In 1751 William Hogarth published two prints in support of the Gin Act. The Gin Act was the government’s attempt at reforming England’s addition to drink. Hogarth’s depictions of ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Lane’ (thinly disguised portrayals of London) were his attempt at using his fame to prove to the Georgian public the evils of consuming spirits. Somewhat ironically, or perhaps not for the cynical, the increase in gin production in the late 1600s was supported by the government as a way of propping up the price of grain and increase trade. Hogarth’s Gin Lane is full of death, suicide, crime, and general dispair.
You only have to look at the newspapers at the time to see how problematic drink was for London. In 1751, the year Hogarth published his prints, The National Gazette reported of three types of gin being seized from an illegal distiller and poured into the sea.
The following report tells of a man who had been found dead in one of London’s infamous meat markets after drinking too much Geneva, a popular type of dutch gin and one that was frequently demonised in the press.
It is thought that Hogarth didn’t gain much in profits from the publishing of these prints, they were highly available and cheap reproductions were made. Rather, he wanted to show his audience the blight that drink was having upon them. Indeed, Hogarth had already made a name for himself as a ‘political artist’, publishing satire which disturbed the public and government alike. In 1811, Charles Lamb wrote that he had seen “many turn away from it [Gin Lane], not being able to bear it”, praising Hogarth for his ability to “unvulgarise” even the most profane topics.
The Gin Act of 1751 was not the first. In 1736 the government passed the first Gin Act, which forbade anyone to distill and sell spirits without a proper license. It also introduced a higher tax on the spirit meaning that the price went up. Yet, two decades later, England’s problem with spirit consumption was reaching crisis point. Not only was it costing parliament a considerable amount in controlling crime committed under the influence, it was also causing a huge strain on the relationship between the upper and the lower classes. Those with the least in life were often the worst affected. Gin was a cheap past time in an era where disease, un-employment, and appalling living conditions were normal.
Yet it was the new type of middling class that was having an unseen yet substantial impact on those at the bottom of society. Consumerism, as we know it today, was gripping the high streets. Households had more income to spend due to the lower cost of living, and there were more people stepping outside the home to drink. This meant more could be spent on alcohol, and the more that was spent on alcohol the higher the production of it, so much so that illegal distilleries selling cheap but lethally strong spirits were widespread. Supply and demand.
In contrast, ‘Beer Street’ was produced to show that those who veered away from the stronger stuff were better off in every possible way.
The residents of Beer Street, in contrast to Gin Lane, are well nourished, jolly, able to enjoy cultural pursuits (note the pile of books and the sign painter, which could quite likely be Hogarth himself), no one is dead, and the pawn broker is out of business. Beer had long been a staple of the English diet. Water was far too dodgy to drink regularly so weak beer was drunk morning, noon, and night. A slightly tipsy population was much more preferable to the zombie-like behaviour of gin addicts.
Throughout history we see authorities lay blame for the worst problems in society on substances, and the story of Georgian England’s relationship to gin is comparable to today’s war on drugs, and the effects were not unlike that of the synthetic drug ‘spice’ that we see in the news. Usually, and to put it simply, there is always a link between issues in society and the rise in a problematic behaviour.