William Hogarth’s infamous depiction of Gin Lane has for a long time fascinated me. Issued in 1751, the print portrays the supposed evils of consuming the addictive spirit. In a busy scene, Hogarth has captured, the poverty and despair of a community dependent on gin.
In the foreground is a women who has been driven to prostitution to feed her habit. She’s so out it that she’s let her baby slip from her arms and plunge to its death in the stairwell of a gin cellar below.
Hogarth portrays idleness in Gin Lane, a place where the only businesses that are thriving are those linked to the sale of gin – the distillers, sellers and pawnbrokers, the latter enabling poor people to buy more of the spirit. With so much alcohol flying around, it’s no wonder some people in the picture have gone crazy.
The scene in Gin Lane has clearly been exaggerated, and it should be noted that it was commissioned by the brewing industry (the scene he depicts in the parallel picture, Beer Street, is a lot more prosperous). But it came at a time when gin had become a real problem for society and campaigners were using whatever means they could to regulate its sale.
In the 250 years since Hogarth’s print, gin has moved decisively upmarket. Anyone celebrating World Gin Day today can enjoy a fine gin from a number of trendy London distilleries. Last year, the City of London Dry Gin, the first distillery in the City since the 18th opened in Fleet Street. Visitors can enjoy tasting sessions as well as the tours of the production process. Elsewhere, popular gin nights have been set-up at London nightspots.
But it’s important not to lose sight of the past. As part of World Gin Day, I joined historian Jane Young for a fascinating walk around Clerkenwell to discover the area’s strong connections to the tipple.
Hogarth’s Gin Lane may have been set in St Giles, not far from Holborn and Covent Garden, but gin was just as destructive in Clerkenwell. And it later became the centre for large distilleries (by the end of the 19th century, alongside brewing, it represented around a quarter of industry in the area).
Appropriately we began the walk at St John’s Gate, a surviving remnant of St John’s priory. It was here, before the monasteries were dissolved under Henry VIII, that monks produced a form of gin for medicinal purposes.
Next it was onto to some of the streets that were amongst the most impoverished in 18th century London. While the area is today home to trendy designers and fancy coffee shops, back then many lived in slum conditions amongst the maze of narrow alleyways and courts where crime was rife.
And in literally every other house a low-grade form of gin would have been produced in kitchens and sold pennies. So bad was the taste that turpentine was used to improve the flavour.
The British government could be blamed for bringing about the gin craze; because of fighting with the French it had decided to tax wine and brandy heavily, and encouraged people to look to alternatives that were made in Britain. There were, at peak, 1,700 distilleries in London and “mother’s ruin” was served at 7,000 establishments
But with consumption at such high levels (it was estimated at 14 gallons per person, per year in some parts of London), action was needed. That was easier said than done however as attempts to tax gin simply forced the distilleries producing high quality products out of business, leaving out-of-site kitchens to produce the cheap gin.
As a result of vicious campaigning (of which Hogarth played his part), the Gin Act of 1751, which clamped down heavily on the back street operations. In the aftermath of the legislation large distilleries were set up in London, with a strong focus on Clerkenwell. The distillers Booth, Nicholson, Tanqueray (and a little further from the centre, Gordon) become well-known companies producing a clear spirit that became known as London Dry Gin. By the aftermath of World War Two the gin distilling industry had died out.
We saw today the vast fortresses like buildings that were occupied by Nicholson; so valuable was the stock that the windows were kept deliberately small. Today, the towering brick structures have been converted into upmarket apartments. We also passed an earlier site that had been used by Nicholson which is today the Clerkewell Medical Mission.
Booth, another major distiller in the area, moved a number of times over its history, but was latterly at Red Lion Street. What’s intriguing is that the frontage of that 1903 building was moved in the 1970s to Britton Street. Now occupied by Kurt Greiger, the footwear brand, its well-worth looking up to see the wonderful freeze depicting the various different stages of early gin production.
Gin has gone decisively upmarket over the years, a message that industry is keen to push on World Gin Day today. But alongside the launch of new business ventures that have cropped up in recent years in the capital, and across Britain, the vividness of Gin Lane lingers on.