The Gin Craze in the first half of 18th-century Britain was a period when the consumption of gin increased rapidly, especially in London.[a] The writer Daniel Defoe commented that “the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion’d compound Waters called Geneva, so that the common People seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not to desire it.”
A domestic market evolved in the distillation of gin from farmers’ surplus grain, and so important did the drinks trade become to the nation’s economy that by 1730 it accounted for one quarter of the government’s annual revenue, mainly from excise duties. Politicians, eager to reduce the tax burden on the landed classes, initially saw excise duties as a relatively painless way to raise money, but became increasingly alarmed as the taste for spirits spread throughout sections of London’s labouring classes.
As a result, parliament passed five major Acts, in 1729, 1736, 1743, and 1751, designed to control the consumption of gin. Although many similar drinks were available, and alcohol consumption was considerable at all levels of society, gin caused the greatest public concern; gin was at the time a term used to describe all grain-based alcohols.
Gin was popularised in England following the accession of William of Orange in 1688. Gin provided an alternative to French brandy at a time of political and religious conflict between Britain and France. Between 1689 and 1697 the government passed a range of legislation aimed at restricting brandy imports, and encouraging gin production. Significantly, the monopoly of the London Guild of Distillers had been abolished in 1690, thereby opening up the market in gin distillation. The production and consumption of English gin, which was then popular amongst politicians and even Queen Anne, was encouraged by the government, evident in the reduction of taxes on distilled spirits. Additionally, no licences were required to make spirits, so distillers could have smaller, simpler workshops than brewers, who were required to serve food and provide shelter for patrons.
Economic protectionism was a major factor in precipitating the Gin Craze; as the price of food dropped and income grew, consumers suddenly found themselves with spare income that could be spent on spirits. By 1721 however, Middlesex magistrates were already decrying gin as “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people”. In 1736 the Middlesex Magistrates reported that:
It is with the deepest concern your Committee observe the strong inclination of the inferior sorts of people to these destructive liquors, and how surprisingly the infection has spread within these few years; not only the vicious and immoral give in to these practices … but whole families shamefully and constantly indulge themselves in this pernicious practice, fathers and mothers, children, as well as servants.
The Gin Act 1729 attempted to control the trade in gin by restricting its sale to licensed premises, and the Gin Act 1736 went further by increasing the duty on gin and raising the annual cost of a licence to £50.[b] But given that the fine for selling gin without a licence was only £10, many retailers chose to operate illegally, which was felt to encourage disrespect for the law. As a result, the Gin Act 1743 repealed many of the provisions of the earlier Act and reduced the cost of a licence; by that time, 2.2 gallons (10 L) of gin per person per year were being consumed in England. As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson, who in 1736 had complained that gin produced a “drunken ungovernable set of people”. Prominent anti-gin campaigners included Henry Fielding (whose 1751 “Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers” blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a “fine spindle-shanked generation” of children), and – briefly – William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well-known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with Beer Street, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers.
The Gin Craze began to diminish following the passage into law of the Gin Act 1751, which forbade distillers from selling spirits and doubled the retail licence fee to £2. In addition, licences were only available to inns, alehouses and taverns, and only to those that were prosperous and well-established, operating from premises with a minimum rental value of £10. Spirits were no longer allowed to be sold on credit, and sellers were no longer able to go to court to recover small debts for the sale of spirits. As a result, the Gin Craze had mostly passed by 1757, when a bad harvest forced the government to temporarily ban the manufacture of spirits from domestic grain to ensure the availability of food, a ban that lasted for four years..