The Gin Shop ‘Every street is their tap room’
In January 1816, Worcester businessman Mr S Cohen drank himself to death. He was visiting Mr Moncks, an Evesham Hatter in the afternoon and their business went well, and some personal longstanding disagreements were settled. Mr Cohen was overjoyed and accepted the invitation to stay overnight. He was so overjoyed that he drank ‘cider, brandy, gin, wine and ale rather freely’-with his breakfast. The men then travelled back to Worcester, with Mr Cohen driving the gig. It was to be a fatal breakfast, not because of drunk driving but because Cohen fell asleep, was put in the back of the gig and was later found dead.
This was a bad thing. It was, in the words of the newspaper, a ‘melancholy incident’. But it was not a threat to public order, the productivity of the nation or a danger to morals. However, the drinking of the poor was a different matter.
Alcohol consumption was increasing during the Regency.The fact that it were taxable meant that consumption levels were known. High taxes and depressed wages meant that the poor migrated even more to cheaper porter, gin and the gin shop. When poor people drank more, the establishment were not happy. In 1816, the Morning Chronicle used alcohol to prove that wages, in London anyway, were too high. It went like this; alcohol was increasing in price but consumption was rising- especially gin and beer which are ‘never considered as superfluous indulgences by the higher orders’. So the reason why Londoners were able to drink so much was their high wages, which if lowered, would lead to less drinking. As a start, the Hampshire Chronicle suggested a little bit of Sabbatarianism would do the poor good; the gin shops ‘lighted up to attract notice’, should be shut on that day.
What was a Gin shop? It was not a Gin Palace of the 1840s, but a stripped down public house. They were growing in number in the Regency, responding to the demand for cheap alcohol. They would strip out all the fixtures, fittings and features of the public house -the bar, the tap room, the newspapers, the food service and even the seats, in order to save money and offer cheaper gin and beer. Owners who wanted a gin shop but could not bear the magistrates scrutiny, would get a pub licence and sell gin, with a mouldering and undrinkable barrel of porter beer in the back room to keep the authorities happy.
In 1816, concerned Surrey magistrates commissioned a report on the rapid increase in Gin shops. Surrey magistrates were worried about the damage done by these shops on the lower orders and increasing the ‘middling sort’. In the regency, Surrey was a larger area than today, including the areas of Lambeth and Southwark; there was a lot of drinking going on in Surrey and the magistrates were alarmed enough to investigate the reason for the increase in gin shops.
It was certainly true that it was not difficult to obtain a licence to sell ‘ardent spirits’ and selling them kept the poor in work. One of the arguments against restricting the licences was that it would create destitution that would have to be solved with local ratepayer’s money rather than by the poor drinking themselves to insolvency. Magistrates suggested that it might be useful to try to nudge the poor to beer by only giving a license to places that sold a large amount of beer compared to gin and who allowed not drinking in private with just a large public bar. One of the magistrates suggested that the beer was just as likely to do harm – especially if it were purchased in a gin shop.
The Gin shop, said the Chester Courant in 1816, was up there with the Pawn Shop and the Lottery Office as a way that the poor were keeping themselves poor. The pawn shop may seem out of place of the three, as your need property to pawn, but the conservative Courant made it clear that pawn shops were a temptation to steal an employer’s belonging and to turn them into cash.
So, Gin shops were not the same as public houses; pubs mostly sold beer on the premises while gin shops were much more likely to be takeaways. Police constables would be on the lookout for places with two main entrances –one would be a takeout door – as a sign that they were selling gin only.
The vast majority of unskilled urban workers were paid their wages on a Saturday night; shops and pubs were open and money would be spent on alcohol. Their pockets were still reasonable full on the Sabbath, and this was a problem for the authorities.
One report – The Police in the Metropolis in August 1816, noted that in a ninety period between half six and eight o’clock, 105 people were seen entering and leaving an establishment in Holborn, perhaps made worse by the fact that this was a Sunday morning, not the afternoon, and that most of them were women. For many commentators the profane language was just as bad as the drinking
This also meant that Gin shops could encourage vice and drunkenness without being easily spotted by the magistrates as a house of ill repute. By operating takeaway only, the corruption of gin is spread to all of the streets and houses nearby. This is from 1817
The owners of such places believed, implausibly, that they contributed to family life. This is from a later Victorian publication, the Gin Shop, but the argument is the same;
No one is allowed to sit down and therefore not likely to tipple away the money that may be wanted at home for the support of the family. No tap rooms are provided, no tables, no benches, no indulgences to tempt men to remain away from their families
Not many people believed this, often not even the people who said it. The opposite argument was more compelling. Consumption would increase, as prices were about 25% lower than alcohol bought in public houses, but the grim truth, more or less universally acknowledged, was that people bought more instead of saving money. It was also common to send children to the ‘bottle and jug’ to collect the alcohol and moralists pointed out that the youngsters would be traumatized by what they saw, and then, in the fullness of time, be inured to it, which was worse.
The comment, from a temperance society, is dated 1835 but could easily be twenty years earlier;
We see children in the street…. sent by parents to a gin shop and the same as when a child goes to a baker’s shop.You see them picking the bread as they go home, you see them tasting the spirits from which they imbibe the habit, and, if they get a halfpenny or a penny given to them afterwards it goes for the getting of spirits the habit being so engendered by the practice
Have you any recollection of the youngest age which yon have ever seen persons drink?
I have seen them drink I should say at five and six months old……….
If you share my interest in the ordinary people of Regency Britain, you may be interested in this. Please recommend to a library if you live in the UK.
Introducing “The Dark Days of Georgian Britain”
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