10th November 1697. Madam Geneva or Blue Ruin.
Today in 1697 saw the birth of William Hogarth who is best known for portraying the ‘Hogarthian’ shady milieu of the bawdy and boozy life of 18thc London.
One print ( below right) shows the result of the gin craze in the first half of the century much of it resulting from a 1689 Act which had banned French wine and spirits and government encouragement of distillation from indigenous crops.
In the 18thc London Gin or ‘Hollands’, ’Kill Grief’ and ‘Comfort’; ‘Madam Geneva’ or ‘Blue Ruin’, was the preferred choice of the London poor but often contaminated with turpentine and sulphuric acid.
This drink to oblivion was endemic to slum areas typical of the St. Giles-in-the-Fields area where one in five households was said to sell gin, but prevalent wherever poverty was an issue.
It has been calculated that in 1743 England, gin consumption per-capita was 2.2 gallons (10l) a year, much coming from the big gin distillery at Clerkenwell, London.
The whole social problem was summed up: ‘Drunk for a Penny’ and ‘Dead Drunk for Twopence’. It was a scourge of society recognised as requiring action particularly by the influential Henry Fielding, friend of Hogarth, concerned at the increase in public disorder, moral degradation and criminality, along with high rates of adult and infant mortality.
Thus 1751 saw the Gin Act which increased excise duty, and effectively curbed consumption, with beer consumption now promoted as a lesser of two evils. Thus Hogarth in his portrayal (above left) shows Beer Street as happy, industrious and in lusty good heath.
The Gentleman’s Magazine later recorded 87 idioms for drunkenness, including the delightful: ‘Sipping the Spirit of Adonis’.
But as Charles Dickens said, ‘gin is a great English vice but wretchedness and dirt are the worst’.
In an age of increased prosperity and education, though probably not in thrall to ‘Blue Ruin’, large swathes of society are still victims of alcohol and drug abuse: plus ca change…
wikimedia/Pic beer Street.
wikipedia/Pic of Gin Lane.
bbc.co.uk/london-city-of-sin. Alistair Sooke. 10.6.2015.
telegraph.co.uk. 1.11.2014. William Hogarth. Harry Mount.