Gin - A Tale of Caution

The Gin Acts, 1729-51

One of the most serious social problems to perplex parliamentarians in the early Hanoverian period was the excessive consumption of gin by the lower classes. Gin drinking was seen as one of the root causes of poverty, crime, idleness, immorality and impiety, and was regarded as a threat to the very fabric and well-being of society. The debilitating physical effects of gin addiction were vividly portrayed by William Hogarth in two satiric prints published in 1751 contrasting the healthy and well-fed inhabitants of ‘Beer Lane’ with the emaciated and disease-ridden wretches of ‘Gin Lane’.

From 1688 excise duties on ale and beer had increased whereas those on spirits remained low. Gin distilling was a cheap process and it became a highly profitable industry, attracting many producers. The cheapness of gin, compared with beer or ale, made it particularly popular with the poor. By the 1730s London was reckoned to have over 1500 distillers. The spread of ‘gin shops’ had reached alarming proportions by the early 1720s. Unlike alehouses, gin-sellers were not subject to licensing and other controls. A committee of Middlesex justices of the peace concluded in 1726 that there were at least 6,000 retailers selling ‘strong waters’ in London’s parishes.

In 1729 the government sought to arrest the growth of the gin trade and introduced legislation requiring retailers to pay £20 for an annual license, and levying an excise duty of 5 shillings per gallon on distilled spirits. One supporter of the bill, James Edward Oglethorpe, hoped that such restrictions at home would force increased exports of gin to France and Spain ‘where it would destroy more people than the duke of Marlborough had done’. But the resulting Act was largely unsuccessful. It contained wide-ranging exemptions, and there were no effective means of preventing the increase of illicit retailers. Since distilling formed an important supplementary branch of agriculture, landowners who supplied grain to the distilleries feared that the Act discouraged distilling and in 1733 brought pressure for it to be repealed. Moreover, the government initiated fresh legislation to encourage the production and export of domestic spirits. In 1730 home production amounted to 3.8 million gallons, but by 1735 it had shot up to 6.4 million.

By 1736 the soaring consumption of gin provoked a major campaign for parliamentary intervention. New regulation was demanded from within Parliament by such prominent champions of moral reform as Sir Joseph Jekyll and a small number of bishops, and from outside by the Society for the Reformation of Manners and other philanthropic enterprises. Intense public debate took place between those concerned for public health and moral welfare, and those concerned with economic well-being. Though primarily concerned with the potential loss of revenue (on account of lower consumption due to the much higher rate), Robert Walpole and his ministerial colleagues felt obliged to accept Jekyll’s bill enacting a new high duty of 20s. per gallon, and a clause was later added imposing a retailers’ license of £50 per annum.

The government’s determination to give effective force to the new Gin Act resulted in much rioting throughout the capital during 1737. The king, in his speech at the close of the 1736-7 session, characterised these disturbances as a ‘defiance of all authority’. A proclamation was issued requiring JPs to ensure full compliance with the Act and to take all necessary steps to put down any related disorder. The effects were seen in the sharp increase in summary prosecutions of retailers in 1738. However, once the disorders had been brought under control, the metropolitan justices soon returned to their more usual lethargy and over the next few years little was done to enforce the 1736 Act. Walpole’s government had displayed far less concern with the social problems of excessive gin drinking than with curbing open defiance of the law.

By the early 1740s Britain was in the grip of full-scale continental war, and in 1743 the acute demands of military expenditure secured the repeal of the 1736 legislation in favour of lower duties on gin production, and the lowering of annual licences to just 20s. The penalties for unlicensed retailing were also lowered.

Renewed pressure for a tightening of regulation erupted again at the end of the decade. In 1749 there were reported to be more than 17,000 gin shops in London, and over 4,000 people had been convicted for selling spirits without a license. Much concern had been generated in parliamentary circles about the rapid increase in crime, and in 1751 a Commons committee – the ‘felonies committee’ – did not hesitate to attribute the rising incidence of robbery and murder to increased gin production and sales. Petitions from several London parishes and several of the largest provincial towns, notably Bristol, Manchester and Norwich, emphasised the harmful effects of gin drinking and urged Parliament to regulate production and consumption.

This time the government, now led by the reform-minded Henry Pelham, acted quickly and passed an Act which, unlike its predecessors, was deliberately framed to place firmer controls on gin distilling. Care was taken to draft the 1751 legislation in consultation with the main interest groups involved in gin production, and little opposition was encountered in the Commons. Licenses were increased to £2 per annum; only respectable townspeople (rent and rate payers) could retail spirits; and the duty on spirits was increased, though not excessively. Consumption fell from 8.5 million gallons in 1751 to 5.9 million in 1752, falling to 2.1 million by 1760. Although the measure appears to have made an immediate impact, the rapid growth of the brewing industry and the falling price of beer during these years undoubtedly contributed to the decline in gin consumption.

 Author: Andrew A. Hanham