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……….


If you share my interest in the ordinary people of Regency Britain,  you may be interested in this


Best price here





The King of Georgian Quacks- Samuel Solomon


Samuel Solomon- King of quacks in the early phase of his fraudulent activities c 1796

The Regency Newspapers were crammed with quack medicines; Spilsbury’s Antiscorbic drops; Dr Freeman’s Gutta Salutas; Mrs Vincent Garland’s Lotion. What they all had in common was the wide ranges of diseases that they claimed to cure, and their reliance on alcohol and opiates to make their victims feel better while they either recovered naturally or died.
The King of quack medicines was the Cordial Balm of Gilead, manufactured and sold by “Dr” Samuel Solomon of Liverpool. Born in Dublin and then living in Newcastle, he had previously failed as a boot seller and by about 1796 had moved to Liverpool and started to produce his cure-all mixture of brandy, turpentine and herbs. He had bought his qualifications from a medical college in Aberdeen.

The first trace of him is an advertisement in the Newcastle Courant on 25 March 1797. He had published the 4th edition of his “Guide to Health” . This was a common medical genre in the late eighteenth century- a book of advice mostly for young adults and their parents and guardians, covering areas such as prevention and cure of hypochondria, Venereal Disease, gleets (discharges from infected organs or wounds ), seminal weakness ( wet dreams) and the consequences of masturbation. He does not mention his Cordial Balm of Gilead by name, but the odds are that he would have already been producing it, as it would be the cure for all the afflictions mentioned in the advertisement.

By May of the same year, Solomon’s advertisements explode into every newspaper in Britain. He is living in Marylebone, Liverpool and provided his Balm of Gilead to all, out of sincere wish to be a friend of humanity. In late 1797-the marketing was very fast- the B of G was getting the most coverage in the newspapers. A Mr Thomas Glaister of Carlisle had sailed all the way the Liverpool to thank the good doctor for curing his “internal weakness, loss of memory and pains in the Head”

His marketing was magnificent. He used sealed, embossed bottles and offered rewards for any forgeries. He constantly used testimonials to prove that illnesses such as consumption, paleness and nervous disorder had been cured.

Solomon turns to onanism ( in a manner of speaking) in the 1800’s and moved to Brownlow Hill ( near to were my relative Robert Dilworth was selling books; booksellers sold his pamphlets but can find no evidence of my relative doing so; I hope they hated each other). His advertisements claimed that the consequences of the “solitary vice” could be cured by the B of G. He was now charging a guinea per personal consultation and half a guinea by post- and you had to pay both sets of postage. His address was -“Money Letter, Dr Solomon, and Brownlow Street”. He had branched out it Abstergent Lotion, for spots and Anti-Impetigines for scurvy, scrofula and leprosy-not the type of things we go to the chemists for today.

The Balm of Gilead was also curing influenza and stomach complaints by 1803; the first effects were “ serenity and cheerfulness” ; this was not a surprise, as many quack medicines seem to contain opiates, but Dr Solomon seems to have been relying on brandy and lemon peel. By 1815 the Balm of Gilead came with instructions in many Western European languages and was being sold all around the Empire. It was a huge success.


Quack medicine had its critics. The anonymous 1805 pamphlet “ An Essay on Quackery” singled out Solomon for particular abuse- not by name. It was the so-called “wise man of Liverpool”, who thought he had “the wisdom of Solomon, who went round the country like the wandering Israelite” ( Solomon was Jew) selling his quack medicines. Anonymous reports that Solomon boasted that he started in a Liverpool attic garret and from there became rich on The Balm of Gilead, which was a rediscovered recipe from 1730BC and was made with dissolved gold. The only gold it actually dissolved belonged to his poor victims, who were convinced that it was the cure for everything.

Anonymous listed the claims of the Balm. He was, to say the least, unconvinced that it could help;
Barren Women, Bubo ,Chlorosis(anaemia) or Green Sickness Child bearing Conception Deficiency of Natural Strength, Female Complaint, Girls Gouty, Spasms in the Stomach, Great Schools( euphemism for masturbation) Hypochondria complaints’ Internal Sinking, Maids of a weakly Constitution, Menses, Loss or Defect of Memory, Baneful Effects of obscene Conversation, Rheumatism, Scurvy Scrofula, Turn of Life, Venereal Diseases, Weakness, Women Youth
Anonymous  also accuses Solomon of making up the testimonials and copying the Guide to Health from a Dutch doctor called Falck. The only thing that the author could say in favour of  the Balm was that it did not kill anybody- unlike Ching’s Worm Lozenges, which killed stomach infections with a poisonous amount of mercury. More about Ching’s lozenges here.

Solomon died on May 21st 1819 at his lodgings at North Parade Bath, presumably recuperating from something not on the miracle cure list of the Balm of Gilead. He extolled the value of Bath water in his Guide to Health, so at least he cannot be accused of not taking his own advice.
The Stamford Mercury was not impressed but also not accurate.image002

The book……

Please consider recommending this to your local library. This is all new material, but if you like the blog, you will like the book.

Now available in the UNITED STATES


Climate Change in the Regency -the terrible summer of 1816

Today there is no doubt what happened to the weather in Europe and North America in 1816- it was the worse summer weather that has been known in living  memory. In Europe it is called the Year without a summer and in the Americas, sometimes “Eighteen- hundred and froze to death”. The  cause is known too; the eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia. We now know that volcanic eruptions cause wet and cold summers and that it leads to poor harvests. It happened in the 1880s when Krakatoa erupted. The more scientific discussions around that time  identified 1816 as being the worst example of climate change caused by volcanic eruptions. The first use of the expression ” year without a summer” dates to the early 1880s too.
At the time of course, it was much harder to gain that perspective, but there are some indications that people thought 1816 was different enough to cause concern. In both the USA and Britain, panic about the weather did not start until the middle of the year. Indeed in the USA, most of the continent had experienced the mildest January and February that anybody could remember. However there was unseasonable snow in April, May was cold and June was the coldest in memory, killing recently planted crops and destroying any green living thing.
People in Britain knew about patterns in the weather, but nobody could remember conditions like this. In July 1816 the Cambridge Chronicle reported that “The oldest man living does not recollect such unseasonable weather as we have lately experienced”. This would include the dreadful summers of 1812 and 1799.Many other newspapers asked their oldest readers about the weather and got the same answer- it was never as bad as this
Newspapers were generally sceptical when their correspondents queried the “ alteration of the seasons” People naturally turned to early records to convince themselves that the extraordinary weather was within normal bounds, despite it being within nobody’s experience. It was pointed out that the summer of 1695 consisted of three sunny days only. The Perthshire Chronicle related that terrible cold summer of 1698, but even then there was not snow at the end of May. It went as far as describing 1816 as an “unnatural season”; but for most of the time, most people simply thought that they were unlucky.
Reporting the weather was commonplace and important in regency newspapers; people’s lives depended on it, but there were still many examples of weather beyond normal expectations. July was a month of snow, hail and thunder all over Britain . In that month in Cumbria, two inch hailstones smashed 700 panes of glass at Sir James Graham’s glasshouses at Netherby ; more rain than could ever be remembered fell in Glasgow. On August 5th, in the village of Fettercairn, Scotland a mere 12 miles from the German Ocean ( North Sea) there was five foot of snow, and even the oldest residents could only remember any snow up to June. Ten Children in Spilsby, Yorkshire, were blackened head to foot as torrential rain poured down the chimney, pushing out the soot. In Manchester it rained heavily for 28 days in July and did not rain in 3, which is bad, even for Manchester.
It was the same all over North Western Europe .In July 1816 Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein in Lake Geneva, the incessant rain and lightening keeping her indoors, and she wrote her famous novel about a creature being brought back to life by electric fluid ( lightening)
Newspapers remained optimistic about the wheat crop but by late August prices were spiralling out of the reach of the poor. Luckily, September was better and premature crops were left to grow in the fields. Harvests were still being brought in October ; by the 10th it looked in many parts of Britain as there was no sunlight at all.
People looked for reasons. They noticed the visible spots on the sun and believed that this was responsible- it was relevant but it was not the cause. For some it was an unexpected visitation from heaven, although there was no obvious blaming of people or sin . On the 30th August 1816, the Leicester Chronicle printed a letter using astrology to explain the poor weather, but prefaced the letter with “the present WEATHER is so much at present subject to enquiry, that we doubt not our readers may derive some amusement from this letter!”.
Prayers were held in church ,especially in July, when the rumour spread that the word was about to end dues to weather and the clearly visible sunspots. There are more details on my blogpost;

Hay and Clover were in such bad condition that they were composted into manure; they was no summer  work for haymakers. This, from the Carlisle Patriot July 1816;



The poor still suffered. A clergymen writing in the Western Daily Press ( October 1879) retold the story of the oldest residents, who remembered women and children picking tiny out pieces of wheat from the fields on St. Thomas’s day- December 21st. They were desperate.


My book. If you like the blog, you will like the book. New material.

Details here

In the United States