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Gin Epidemic - 1720-1750

Gin became a firm favourite of the poor during the Thirty Years War when English troops fighting in the Low Countries brought it home with them.

At the time, anyone could distil by simply posting a notice in public and waiting ten days.

Vendors roamed the streets pushing carts filled with cheap gin, and soon the daily volume sold exceeded that of the more expensive beer and ale.

Seedy shops advertised: "Drunk for one penny, dead drunk for two, clean straw for nothing." The straw was used to lie on while sleeping off a hangover.

Mother's ruin

Women, in particular, seemed to favour gin and bought it from pharmacists as a medicinal drink. It was mixed with warm water to 'soothe the nerves' and was often known as Mother's Ruin.

Many of the Industrial Revolution's poor remained permanently inebriated in their search for relief from the terrible factory conditions.

However, in 1729, an excise licence of 20 was introduced and a duty of two shillings per gallon was charged.

This almost suppressed good gin, but increased illegal distilling and the quantity of bad spirits consumed continued to rise.

In London, this led to a decline in the population. People were actually drinking themselves to death.

Gin riots

To tackle the problem The Gin Act was introduced on 29th September 1736. It decreed that a 50 licence was required to sell gin, making it prohibitively expensive.

This attempt by the government to outlaw the drink caused considerable social unrest and led to rioting.

On the day before the Act was passed, mobs took to the streets determined to drown their sorrows in the last legal gin available.

At the time, approximately 11 million gallons of gin were produced in London, roughly the equivalent of 14 gallons for each adult male.

Within six years, only two distillers took out licences, yet over the same period of time production rose by almost 50%.

The Gin Act, finally recognised as unenforceable, was repealed in 1742.


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