Authors: Patrick Dillon
Henry Fielding (seated, left) in his Bow Street court room: ‘a poor, emaciated, worn-out rake’
‘Beer Street’, 1751
‘Gin Lane’, 1751
The future: industrial distilling, 1754
Excise man at work, 1752
Gin Palace: Cruikshank illustrates Dickens
But when ministers contemplated Pullin’s effigy blazing in Hanover Square, they didn’t see free Englishmen with their liberties under threat; all they saw was a mob carrying sticks. For them, there was no point speculating what went on in the minds of the lower orders. As Lord Chancellor Hardwicke loftily put it, ‘as none but persons of the lowest rank has been concerned in any … riot … it is below the dignity of parliament to enquire particularly into them.’
For the ministry, the debate was nothing to do with civil liberties. It was about respect. And the apparent failure of the Gin Act was all part of the same picture. ‘There is scarce a law made,’ William Hay, MP for Seaford, noted in his diary that year, ‘but the people … immediately prepare to resist it … so that it is now become a question whether this nation is for the future to be governed by a mob or the legislature.’
By early 1737, prohibition wasn’t about gin any more. It was about authority.
For Sir Robert Walpole, in particular, it was about authority: his own. If he had been rattled the summer before, he was still more so now. The rift between the Prince of Wales and his father was widening, and the opposition were doing all they could to woo the Prince their way. It was only a few months before he would set up his own court in Leicester Fields with opposition leaders thronging the anterooms. Walpole could see Tories and dissident Whigs uniting under the banner of liberty, the City of London sticking up for distillers, mob rule in the streets. The sooner the lid was slammed down on popular protest, the better.
There was no more talk of repeal. Instead of pulling back, Parliament waded further into the mire. Instead of a new Gin Act, they passed an enforcement measure. The key clauses were buried in an Act to reduce taxes on British fruit wines, or ‘sweets’. As usual, Sir Robert was killing several birds with one stone. By dropping the
duty on sweets, he hoped to increase consumption, make a revenue windfall, and cheer up the West Indian sugar merchants, who had lost their market for rum. There was a theory, in case any reformers were listening, that sweets might ‘be made to answer all the good ends of spirituous liquors, without being attended with any of the fatal consequences.’ With elderflower wine in the shops, Madam Geneva might just be out of a job.
But the Sweets Act had a sting in its tail. Its final clauses turned their attention to gin-sellers. Until now, they had been sent down for hard labour if they couldn’t pay the £10 fine. The Sweets Act decreed that before they were discharged from Bridewell they should be ‘whipped bloody’. Until now, informers had only received their reward if their victims paid the £10 fine, not if they went to Bridewell. But now a reward was guaranteed for anyone giving information under the Gin Act. Parliament was determined to see prohibition through.
It was April by the time the Sweets Act went through. On 27 April a farrier, Briat, talked half a pint of Geneva out of a distiller called Mound. Briat’s story was that he needed the spirits to treat a sick horse. When he took the gin to the Excise Office instead, and informed against the distiller for selling it to him, ‘the mob rose upon him at Stocks Market, and increased to such a number by that time he got to Whitechapel Bars, pelting him with stones, brickbats &c. that with much difficulty he was brought back in a coach to the Excise Office, at the hazard of his life.’
If the authorities thought that informers were going to save the Gin Act, they had made a terrible mistake.
Back in January, gin-drinkers had made effigies of informers before burning them. From now on, the attacks were for real. An informer was ducked in the Thames at the end of July and almost lost an eye; he was rescued by a passing waterman. On 20 August,
a husband and wife informed on a woman for selling gin, but were cornered by a crowd in Honey Lane Market. ‘The man [escaped],’ reported the
London Evening Post
, ‘but the wife they seized upon, and pelted her with all manner of filth, and rolled her in the kennel. Then they forced her to the Swan and Two Necks in Lad Lane, in order to pump her; but the people of the inn shut the gates against them.’ The crowd had to take her all round the City in their search for a pump. In the end they dragged her into Guildhall yard, where ‘they pumped her for a long while.’ The informer only escaped by crawling into the porch, ‘where a gentleman belonging to Guildhall Hall took her in and saved her from the fury of the mob, who it is thought would else have killed her.’
No one had tried to help the woman as they dragged her from pump to pump. The
London Evening Post
thought it ‘remarkable that she begged for mercy and protection of the shopkeepers &c. all the way they dragged her and pelted her; but nobody showed her any compassion.’ Londoners had never cared much for informers.
Some among the authorities weren’t all that keen on them either. For the
, campaigning for repeal at the start of the parliamentary session, reliance on informers was the fundamental flaw in prohibition. ‘I hope it will be granted,’ it wrote in January (about the time Londoners were burning Pullin’s effigy in Hanover Square) ‘that treachery in every degree is wicked … It ought … to be the care of every people, but especially a free people, to prevent as much as possible the character of a treacherous informer from ever becoming tolerable among them.’
Societies depended on mutual trust. ‘A general spirit of treachery among the people,’ the magazine warned, ‘is one of the main supports of arbitrary power.’
The trouble for the authorities was that they had no alternative. Enforcing the Gin Act was always an uphill struggle. There was no police department. There were no special agents to get in behind the counter and pull Dudley Bradstreet out by the ears. The justice
system depended on private individuals. If you caught a robber in your house, you were expected to prosecute him yourself. Law enforcement depended on citizens, and when the citizens wouldn’t co-operate, the authorities ran dangerously short of options. It was no good relying on constables when it came to gin. Almost half the Middlesex constables were gin-sellers themselves. ‘As every other trade makes interest to be excused having this office,’ magistrates had complained in their 1736 report, ‘[victuallers and dealers in spirituous liquors] are the only ones who covet it.’ Victuallers and dealers in spirituous liquors were hardly going to be enthusiasts for enforcing prohibition.
So there was no other option but to rely on informers. At least, with a £5 reward on offer, there was no shortage of informers coming forward. Five pounds was a year’s rent for a poor family, six weeks’ wages even for a skilled craftsman. By summer 1737, the Gin Act hadn’t yet had any effect on gin-drinking in London, but it had, at least, had one result. In the words of Thomas De Veil’s biographer, it had ‘let loose a crew of dangerous and desperate people who turn’d informers merely for bread.’
Informers worked in organised gangs. The same names turned up time and again in reports of convictions. Samuel and Marjory Brookes, along with their friend Elizabeth Jenkins, were responsible for numerous prosecutions around Spitalfields. Another regular team of informers, Margaret Dawson and Mary Fountons, only came to grief when they were caught out blackmailing their victim as well as turning him in to the authorities. Under the Gin Act, magistrates were supposed to convict a hawker ‘on the oath of one or more credible witness,’ but in practice no one was too fussy about how credible the witnesses were. It was a hard enough job as it was, trying to enforce prohibition in a city addicted to gin.
But after almost a year the risks of depending on informers were starting to show. Even in the first months of prohibition, there had
been alarming signs of informers’ evidence falling apart in court. In January the Commissioners of Excise had put out an order that officers should check informers’ names, ‘& that when any sample of any goods or liquors are taken by any officer intended to be produced at the hearing of an information, that he keep the same in his own custody until the information is heard.’
Informers couldn’t be trusted not to tamper with evidence.