Hogarth’s grim depiction of a society addicted to gain.

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‘Mother Gin’

The rise of the ‘Gin Craze’ from the 1720s made matters worse. Distilling gin was inexpensive because of low corn prices: so much so that by 1750 nearly half of all British wheat harvests went directly into gin production. And the market for gin was huge. In London, the drink was incredibly popular with the poor. It was cheap and extremely strong, and for many people offered a quick release from the grinding misery of everyday life.

Already by the 1730s, over 6,000 houses in London were openly selling gin to the general public. The drink was available in street markets, grocers, chandlers, barbers and brothels. Of 2,000 houses in one notorious district, more than 600 were involved in the retail of gin or in its production. By the 1740s gin consumption in Britain had reached an average of over six gallons per person every year.

Many people believed that the drinking of gin was leading to a social crisis. Crime, poverty and a soaring death rate were all linked to the insatiable demand for ‘Madame Geneva’ as the drink was known. In 1751 novelist Henry Fielding argued that there would soon be ‘few of the common people left to drink it’ if the situation continued. The crisis required decisive political attention. In the 1740s and 50s Parliament was forced to pass a series of acts restricting both the sale of spirits and its manufacture, in order to bring the situation back under control.

 

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