If a woman drinks gin, she’ll spontaneously combust, if you drink gin you’ll lose your inhibitions and engage in public nudity, you’ll end up burning babies or try creating a cat that sells gin. You’ll do anything to cop a fix of gin. That was the thinking behind the Gin Panic of the mid 18th century which was inspired by the corresponding Gin Craze of the same period. But why were these two things quite so common in an age where the modern perception is one of stuffiness and big wigs? Well to answer that we need to do a bit of digging first.
Alcoholic spirits are commonplace now, but back in the 18th century, they were a fairly new commodity, even though they’d existed for some time. In the 10th century, they were viewed as a chemical curiosity, and by about the 16th century they were being drunk for pleasure by the very rich. A good example of this is when James IV of Scotland bought several barrels of whisky. However, despite this in 1600 there was only one recorded bar in England that sold spirits to those who wanted to know, it was located toward Barking.
A hundred years later, spirits hit big. The reasons for this sudden explosion comes from taxation of grain, relations with the Dutch, and that gin itself became widely available to Londoners. The popularity of gin was tied into the increased urbanisation which saw a great exodus from the countryside to the city in search of jobs, wealth and prosperity. What many found was poverty and isolation, and of course gin.
Gin became the solace for the poor, and as many of them needed money for the drink they so craved, they’d usually end up selling the clothes on their back to buy a drink to drown their sorrows. An example of this is Judith Defour, a young woman with a daughter and no husband. Her daughter, Mary, was in the care of a parish and provided with a new set of clothes. One day Judith arrived and took Mary out for the day, but didn’t return her, instead she strangled her child and sold her daughter’s new clothes for gin. The case caused a sensation across Britain, and was seen as an indictment not of a woefully inadequate social security system but of the drink that had caused the act.
As a consequence of this, the government introduced the Gin Act of 1736. Through this act the government imposed a high license fee for gin retailers and a 20 shillings retail tax per gallon. The act was so unpopular with the working classes that it sparked riots in London that were so severe, the government panicked and reduced the fee and tax within a few years. There was also a mass growth of protection rackets as the less than savoury elements of society started conning people into paying them so as to get their fix of gin.
Around this time, a contraption known as the ‘Puss and Mew machine’ was invented. A gin seller found a window in an alleyway that was nowhere near his building’s front door. The window was boarded over with a wooden cat. Someone who wanted gin would approach the cat and say “Puss, give me two pennyworth of gin,” and then place coins in the cat’s mouth. The coins would slide inwards to the gin seller who would pour the gin down a lead pipe that emerged from the cat’s paw. The inventor of the contraption, Dudley Bradstreet made three or four pounds a day, and because nobody saw the transaction from both sides, nobody could be charged.
Of course, as with anything, the government eventually started to catch on and in 1751, introduced another Gin Act. This time the act prohibited gin distillers from selling to unlicensed merchants, restricted retail licenses to substantial property holders and charged much higher fees to those merchants who were eligible for retail licenses. And in order to prevent a repeat of the riots of fifteen years before, the government encouraged a greater importation of tea, and started lowering the excise on beer to make it more appealing to men.
All in all the Gin Craze and its corresponding panic was a fascinating period in London’s history and shows the power that alcohol can exert on us all. Something that is particularly relevant during these covid shutdowns, where the pub is becoming a distant memory.