mortality is a theme here – and it was considered at the time to be one of the worst manifestations of the Gin Craze, and hence the term ‘Mother’s Ruin’; but, from the spiked toddler to the dropped baby there is a running thread here of children to adolescents getting hooked or affected by the demon drink. The undertaker, advertised by the large coffin in front of his shop, is doing a roaring trade, and an infant is seen bawling in the middle of the road as his dead mother is hoisted into a cheap crate, a sign that she’s headed for a paupers’ grave. Again, outside the gin-shop, there’s a lady pouring gin down the throat of a young baby – probably to get it to sleep, which was common practice.

There are also two teenage girls, probably wards of the parish poorhouse given the badge on their sleeves, enjoying a glass or two. Cradle to grave was certainly a message that jumps out here, but there was also the more understated indictment of inequality, harshness and pointlessness of a workhouse programme that couldn’t care less about the welfare of their charges, or of hypocritical charity in general. It was a scathing rebuke to the middle classes and their often “why bother” attitude to the misery all around them. After all, they’re just going to get messed up anyway, it’s their lot in life – sloth breeds poverty, poverty leads to drunkenness, crime and disease and it’s all their own fault. Wash your hands, walk away, and like the sign-painter ignore the situation and hopelessness out there – it’s what they did best. You start to see the double-message Hogarth was painting – on the surface we should be horrified, disgusted even, by the scene unfolding on Gin Lane, but underneath he’s making the point that this is not all of their own making, this is what happens when the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. These people did’t need kind words of sympathy, they needed the decision-makers and legislators to do something to address the grinding poverty, the lack of sanitation and clear water. Most of all they didn’t want a war on drugs, but a war on deprivation – a deprivation often caused by greed and corruption by those enjoying the good-life back on Beer Street. The sense of disgust should not be directed to these poor cast-off unfortunates, but on a society that lets it happen. This is not what the middle classes saw when they opened the pamphlet, their world view would not allow then to dive any deeper than the binary, face-value, blame it on the gin meaning depicted.

Not that anyone was listening on Gin Lane either, either addled beyond care, inured to the realities of the situation or simply unable to comprehend the magnitude and scale of the problem. The skeletal, half or wholly dead man lying prostrate on the steps is, by his dress a soldier who served king and country and is now reduced to this – dumped on the scrap heap, no longer any use to the country that probably press-ganged him into service. Still an optimistic believer in that country’s welfare and that of its citizens, he’s a pamphleteer – handing out an issue dedicated to the evils of gin and the ills of society. But, no-one’s interested, and utterly dispirited he’s become a victim also. But, with his last breath he’s still consumed in the fight to turn it around. The sad black dog looking over him was synonymous of depression and despair. All hope evaporated in the empty glass.

As a piece of anti-drug propaganda these illustrations were brilliant, and provided the kind of shock to the sensibilities of the middle classes that had been the intention, and along with the Gin Act that was passed through parliament in 1751 it did go some way to reducing consumption and the scourge of entrenched social drunkenness. But, there were many facets to this work, and many lessons for all. This wasn’t meant to be a woe-is-me apology for the ruinous state people could get into, they had to shoulder much of that blame themselves; it was more a cautionary tale that there has to be balance, empathy, investment and effort on the part of all if the ying and yang of them and us was ever to be addressed. Of course, it wasn’t heeded by many, nor the root causes genuinely tackled or addressed. These scenes would have been just as familiar to Charles Dickens who published David Copperfield and a Tale of Two Cit

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