Gin in 18th century England… Could prohibition work?

Gin arrived in Britain in the late 17th century following the arrival of a new monarch from the Netherlands, King William III. Here, Janet Ford tells the story of how gin’s extraordinary popularity in 18th century England led to Parliament trying to restrict its sale… And how successful these Gin Acts were.

How popular was gin?

It was estimated that in the year 1730, 10 million gallons of gin were produced. The average Londoner got through 14 gallons of gin a year or two pints a week – which is a lot of gin!

Why was gin so popular?

The main reasons why gin was so popular were the price, its strength and the life of the working classes, who drank it the most. Gin was very cheap, which allowed the poor to drink it. Gin was much more stronger than ale and beer, and so would get people drunk quicker. But life for the working class during the 18th century was difficult, as living conditions were poor, and so having a cheap and strong drink would have numbed the pain of real life and given the poor and working class some relief from their stresses.

The Gin Acts

There were various acts brought in which aimed to restrict the sale and consumption of gin, with the Acts of 1729, 1736, 1749, 1751 and 1760. The 1736 Act, ‘taxed retail sales at 20 shillings a gallon and made selling gin without a £50 annual licence illegal’ (1) and the 1751 act, ‘lowered the licence fee and forced distillers to sell only to licensed retailers trading from respectable premises’ (2). In general, Parliament wanted to make gin difficult to make and sell to the nation.

Why laws were brought in?

There were various reasons why parliament and religious figures, who were also against gin, wanted to make gin difficult to sell and make.

One of the main reasons was the link between gin and crime. Many of those who wanted to ban it believed that gin increased crime. To an extent this would have been true; however, as gin was so popular, banning it could have increased crime, as those who wanted the drink, would have done anything to get it. One of the main examples of a crime being committed that was related to gin was that of Judith Dufour. Judith had been drunk on gin at work, which was normal for her. She also had a two-year-old daughter, who was found naked, apart from a scarf around her neck, strangled in a field. It was found that she had been killed by her own mother, while she was drunk on gin. These stories would have frightened not just politicians and religious figures, but also the general public.

Another reason was the role of women. Beer and ale were mostly drunk by men and not women. But this was not the case for gin, as both sexes drank it. As gin was sold in alehouses, women were starting to drink in them. Parliament and religious figures believed that this increase in interaction between men and women would increase prostitution and corrupt women.

The Effects of the Acts on Gin

One of the major effects the acts had was nothing at all. Gin was still made, sold and drank in various places, such as street corners and gin shops, throughout the 18th century. When the 1729 Act was brought in, production and the amount of gin which was drank did dip, but production increased in the 1730s.

One of the reasons why gin was still made were loopholes in the acts. The First Gin Act stated that gin was made with ‘juniper berrie, or other fruit, specie or ingredients’ (3) – which is what it is made out of. However, a loophole was that people would simply not put juniper berries in gin but use other ingredients in order to produce legal gin. This did make gin slightly dangerous, especially as some people put turpentine in their ‘gin’. If it gave gin a bad taste, the drinkers would not have cared, as they drank gin to get drunk, but it was still dangerous. Another loophole was related to the amount of gin sold. It was only illegal to sell gin if less than a gallon was sold. Many people actually bought over a gallon in order to still have gin. In most cases, it was either wasted, as it was a great deal of gin and storing it was difficult, or people drank it all and became ill or even died.

There was a great deal of criticism toward the reformers, as the acts were seen as discrimination towards the working class. This was due to them being the main group who drank it, even if the middle and upper classes were not excluded from drinking gin. Interestingly, the upper classes also drank illegal drinks, as they drank imported brandy, but there were far fewer consequences for them. It was such behavior that encouraged the working class to carry on making and selling the drink, as if the upper classes could do it, why not them? This discrimination made the working class less willing to compromise with Parliament as they were not being treated equally.

The acts had a negative effect, as there was an increase in violence. There were many riots by the working class, as their drink was being taken away from them and they were being controlled by the upper classes. Another reason for the violence were fines. Those who were found selling gin were fined £10, which was a great deal of money to the poor and working classes. If they were informed on by their neighbors and were found guilty, that person who had informed on them was given some or all of the money. This would have been seen as a good deal, as they were given money without doing much work. However, if informers were found, they were attacked and, in some cases, killed.

In the late 18th century, the production, selling and drinking of gin declined. This was partly due to new acts, such as those of 1751 and 1760 being brought in, which were more about compromise than pure prohibition. Even so, the decline in use was mostly down to the bad harvests, which started in 1757. Parliament put a ban on exports of grain for a few years, which made the distillers angry, but Parliament was more concerned over food for the general population than the distillers. The acts and the bad harvests made gin very expensive for the poor, and most went back to the cheaper alternative of beer.

In the later 18th century, there was the introduction of gin brands, with Gordon’s in 1769 and Plymouth Gin in 1796. Parliament considered such brands both positive, as only a select few were making gin, and negative, as gin was still being made and in some ways became more established as bigger companies were making it.

Were the Acts successful?

To an extent the acts were successful, as they did make gin more difficult to sell. However, the acts actually made the situation much worse in other ways, as they increased violence and worsened the quality of gin. But more importantly, gin never disappeared, even with the decline, as there was still bootleg gin or brands.

And finally, gin has now become very much part of our culture.

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