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Madness to the Heart: A bleak picture of alcoholism in Georgian London


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 National Gazette (London, England), Saturday, December 28, 1751.

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.

Daily Post (London, England), Wednesday, January 4, 1727.

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.

The tale of a Medieval heiress, a lawless knight, and the Black Death.

I can’t confess to taking an active interest in Medieval history. Much of what I read about today is rooted in some serious academia, and sometimes it can feel emotionally disconnected with our world. Yet, this is not always the case. I would like to present to you the tragic (and very ‘Game of Thrones’) story of Margery de la Beche, a 14th century heiress, owner of castles, three times a wife, all in a time of Black Death, corruption, and violent outlaws.

Lady de la Beche was born into the ‘de Poynings’ family in Poynings, West Sussex, around 1310. Her father, Sir Michael, owned a considerable amount of land in this area, hence it’s name. As well as a landlord, Sir Michael was also a knight and ultimately ended his days during the Battle of Bannockburn¹ in Scotland when Margery was just a child. Not the best start.

As many young and wealthy Medieval women did, Margery married as a girl between 13-16 years of age. Her first husband was Edmund Bacon, who owned the Manor of Hatfield Peverall, and by which she had two children, Margery and Nicholas. Edmund had died by the time Margery met and wed her second husband, Sir Nicholas de la Beche, in 1339. It was during her second marriage that she found herself laden with more castles, land, and fancy chattels (goods). Sir Nicholas held vast amounts of land throughout England; Very fitting for the man who would later be appointed Governor to Edward, ‘The Black Prince’, the first born son of King Edward III.

The Black Death killed 30-60% of the population of Europe within a decade. It took two centuries for the population numbers to recover.

Nicholas then died in 1345. The catastrophic second plague epidemic hadn’t quite hit yet, but given that Nicolas was aged around 55 at the time of his death, it is quite likely he died of relatively healthy ‘old age’. Margery was thus left with vast amounts of land, as can be seen from her inquisition post mortem (a sort of Medieval list of assets used when establishing heirs)². A number of sources report that Margery may have had another two husbands in quick succession, and there is the suggestion that they in turn succumbed to the plague³.

This made Margery a sitting duck. A very rich, widowed, landowner was an attractive prospect for a deviant Medieval nobleman. Enter Sir John de Dalton, a knight with some very alarming friends. Very early on Good Friday in 1347, Sir John and his fellow scoundrels entered the manor in which Margery and her household were staying and began to wreak havoc. They may not have realised that also residing with them was Lionel of Antwerp, the third son of the king.

The gang proceeded to swipe expensive goods and chattels, totalling somewhere between  £500 – £1000, an extraordinary amount in today’s money. But they didn’t stop there, Sir John later forcibly abducted Margery. There is one account that implies that she was sexually assaulted³. The goal was to leave Margery with no other choice than to marry Sir John by instilling terror. He murdered her paternal uncle, along with anyone else who got in his way. He even frightened the chaplain to death (probably a heart attack).

Sir John de Dalton, a knight with some very alarming friends.

The law at this time barely protected women, especially when it came to sexual politics. So, rather than than condemn their actions on the grounds of horrifying  violence, royal officials deemed it treason. Not only had Sir John stolen items that ultimately belonged to the King, trespass on land and property ultimately owned by the King, he had by default threatened the king’s son.

Knights rarely had the same social standing as nobles, and their behaviour often caused more problems for the King.

The crown demanded the return of Margery, and warned the kingdom against harbouring the fugitives. Yet, due to poor legal advice and the need to save face, months went past and no one turned Sir John in. Margery was also nowhere to be found. It is the depressing truth that it appears they did indeed marry, and Lady de la Beche died two years after the traumatic event. One of her inquisition post mortems records her place of death as Calais – it is unknown why she died here. However, it is quite plausible, probably even likely, that she contracted the plague during it’s peak and she died in her late thirties having endured the extremes of a Medieval existence.



¹. The Battle of Bannockburn, June 1314, was the first battle of independence for Scotland, and they won.

². Inquisitions Post Mortem, Edward III, File 99, www.british-history.ac.uk

³. The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages By J. G. Bellamy

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