Authors: Patrick Dillon
The message of the report was that it was impossible for Londoners to stay out of Madam Geneva’s way. Gin was being sold in brandy-shops and alehouses, by landladies, by street-corner vendors who owned nothing but a tray, a bottle and a couple of dirty glasses. Londoners couldn’t ‘go anywhere, without being drawn in, either by those who sell [gin], or by their acquaintance they meet with in the streets, who generally begin with inviting them to a dram, which is everywhere near at hand.’ Gin-sellers didn’t even wait for the customers to come to them. ‘All arts are used to tempt
and invite [them].’ Pushers seemed to stand on every street corner. Chandlers would ‘tempt and press [people] to drink, and even … give them drams of this liquor.’ There was no refuge even in the workplace. Gin, by 1726, was being sold by ‘dyers, carpenters, gardiners, barbers [and] shoemakers.’ In Bethnal Green there were forty weavers who sold it to their own employees. That was the most damaging habit of all. Workers, the report complained, ‘having always this liquor ready at hand, are easily tempted to drink freely of it, especially as they may drink the whole week upon score, and perhaps without minding how fast the score rises upon them, whereby at the week’s end they find themselves without any surplusage to carry home to their families.’ Even when the worker dropped out of employment, hit rock bottom and ended up on social security, he would still have access to gin. Workhouses were awash with the stuff. In Holborn, ‘notwithstanding all the care that has been taken, Geneva is clandestinely brought in among the poor there … [Inmates] will suffer any punishment or inconvenience rather than live without it, tho’ they cannot avoid seeing its fatal effects by the death of those amongst them, who had drank most freely of it.’
After thirty-five years of free trade in spirits, the report revealed how deep gin had put down its roots in London. And turning to the results, the magistrates found social damage wherever they looked. Gin robbed its devotees of ‘money, time, health and understanding;’ it caused street-fights; it ‘never fails to produce a strong aversion to work and labour.’ Families were devastated by the new drug. ‘Among … women … it has this further effect, by inflaming their blood, and stupifying their senses, to expose them as easy prey to the attacks of vicious men; and yet many of them are so blind to these dismal consequences, that they are often seen to give it to their youngest children, even to such whom they carry in their arms.’ Children suffered most of all. ‘Whilst the husband, and perhaps his
wife also, are drinking and spending their money in Geneva shops, their children are starv’d and naked at home, without bread to eat or clothes to put on, and either become a burden to their parishes, or being suffer’d to ramble about the streets, are forced to beg while they are children, and learn as they grow up to pilfer and steal.’
The magistrates looked at all the problems which festered in London’s slums and every single one was traced back to gin. Gin was bound up with prostitution and crime. It was implicated in the abuse of social security – gin-drinkers sold clothes given them by the parish ‘and cheat … by all the ways and means they can devise, to get money to spend in this destructive liquor, which generally ends in the husband’s being thrown into a jail, and his whole family on the parish.’ Gin, the Committee reported, was ‘one of the principal causes of the great increase of beggars and parish poor.’
The report pulled no punches. It wasn’t intended to. It was intended to provoke legislation. In fact, the figures for gin-shops were no worse than they had been fifteen years earlier. Back in 1711, when spirits went through a minor crisis towards the end of the French wars, magistrates had asked for a count of gin-shops, and in many wards there had been even more then than in 1726.
What had changed, five years after the South Sea disaster, was the mood in London.
In 1726, for the first time, a bandwagon started to roll against gin-drinking. The brewers leapt on board with a satirical tract published just a week after the Middlesex report. The tract pitted a brewer called Swell-Gut against Mr Scorch-Gut, a distiller, in a violent tavern quarrel. It was a one-sided encounter. The distiller ‘was Scorch-gut by name, and Scorch-gut by nature; for that his damn’d devil’s piss, burnt out the entrails of three fourths of the King’s subjects.’ South Sea Mountain made the poor ‘unfit for business, and at the same time fills ’em with all manner of diseases, and throws them on the parish.’ Getting personal,
Swell-gut jeered that gin ‘make[s] people piss with a vengeance, when you put so much turpentine in it,’ whereas beer was ‘nourishing and strengthening … balsamic to the bowels, and gently laxative.’
The support of brewers was hardly surprising. More significant was the help the magistrates received from the medical world. It wasn’t the first time doctors had worried about spirit-drinking. Three years earlier a medical assessment of ‘tobacco, tea, coffee, chocolate, and drams’ had warned that spirits could lead to depression, and were addictive.
Now, timing its announcement to coincide with the magistrates’ report, the College of Physicians announced ‘that we have with concern observed, for some years past, the fatal effects of the frequent use of several sorts of distilled spirituous liquors upon great numbers of both sexes.’ Gin-drinking made them ‘diseas’d, not fit for business, poor, and a burthen to themselves and neighbours, and too often the cause of weak, feeble, and distemper’d children, who must be, instead of an advantage and strength, a charge to their country.’
Back in 1721, magistrates had shone the spotlight on Madam Geneva, and had discovered that it was no use working with existing laws. Westminster had tried another clamp-down on unlicensed houses in 1725, and it had ‘proved of no effect, having only served to drive those who before were used to these liquors, into greater shops, which are now to be seen full of poor people from morning to night.’ But this time the magistrates were calling for a change in the law, and they had powerful voices to support them. It was time for Madam Geneva’s friends to start worrying.
The Company of Distillers spearheaded the fightback. The Company hadn’t disappeared when their monopoly was taken away in 1690. They had turned, instead, into a comfortable society
of medium-sized, well-established compounders. On previous occasions they had lobbied against the brewers, and against smuggling. They were respectable businessmen. They wanted to make a good living, and they didn’t want to be blamed for what was happening in St Giles’s. But if harsh action was taken against the distilling industry, they would suffer along with the rest. That was reason enough for them to lead the campaign against legislation.
The other reason was that somehow they had got wind of what Sir John Gonson and the magistrates were planning.
On 5 January 1725, a month before the Westminster campaign was even launched, the Company of Distillers met to discuss the crisis. Their answer was a pre-emptive campaign of lobbying in Parliament. They ‘ordered that so soon as any matter relating to the Company be moved in Parliament, that the Master and Wardens cause that the Court of Assistants be summon’d to meet them … And that … such … as shall then meet … be deemed a Committee to have a full power to act in the Company’s Affairs in this present Parliament.’
Nothing, as it turned out, would reach Parliament in 1725. But the distillers were prepared. And a year later, with the temperature rising, their Quarterly General Court was ready to address the threat of legislation again.
Parliamentary lobbying didn’t come cheap. At the next meeting, the Warden was ordered to ‘pay to Mr Warden Palmer forty pounds on account of what he hath disbursed for the Company’s affair.’ By July, Palmer had paid out another £44. And by then the Committee had decided they needed a professional lobbyist on their books as well. On 12 July it was ‘ordered that Mr Warden Roberts do pay to Mr Kenn, the Company’s Sollicitor in Parliament, twelve pounds fifteen shillings for business done & moneys disbursed on the Company’s affairs & do also pay him twenty guineas for his extraordinary trouble.’
In seven months, the Distillers’ Company had paid out more than £100.
It was money well spent, though. And if the Company needed an advocate for the distilling industry, they knew exactly where to turn. Daniel Defoe had been the distillers’ champion in all their battles before. Now in his mid-sixties, he was London’s most famous journalist, and the successes of
had turned him into a literary phenomenon. The Company of Distillers paid out £84.4.10 in the early part of 1726, besides what they gave Mr Kenn. And at the height of the crisis, Daniel Defoe went into print with
A Brief Case of the Distillers and the Distilling Trade in England, shewing how far it is in the interest of England to encourage the said trade
. The tract was ‘humbly recommended to the Lords and Commons of Great Britain, in the present parliament assembled.’
Defoe’s new tract wasn’t particularly brief. In fact, it rambled. As well as a long discourse on the history of spirit-drinking, Defoe went to town on the benefits of the industry. His theme was an old one. ‘The distilling trade, considered in its present magnitude,’ he wrote, ‘is one of the greatest improvements, and the most to the advantage of the publick, of any business now carried on in England.’
Distilling was essential to the landed interest because it ate up corn. The poor needed it for employment. The shipping industry depended on it for cargoes.
As for the accusations piled up by zealots at Madam Geneva’s door, Daniel Defoe swept them aside with all the panache a celebrated elderly journalist could command: ‘As for the excesses and intemperances of the people, and their drinking immoderate quantities of malt spirits, the distillers are not concern’d in it at all; their business is to prepare a spirit wholesome and good. If the people will destroy themselves by their own excesses … ’tis the magistrate’s business to help that, not the distillers.’ Beer and wine, after all, were just as open to abuse, and no one was campaigning against them.
Other voices were raised in Madam Geneva’s defence as well. To many, Sir John Gonson’s campaign smacked too much of the Societies for Reformation of Manners, of puritans, preachers and curtain-twitchers. Responding to the Middlesex report in February 1726, the
took a clear swipe at his ‘convention’. The paper had no ‘doubt, but that His Majesty’s Bench of Justices had all that great and good Work of Reforming our Manners in their view, when they appointed their Committee.’
It criticised the magistrates for blaming everything on gin, and for focusing only on the poor, ‘as if the disease lay nowhere but among the beggars and labourers; and that nothing requir’d their inspection, but the low-priced debaucheries of the chandlery shop.’ As for the physicians, ‘it is not many years ago,’ the paper scoffed, ‘since this very destructive liquor called Geneva, was esteemed medicinal, and cordial, and has been administered as physick.’ If it came to that, it wasn’t so long since spirits had been prescribed by doctors to cure the plague.
Maybe it was Daniel Defoe’s eloquence that carried the day. Maybe MPs had enough else on their plate in 1726. Perhaps the Middlesex magistrates took their eye off the ball. At April Quarter Sessions, Sir Daniel Dolins had switched his fire to homosexuals, attacking crime ‘of that enormous, flagrant, horrid nature, that I had much rather not mention it … I mean, vile, detestable sodomy, and abominable sodomitical practices.’ He didn’t mention gin. The Middlesex magistrates were a large and disparate body and not all of them backed Sir John Gonson and the zealots. Maybe reformers didn’t yet have the power to force a sustained campaign through the bench.
Either way, there would be no change in the law in 1726. The reformers had led a charge on Parliament and been repulsed. The Company of Distillers glowed with triumph. The danger to Madam Geneva was over.
But only for the moment. London in 1726 was still jittering over crime, worrying about vice. And the reformers had, at least, laid the groundwork. Madam Geneva’s face was now firmly associated with social breakdown and moral decay. She had kept her privileges for the moment, but her reputation was in tatters. Next time she would be fighting for her life.
uddenly everything went wrong for Madam Geneva. Maybe the pressure was bound to get to her sooner or later. She was too conspicuous. She’d ruled unchallenged in the slums for too long.
In 1727, an anonymous reformer wrote
A Dissertation upon Drunkenness
setting out to show ‘to what an intolerable pitch that vice is arriv’d at in this kingdom, together with the astonishing number of taverns, coffee-houses, alehouses, brandy-shops &c. now extant in London, the like not to be paralleled by any other city in the Christian world.’ Its warning was stark. ‘If this drinking spirit does not soon abate, all our arts, sciences, trade, and manufactures will be entirely lost, and the island become nothing but a brewery or distillery, and the inhabitants all drunkards.’