Gin Shops in the Regency; the ‘blue ruin’ before the Hipsters discovered it



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 Surry 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 kept 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 on 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 publican, 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……….


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Was it born dead? Concealment of Birth and Infanticide in the Regency.


In the case of Mary Fordham of Hertford, the answer to the bleak question was yes; it was born dead. This mattered in Regency England, and not for reasons of concern for the mother, who had just gone through a traumatic experience. Murder carried the death penalty in Regency England; but then so did stealing lambs or spoons or passing a forged banknote. The difference is that the sentence for Infanticide was usually carried out and the body dispatched to the anatomists for dissection
Mary Fordham was a servant in Stevenage, living in the house of a man called Mr Whittingham. Mary Chapman, a sixteen year old fellow servant, had no inkling that Mary Fordham was pregnant, despite living at close quarters. They had shared the same bed on 2nd September 1810 and Chapman had been kept up all night by Fordham complaining about pains in her bowels. Chapman spent the next night in her own room; she went to visit Fordham the next morning and found her room in disarray. Chapman believed that Mary Fordham had given birth, and suggested that she clean up her room and go to work as normal. Later on the same day, Mary Chapman told the mistress of the house what had happened and together they searched the house for evidence of a baby. They found a five foot hole where rubbish was deposited; in the hole was Mary Chapman’s bloody stocking with a new-born boy in it.
Then the story becomes odd as well as grotesque. Mrs Whittingham appeared as a witness and recounted as story about how, about a month earlier, a labourer had entered their house in a scary mask. Although it had been a “frolic”, it had scared both Mrs Whittingham and Mary Fordham and was, according to the Mistress of the house, very likely to make pregnant women miscarry. Why would Mrs Whittingham come up with this story? Was she trying to move the date of conception by claiming that the baby had not gone full term, therefore obscuring the father’s identity- protecting the family honour-or was she trying to provide a plausible reason for the child dying at birth to protect her servant?
An apothecary (not a more expensive doctor) was called. He declared the child full-grown, but could not rule out a miscarriage. There was a wound on the child’s head, and brick the same size with blood on it next to the body. Mary was lactating; the male apothecary examined her breasts to check, truly adding insult and humiliation to unimaginable trauma
It didn’t look good for Mary Fordham, despite the possibility of some support for whatever reason from the family. However, the draconian nature of the Georgian penal system came to her rescue. A surgeon deposed that the blow to the child’s head could have been caused either by a blow from the brick OR as a result of being thrown into the hole after dying at birth. It partly came down to who was believed, whether the defendant cut a good figure in court, and whether conspiracy could be proved. Mary’s appalling  experience, whatever it was, was one that she would have to do alone; to avoid the accusation of conspiracy ; perhaps her friend Mary Chapman realised this when she suggested that Mary Fordham “clean her room” and then went on to give her enough time to hide the body before she informed Mrs Whittingham
Desperate as her life was, Mary Fordham, as a servant away from home, had some advantages. She had no family to monitor the shape of her body or check out on her sexual relationships. She did not give birth in a room in a slum where the cries of a new-born baby would be heard through thin walls. There was just not enough evidence.
The Newgate report suggested that “the learned judge summed up the evidence with great humanity” The jury followed his hint and found her guilty of concealment of birth only, with a sentence of two years in gaol. That this was the best possible outcome shows the horror of being pregnant, single and powerless in Regency Britain
Lots of children were adjudged to be born dead and their birth concealed. On the same day as Mary was sent to prison, another women, Martha Woods in Winchester received the same punishment

There was very little change in attitudes over the next century .One hundred years later, 1918, also in Hertfordshire, Amy Cook (21), a domestic servant, pleaded guilty to endeavouring to conceal the birth of her male child.

Mr J.H. Murphy, on behalf of the prosecution, said that it was one of those sad cases of a respectable young woman getting into trouble and then trying to conceal the consequences. She had no assistance at the birth of her child, and afterwards hid the body away in a box in her bedroom, and was thus able to resume her work the next day.
Suspicions, however, were aroused, the police were called in, and she eventually produced the body. There was nothing against the prisoner, and probably it was more the fault of the man who got her into trouble than her own for she said that she did not know what to do.
The girl’s mother said her daughter had been well-behaved and had been in good service for several years. Asked by the Judge if she was aware of her daughter’s condition before the concealment, she replied that at about Christmas time she had had suspicions and had challenged her, but her daughter denied that there was anything wrong. She did not see her daughter again until after this affair happened.
His Lordship said the prisoner was young and hitherto had a good character; otherwise he should have passed a more severe sentence upon her than he was going to pass. This kind of offence had been too prevalent in recent years, much too prevalent. Having regard to the circumstances, he should pass the very lenient sentence of 3 months’ imprisonment in the second division.
On hearing the sentence, the prisoner screamed, threw up her hands, and was carried out of Court in a fainting condition.

( From

The stories are remarkably similar; the main differences are that Amy had a mother she had to lie to, and the father was also blamed-a bit.

 Perhaps more significantly, Amy received a more severe sentence than even the Georgian “bloody code” had suggested one hundred years earlier.

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Regency children hooked on opium


How much was too much?


Keeping infants quiet, especially when teething or similar, is very difficult, even with the advantages and affluence of the modern age. It was significantly more difficult in for the poor in the Regency period but there was a novel way of going about it which would cause controversy now- they were drugged with opium based syrups with names such as  Dalby’s Carminative, Syrup of Poppy and the most famous brand- Godfrey’s Cordial.

Joseph Redwith of Paddington was not poisoned directly by Godfrey’s Cordial but by the system that condoned it. He had, according to the surgeon at his inquest in December 1816, been regularly dosed with the cordial. On this occasion he had accidental been given arsenic .Joseph had been coughing and having trouble with his teeth. His mother Ann sent out the daughter Eliza to pay two penny worth of Godfrey’s Cordial from the druggist Mr Pralle in King Street Paddington. The daughter was served by the assistant with a phial of brown liquid and she took it home to her mother. Despite not having any illness herself, she pinched some of the liquid on the way home- not enough to raise suspicions and not enough to kill her. She fell ill on the way home but this this did stop Ann from administering it to Joseph. When he fell ill, after 15 minutes, she sent the daughter back to check that it was the right medicine. It was discovered that it was not Godfrey’s Cordial but not that it was arsenic. Cordial was used as an antidote, but by this time Joseph was dead and his internal organs soon became gangrenous.

Mr Keridge, the assistant, who was also qualified to dispense medicine, had given Eliza arsenic because the poison was not labelled as such, and had been put in the place where the Godfrey’s cordial was. The Coroner suggested that this might not be a good idea.

The Surgeon at Joseph’s port mortem, Mr North, took the opportunity to condemn Godfrey’s Cordial and similar sleeping draughts. They did not cure any children’s ailments ( when the Cordial was advertised it was often under the worryingly vague heading of “Disorders of Children”). They were given to make children sleep for long periods of time. He claimed this “pernicious drowsiness” was worse than most of the illnesses that it failed to cure. Rather than have any empathy, North suggested that Godfrey’s cordial was given to “gratify their idleness” and he condemned the parents for abusing these medicines. It was probably not what you wanted to hear at the post mortem of your baby, and it showed no empathy for the lack of support that poor families had. Mr Redwith was a baker working all hours and life must have been very difficult for the family. That was never a consideration.

Robin Parkins of Fleet, Hampshire died the same way. He was 13 months old, the same age as Joe Redwith. He, too, had nagging gums. His mother sent a 13 year old neighbour to the druggist with her own brown bottle but the young man asked for pure laudanum and the druggist gave it to him and the child died in half an hour. Once again, nobody was asking why society allowed bottles of pure opiate in the house or why people needed it.

In 1819, the 6 week old child of baker in White Ladies Aston, Worcestershire was killed when he was given dose of vitriol instead of a teaspoonful of Godfry’s Cordial from an unmarked bottle. Clearly the family, like those of the Parkins, were buying small amounts of Godrey’s Cordial from the druggist in their own bottles.  In any case, a teaspoonful for a six week old child would have be a severe problem it itself. He would have slept for many, many hours and be unable to cry out. His appetite would be suppressed as well- another boon for the poor mother on a low budget

What was the correct dose of Godfrey’s Cordial? Nobody seemed to know. This from the from Stamford Mercury 17 September 1819




The poor women who took the advice of her neighbour to give the child two teaspoonfuls did not take into account the fact that child who was given it regularly would need considerably more to get the same effect.

It   was an unregulated drugs trade that killed these children. Godfrey’s Cordial would not have killed him in 15 minutes but it did lead to a slow lingering death for many children. It is significant that the advertisers of 1816 called it “Godfrey’s Genuine Cordial”- it seems that druggists were making their own versions, either as a copy of a counterfeit. There was no fixed dosage. Anybody could buy it. Anybody could administer it.

Another incident in 1819 in Stamford Lincolnshire shows the problem when free market unregulated medicine collided with the ignorance and desperation of the poor. A family called Smith were passing through Bourn and needed something to quieten their two week old child. They went to a druggist for some branded Cordial but were given some “nostrum” that the druggist had created. He put excessive opium in the mixture meant that the child slept for 24 hours and then died. The Coroner reprimanded the druggist and warned the parents to take care. The Coroner had done the same in Newhaven in July 1817 when Mr Bolton’s “fine” (but unnamed) boy was poisoned by the deleterious nostrum was given to the child by a druggist

It may seem that it was not being given Godfrey’s Cordial that killed children. However the mixture of molasses and opiates killed children slowly and anonymously. Some more and more  medical men were beginning to realise this; an extract from the Morning Post( 1819)   from surgeon “CS” from Tower Hill.


The doctor was saying the cure was worse than the disease, and the fact a comatose child could not exhibit the symptoms that needed treatment was probably for the advantage of the nurse. The admixture of unregulated medicine, a country hooked on laudanum and the desperate life of the regency poor meant that its working class children were regularly poisoned, dosed to sleep and often killed.

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Further interesting stuff    A good overview of drug use in the nineteenth century