IT WAS NOT, THEN, ALCOHOL AS SUCH WHICH WAS THE DESTRUCTIVE influence, but the fact that a potent variety — spirits — was introduced to communities suffering from social dislocation after the loss of their old stability. And Britain, in the early seventeenth century, was taught the same lesson by gin.
Until 'Geneva', as it was originally known, began to become popular, distilled liquors had not been drunk in Europe on any substantial scale — except among the rich, who enjoyed their brandy. But in the seventeenth century Geneva drinking spread to Holland, and among those who acquired a taste for it was William of Orange. Chronically in need of funds to finance his campaigns against the French, he had become aware of the value of drugs as a source of revenue; part of the price he demanded for consenting to oust James II was that he should be awarded the revenue from the tobacco duties; and when he and Mary ascended the throne, one of his first actions was to break the London Distillers' Guild monopoly, and allow anybody to manufacture spirits on payment of a duty. The conffict with France, checking the import of brandies, provided a further inducement to British distillers; and production began rapidly to increase.
That spirits could have the attributes of a drug was remarked upon by the economist Charles D'Avenant in 1695. Brandy-drinking, he wrote, was becoming a growing vice among the common people (he was presumably using brandy as a synonym for spirits, as few of the common people could have afforded cognac), 'and may in time prevail as much as opium with the Turks, to which many attribute the scarcity of people in the East' — opium having won the reputation of diminishing sexual appetite, and eventually of weakening sexual performance. So far as Government and Parliament were concerned, though, the new taste for spirits was a godsend. 'It pays rent for our land, employs our people', Daniel Defoe noted in his Review in 1713; distilling had become 'one of the most essential things to support the landed interest' (which happened to be supporting him, at the time; he was working as an undercover agent for the Government). It should consequently, he urged, be 'specially preserved, and tenderly used'.
Distilling was tenderly used — more tenderly even than brewing. Gin cost around 18p a gallon to manufacture, so it could be sold at a price which would enable anybody who wished to get drunk to do so for less than it would cost to get drunk on beer.It began to replace beer as the tipple of the poor, at least in London; and the results alarmed the London magistrates. A committee they appointed to investigate reported in 1726 that gin was sold in one house in ten in some London parishes (one house in five, in one parish); that as a result of its availability and cheapness, the poor were giving themselves over to vice and debauchery; and that even in the workhouses, where the sodden creatures ended their days, gin was smuggled in. The inmates were prepared to suffer any punishment 'rather than live without it, though they cannot avoid seeing its fatal effects by the death of those among them who had drunk most freely of it'.
The fate of the poor in workhouses was of little concern to Members of Parliament. What was disturbing to them about the report was the suggestion that soldiers and, worse, servants were being daily suborned by gin; it was scarcely possible for them to go anywhere 'without being drawn in either by those who sell it or by their acquaintances, whom they meet with in the street, who generally begin by inviting them to a dram'. M.P.s, though, shared a landed interest. Distilling from grain pushed up their income. The Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, did not want to lose his majority; nor did he care to sacrifice the revenue from the duty paid by the distillers. Even when increasingly horrifying reports drove him in 1729 to put a curb on the sale of gin, the outcry from the farmers, coupled with the fact that enforcement proved impossible, soon led to its being withdrawn.
The London magistrates — responsible for the city's health, as well as for law and order — began again to warn that the situation was deteriorating; and in a further report in 1736 they presented a picture of the degeneration of the poor too ugly to be ignored. Spirits were clearly responsible. The workers were being encouraged to drink the whole week 'upon score', and 'too often without minding how fast the score runs against them, whereby at the week's end they find themselves without any surplusage to carry home to their families, which must of course starve, or be thrown on the parish'. Their wretched wives were also becoming gin drinkers 'to a degree hardly possible to be conceived. Unhappy mothers habituate themselves to these distilled liquors, whose children are born weak and sickly, and often look shrivel'd and old as though they had numbered many years. Others again daily give it to their children.'
The worry was not that gin made men and women drunk. Drunkenness, as distinct from what people might do when they were in that condition, was not in this period regarded as a heinous offence: 'an honest drunken fellow', Defoe had noted in 1702, 'is a character in man's praise'. If the Londoner had got roaring drunk on gin the way the Irish and the Scots were reputed to get drunk on whiskey — because they liked to get drunk on whiskey, from time to time — he would have caused the magistrates little concern. But he was using gin as a quick, cheap way of escape — not as an intoxicant, but as a narcotic. This was, in fact, the prototype of future drug scares, presenting many of the features which were to become so familiar; among them, the first reported parliamentary debate on the issue of prohibition.
Appalled by the evidence, Sir John Jekyll proposed in the Commons that a duty of 20 shillings a gallon should be put on spirits sold by retail. The motion was opposed by Sir William Pulteney. This was not, Pulteney emphasised, because he had anything to say in favour of the consumption of spirits, which had become excessive and mischievous, sapping the people's health and morals. His criticism was that the measure amounted to prohibition.
Prohibition, Pulteney explained, was doubly unjust; in principle, because it struck at spirits, rather than at their misuse (nobody had argued that spirits consumed in moderation did harm, so to stop them being sold for consumption in moderation was 'carrying the remedy much farther than the disease'); and in practice, because it was the Government itself which had encouraged men to sink capital in distilleries and in shops — 'it is a dangerous, it is, Sir, a terrible thing to reduce many thousands of families at once to a state of despair'. But the essential objection to prohibition was that it did not work — as the earlier experience of the Walpole government had shown. The spirits which had previously been available were simply replaced by an illicit liquor 'which, I believe in derision of the Act, they called "Parliament Brandy" '. If legal channels dried up, spirits would inevitably begin to flow in through other, illegal channels.
Parliamentary debates were not at the time legally reported, and only the outline of the prohibitionists' reply to Pulteney survives; but it indicates why they were not prepared to listen to his warning. He had concluded by saying that in so far as the measure did not amount to total prohibition — spirits could still be bought by the hogshead — this too was unjust, because it would allow the rich to buy and drink as much as they liked, when they liked, while stopping the poor from buying a glass of gin over the counter. This, /44 Jekyll's supporters made clear, was precisely their aim. As one of them put it, the justification for the Bill was that it would keep spirits out of the reach of 'persons of inferior rank', who were 'the only sort of people apt to make a custom of getting drunk with such liquor'. Nor was it possible to cater for those who would, if allowed to drink, drink in moderation. Where spirits were available in the shops, 'few would keep themselves within any bounds, because a small quantity deprived them of their reason, and the companions they usually met with at such places encouraged them to drink to excess'. The only concession the supporters of the measure were prepared to make was that spirits should still be available when prescribed by a physician, in cases of illness. Otherwise, if the law was found to amount in practice to prohibition so far as the poor were concerned, so much the better.
Against Walpole's advice — he was mainly concerned with the loss of revenue, but he agreed with Pulteney that prohibition would not work — the measure was passed. The consequences were to be described by Walpole's biographer, Coxe. The people, he recalled, reacted
in the usual mode of riot and violence. Numerous desperadoes availed themselves of the popular discontents, and continued the clandestine sale of gin in defiance of every restriction. The demand of penalties, which the offenders were unable to pay, filled the prisons, and removing every restraint, plunged them into courses more audaciously criminal. It was found that a duty and penalty so severe as to amount to an implied prohibition, were as little calculated to benefit the public morality, as the public revenue.
The Act failed partly because the Government's enforcement officers, the excisemen, were universally hated. When they were active, they were in danger of their lives; but frequently they were inactive, because they preferred to come to terms with the law-breakers. Where demand was strong enough, as Walpole had warned after his earlier experience, the smuggler could afford 'to blind the officer with a large bribe', especially as he knew that once a bribe had been accepted, the officer 'is, and must be, his slave for ever'.
The means which were adopted to enforce the Act also had unfortunate consequences. To catch those who manufactured, sold, or purchased illicit spirits, a reward of £5 had been offered for information leading to a conviction. The preliminary results were gratifying: over four thousand such convictions were secured, and payments made for them, in the first two years. By that time, though, it was becoming apparent that an unascertainable but substantial proportion of the convictions had been obtained by perjury, to get the E5 which, to an unskilled labourer, represented almost three months' wages. And many other people who had been detected consuming drink purchased illicitly had paid the standard blackmail fee of £10 to avoid prosecution.
After Walpole's fall, his successors decided to repeal the Act. As Lord Bathurst* explained to the House of Lords in 1743, perjuries had become so common and flagrant, 'that the people thought all informations malicious; or at least, thinking themselves oppressed by the law, they looked upon every man that promoted its execution, as their enemy'. Intimidation and violence — some informers had been murdered in the streets had made it impossible to bring offenders to court, 'so that the law, however just might be the intention with which it was enacted, or however seasonable the methods prescribed by it, has been now for some years totally disused'.
Experience, therefore, had shown that it was impossible to prevent the retailing of spirits. 'What then' — Bathurst asked the House —
are we to do? Does not common sense point out the most proper method, which is to allow their being publicly retailed but to lay such a duty upon the distillery and upon licenses as without amounting to a prohibition will make them come so dear to the consumer that the poor will not be able to launch out into an excessive use of them?
The expedient was not new; James I had resorted to it with tobacco, when prohibition failed. And the motive on this occasion appeared to Opposition peers to be the same: the Treasury's need for more revenue, to pay for Britain's contribution to the war on the Continent. This was deplorable, Lord Chesterfield thought. If spirit-drinking were a vice, it ought to be punished as such.
Would you lay a tax upon a breach of the Ten Commandments? Would not such a tax be wicked and scandalous because it would imply an indulgence to those who would pay the tax? No reasonable man would suppose you intend to discourage, much less prohibit, this vice, by giving every man that pleases an indulgence to break out himself, or to promote it in others upon condition of his paying a small tax annually.
Lord Hervey was equally scathing. All that was wrong with the law, he insisted, was that it had not been enforced. Now, instead, they were to have a duty whose proceeds were being mortgaged to pay for the war. In other words, they were establishing the worst sort of drunkenness to pay for an expense which in his opinion was both unnecessary and ridiculous, 'like a tradesman mortgaging the prostitution of his wife or daughter, for the sake of raising money to supply his luxury or extravagance'. And he went on to inveigh against drunkenness, 'of all vices the most abominable'.
Drunkenness happened not to be one of Hervey's vices; drink gave him gall-bladder trouble. But when Lord Sandwich, who entertained his Hell Fire Club friends to drunken orgies at which the Black Mass was celebrated, told the House that his regard for the morals of the people compelled him to oppose the Bill, Bathurst could not resist remarking that he hoped that all public houses were not going to be regarded as chapels of the devil, simply because a man might eat or drink too much in them. 'According to this way of reasoning, I am afraid, many of your lordships' own houses would come under the same denomination, and you yourselves would not be quite free from the character of being devils.'
Patiently, Bathurst explained that though the Government hoped to make money from the duty, the measure must at the same time reduce spirit-drinking, because spirits would cost more. To those critics who wondered whether, if the price rose, the measure could be enforced, he replied that this time the Government would have allies; if, as had been surmised, 50,000 publicans took out licences to sell spirits, 'there will likewise be 50,000 informers against unlawful traders'. In any case, as spirits would now be legally available, the public would no longer side with the sellers of illicit liquor.
So it was eventually to prove. For a while the distillers, fearing for their profits, managed to secure a modification of the Act; but by 1751 the consequences were so manifestly shocking — reflected in Henry's Fielding's Reasons for the Late Increase in Robbers, and Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' — that the Act's original provisions were reimposed. The dire warnings of Chesterfield and Hervey were quickly shown to have been unjustified. The consumption of spirits in Britain, which had been estimated at eight million gallons in 1743, fell to two million in the 1760s and to around one million in the 1780s. Only one of Chesterfield's forecasts proved correct; that if Governments once began to enjoy the considerable revenue which would accrue to them from the duty, they would never let it go. They never did.
Gin-drinking had spread 'with the rapidity and the violence of an epidemic', the historian Lecky was to write: 'small as is the place which this fact occupies in English history, it was probably, if we consider all the consequences that have flowed from it, the most momentous in the eighteenth century — incomparably more so than any event in the purely political or military annals of the country.' And in a celebrated passage, he went on to describe the degradation that gin had wrought, with the retailers 'accustomed to hang out painted boards announcing to their customers they could be made drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, and have straw for nothing; cellars strewn with straw were accordingly provided into which those who had become insensible were dragged, and where they remained until they had sufficiently recovered to renew their orgies'.
Contemporary accounts suggest that Lecky did not exaggerate. Speaker after speaker in the 1743 debate, regardless of his politics, showed how appalling the effects of drinking spirits had become, producing 'not only momentary fury', Lord Lonsdale claimed, 'but incurable debility and lingering diseases; they not only fill our streets with madmen, and prisons with criminals, but our hospitals with cripples'. The statistical evidence points the same way. The birth rate in London fell, in the early part of the century; so did the expectation of life among young children. Nearly ten thousand children under the age of five were dying annually, the Commons were told in 1751, because of the effects of 'the grand destroyer' on their parents. 'Inquire from the several hospitals in this city', Corbyn Morris wrote the same year, 'whether any increase of patients, and of what sort, are daily brought under their care? They will all declare, increasing multitudes of dropsical consump-
tive people arising from the effects of spirituous liquors.'
Yet those spirituous liquors were not really to blame for what had happened in England — any more than for what was to happen on Tahiti. It was the way that gin had been virtually thrust down Londoners' throats which had been responsible; coupled with the condition of London's poor at the time. Gin drinking was not merely, as Dorothy George described it in her London Life in the Eighteenth Century, 'essentially a disease of poverty'; it was a disease of the ugly kind of poverty portrayed by Fielding, Morris and many another writer. The picture that emerges is of a squalor and degradation far worse even than in the London of the Great Plague; and it was from this that the London poor were seeking escape.
Even so, had spirits come gradually into use Londoners might have learned to come to terms with them, as the Dutch had. But not only were they a novelty in Britain; their sale was relentlessly pushed by the distillers (whose trade, Hervey complained, became the most profitable of any in the kingdom — 'except that of being broker to a Prime Minister'). And the distillers themselves had been given every encouragement by the Government, hungry for more revenue — and by the landowner M.P.s, hoping for higher rents.
It was the way gin was introduced, coupled with the environment, that made its effects destructive. When Bishop Berkeley boasted that Britain was the freest country in Europe, the Bishop of Gloucester wrote to him to say there was indeed freedom of a kind — for unbounded licentiousness: 'there is not only no safety living in this town' he wrote from London, 'but scarcely in the country now, robbery and murder are grown so frequent. . . Those accursed spirituous liquors which, to the shame of our government, are so easily to be had, and in such quantities drunk, have changed the very nature of our people.' The crimes which so disturbed the Bishop, though, were not as a rule committed in drink — or even for drink, in the sense of a man robbing to pay for it, though that must have been common enough. The worst crimes were committed by those who worked for the illicit distiller and the smuggler, because the demand for his illicit goods was sufficient to enable him to pay them well enough not merely to work for him, but if necessary to commit crimes of violence, even murder, for him. Nor was it simply the London gin-drinkers who had provided the demand. Long before they had begun to worry the magistrates, the British ruling class had shown that they were determined to continue to buy their claret and their cognac, regardless of whether the Government wanted to exclude them, as when Britain was at war with France. And at other times, when they were admitted legally on payment of duty, the M.P.s who voted for the tax had no compunction in buying their own supplies more cheaply, knowing they must have been smuggled in.
The lesson the gin plague taught, in fact, was not so much that prohibition was futile, as that it was futile unless the Government enjoyed public confidence and support. Where it was known that the members of the ruling class — Walpole himself being notoriously one of them — did not feel that prohibition should apply to them, the law fell into contempt. Efforts to enforce it, therefore, tended simply to inflame the public; often even those citizens who were not spirit drinkers, and would have liked to see consumption stopped, but were more deeply concerned about the corruption that attempts to stop it involved. That was why, as Bathurst had realised, prohibition had been unworkable. It was impossible to find anybody willing to undertake 'a task at once odious and endless, or to punish offences which every day multiplied, and on which the whole body of the common people — a body very formidable when united — was universally engaged'.
* As reported from memory by Samuel Johnson, then working for the Gentleman's Magazine.