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


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Introducing “The Dark Days of Georgian Britain”

The blog contains different material to the book; if you like the blog you will like the book.

This is how the book came about. In 2014 I retired from teaching History at the relatively young age of 55 and wanted to continue my interest. In the autumn of that year I attended a WEA ( Workers’ Educational Association)  course on great law cases in British History. This was the work of a remarkable tutor called Peter Blood who made it look effortless. One week the subject was Crim. Con.( adultery)  cases from late Georgian England. The era of the Regency attracted me immensely I was hooked. Although always a history enthusiast, the late Georgian period had passed me by- until that point.

I started a blog on WordPress ( hi!)  and regarded it as a  lovely hobby, with a bit of third-party validation as people read my blog.  Two of the blogs-adultery and bodysnatching felt like they were chapters of a social history of Regency England. I did nothing for a year, except read about the Regency and write about it. After that year, my wife reminded me that somebody famous once said that only a fool writes for free and suggested that I send my work to a publisher.

Much to my surprise it was accepted.  I had found one of those elusive gaps in the market that people look for when they are trying to make a success of any venture.I am just sorry I waited a year. If you are in the same situation as me and you are wavering; I suggest that you do it. What can you lose?

The blog contains different material to the book; if you like the blog you will like the book. If you want a copy of the book, try here.

The book is biased in favour of the poor, and is an attempt to seek out their stories. This is difficult; newspapers are by definition “establishment”. However, there is a radical press at the time of the Regency and there is the skill of “reading between the lines” of the more traditional media.  You cannot talk about the poor without referencing the rich, so their selfish behaviour runs through the book. Here are the main chapters


Chapter 1- The Darkness Years

This is an overview of the problems of the period 1811-1820. It was a time of austerity, climate change and poverty, with all the major institutions of the government being rotten and in need of reform. Sound familiar?

Chapter 2- The Poor Weavers

This chapter looks at examples of real people – Thomas Holden of Bolton, the Luddites and their refusal to accept that they should starve to death as industrialisation and the new attitudes of employers made their life miserable. Sound familiar ?

Chapter 3- Making Life Worse

The Tory government made life worse for the poor after 1815 because of their political beliefs. This chapter deals with the rich avoiding income tax, high prices for bread and scandalous National Lottery which took money from the poor and gave it to the rich. We meet MP William ” Billy Biscuit” Curtis, who made a fortune for himself but tried to cut benefits for the poor. Thank heavens that kind of thing doesn’t happen now!

Chapter 4-Why People Rioted

This deals with the rioting of 1816. Some of it was old style rioting that had been common for centuries…but there were new developments.

Chapter 5- Bread and Potatoes

Three thousand words on bread and potatoes? Remember that was a large proportion of the diet of the poor…and it is an interesting story. You will be amazed at how much bread people ate, and how many ways you could justify other people not eating much.

Chapter 6-The Poor Law

The British had a quite a generous benefit system before the Poor Law was made harsher in 1834- that’s the Poor Law people study at school. The system is explained here, with lots of examples of the poor suffering. One family are evicted by having their roof removed and their house flooded with excrement…and yes, the landlord did get away with it!

Chapter 7- Cold Charity

The rich loved to help the poor…but with huge strings attached. I remain unimpressed throughout this chapter.. hence the title ! You will see William Wilberforce in a new light when you read what he thought was acceptable treatment of Britain’s war heroes.

Chapter 8- Old Corruption- The General Election, 1818

The 1818 General Election is covered in some detail the corruption the collusion, the rioting, the bribery and the intimidation.  And it was regarded at the time as a better than average election.

Chapter 9- All About The Money

This chapter shows that in order to achieve anything in the  Regency you needed money. Most things were for sale- parishes, army ranks, seats in parliament, everything. You will met a lot of rich people who took taxpayers money for imaginary jobs.

Chapter 10- The Disgusting Prince Regent?

What were the main personal failings of the Prince Regent? Its all in this chapter, which therefore has to be quite long . He also represented a rotten system. He did not know the meaning of money, as it all came from the poor taxpayer. When he died in 1830, they found £10,000 hidden in pockets and notebooks, money that he had simply forgotten about. That’s the same amount of money Mr Darcy had for a year, and he was a rich man!

Chapter 11- Arthur Thistlewood- The Gentlemen Revolutionary

Arthur was born a minor gentlemen  and ended up being hanged for trying to assassinate the cabinet. This chapter tells the story of him and his revolutionary friends in the Regency. He may have planned to parade the streets of London with the Home Secretary’s ‘s head in a bag, but you may still like him, albeit  as a very flawed human being.

Chapter 12- The New Revolt of the Peasants

In 1817, the poor tried new ways of overthrowing their oppressors, that scared the establishment more because they were “political” riots. So the punishments were more severe.

Chapter 13-Who Killed Joseph Lees?

Joseph Lees died after being beaten up at the mass meeting at St Peter’s Field ( Peterloo). However the government were able to prove “otherwise”. This chapter looks at the victims of Peterloo, how they were treated by the government that was not going to take responsibility for the poor or the actions of their own soldiers.

Chapter 14-The Women of Peterloo

What’s more frightening that a radical? A women radical! Despite the difficulty in finding evidence, here we have the story of Alice Kitchen,  Nancy Prestwick and Mary Fildes and others This is my favourite chapter of the book.

Chapter 15- The Freeborn Englishmen?

Britain was freer than most, but in the Regency that was put under great strain. People were imprisoned without trial. We meet William Ogden , 74, manacled in goal without charge for months with a 30 pound weight. His crime- wanting a reform of Parliament.

Chapter 16-The Punishment Didn’t Fit the Crime

This is a well-known regency topic. In my version, real people suffer at the hands of a floundering system that was at the end of its time. Reform did come- just not then. We meet Horace Cotton, who worked at Newgate with those condemned to die. He was a real charmer.

Chapter 17- Retribution

Fancy a trip to Newgate or a Prison hulk? We meet the poor in prison, including one man in gaol for stealing a cucumber.

Chapter 18- Child Labour

Traditionally, this is mostly about textile factories, but there were other, possibly worse jobs. Chimney Sweeping for example, and coal mining. However, people’s attitudes to child labour may surprise you.

Chapter 19- Currency Crisis

The Regency government did little to help people, but when the money and coinage went into crisis, they were happy to get things done. Never have banknotes and old coins been made so interesting!

Chapter 20- Adultery

If your wife  had sex with another man, you could go to court and claim compensation. The amount of money depended on how posh you were and how many salacious details you could provide. The newspapers loved it, and so will you.

Chapter 21- Regency Body Snatchers

It was not against the law to steal dead bodies from their graves, as long as you left behind their shroud and personal belongings. That’s why its called body snatching, not grave robbery. Lots of people made a living from it, and some of the best examples are in this chapter.

Chapter 22- Being Irish

The Irish were treated as second class citizens both in Britain and in Ireland. There are lots of examples here, and the prejudice has not gone away. The chapter features the famous brewery flood of 1814, when the press lied about the behaviour and hardly any money was raised for the victims, but the government reimbursed the brewery for their loss…

Chapter 23- A Rash and Melancholy Act?

This is about suicide- how traditional harsh attitudes to suicide where changing into something more humane, but it was still more sympathetic to the rich than the poor.


That’s it.




The “Solitary and Deluded Vice” Masturbation in the Regency

The “deluded and solitary vice” is an elusive subject in the Regency period because it does not appear in the primary sources very much. Much as now, it was the great unmentionable. There are mentions in the newspapers but there are problems there as well. Of course, we are using the advertisements from a relatively small number of organisations – Goss of Bouverie Street, Dr Solomon’s Guide to Health and Dr Currie of Hatton Garden. They advertised all over the country and used the same vocabulary.

They are very much against it. In the Regency, the solitary vice is presented in the papers as a medical problem with adverse medical consequences. Mentions are to be found in advertisement for surgeons and quack doctors and in books of medical advice. The consequences are muscle weakness, apathy and an imbecility that is similar to old age, sterility and barrenness these are the main ones, but Regency pamphlets on the subjects list many more.

Masturbation is seen as sin of youth and is “unhappily practiced by both sexes”. It starts at school- boarding school- at an age where reason has not taken her hold on the child. As a cynic, I thought that the emphasis on children was due to the fact that the advertisements were aimed at concerned adults, and these adults would not  self –refer if they had this “problem” themselves.

The treatment is rarely mentioned in the advertisements although Dr Currie-another major player in the Regency fight against Onanism- does point out that none of their treatments involve the “violent means” that others use. It does seem however that the cure for this is often the same as the cure for many other things at the same time, which may make people today sceptical, but there seems to be a lot of faith in the universal cure- all. This is from 1810


Solomon’s Guide to Health-circulation about 80,000 when the Times was selling 4000 – adds new medical details and moral condemnation . They argued that Onanism*, or the Secret Venery, tried to recreate those feelings that God had created only for the “commerce between the sexes”. But the emphasis on the moral is fleeting; there is a large number of new medical consequences, including indifference to the “Pleasures of Venus” leading to barrenness, and in males, consumption caused by the draining away of “radical moisture”. Seminal weakness, a separate malady, was related to Onanism; it was all very “four humours” medicine.

True it is that we are ignorant whether the animal spirits and the seminal liquor are the same but experience teaches us those two fluids have an analogy and that the loss of either produces the same effects

Female Onanism had its specific problems.

Virgins who indulge themselves over eagerly in this abuse of their bodies deflower themselves and destroy that valuable badge of their chastity which it is expected they should not part with before marriage but which when lost can never be retrieved

Because of this they will be miserable on the marriage day, dues to the apparent loss of their “sacred badge”

the marriage bed which heaven has designed for the seat of the highest sensual enjoyments when they reflect that their virtue on the first amorous encounter is liable to such suspicions as may never be worn off but which may render uncomfortable the life both of her or otherwise her affectionate husband

As for boys, Solomon believes that the secret vice starts before puberty and before it was regarded as a vice. He suggests that ot was taught (note the choice of word-it tells you a lot about the “great schools” of England) in the great schools from about 8 years old. Reason is not present at this age. The implication is that the activity turns its participants into slaves- they are “deluded votaries” who are enervated by the activity-literally and metaphorically drained.

Onanism becomes an obsession in boys and prevents concentration on anything else; it is a shelving pool, which seems shallow at first and draws people in. Surprising, Dr Solomon uses the word masturbators- not often, but clearly a word that people would recognise.

Onanism is wrong because the context is wrong and the body is being forced too early. The actions would be natural in married adults; indeed it was a good thing, part of God’s gift; while Onanism made a mockery of the sacred duty of procreation.

Solomon, despite being a medicine seller, believes that REPENTENCE and TURNING AWAY FROM SIN is the real cure for Onanism. Indeed he makes no prescriptions at all for the maladies he mentions, expecting you to go and visit him for a personal consultation.

Whatever treatment you required involved a degree of secrecy. Whether it was VD (variously “ Lues Venera” “ the ebullition of passion” “a certain complaint”) the need to for abortion or a cure against the “solitary vice”, companies would allow you to add the postage onto the cost of medicine if you were buying from the provinces to avoid having a perform any financial transaction when the parcel reached you. It was the Regency equivalent of the plain brown wrapper. Goss of Bouverie Street had a secret door- which they then went on to advertise in the paper- but it was the Gentlemen’s Magazine, who were clearly not gentlemen all of the time.


* Genesis 38;8 Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his. So whenever he went in to his brother’s wife he would waste the semen on the ground, so as not to give offspring to his brother

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Dying with “perfect resignation” in the Regency


When famous deists  and atheists died in the past, the vultures would circle in the hope of seeing an undignified death. This would prove to their satisfaction that the prospect of death could not be countenanced with the consolation of Christianity.
Jesuits claimed that Voltaire died fearfully; Dr Johnson went to visit the atheist David Hume with the incorrect belief that an atheist could not die without falling apart at the prospect of his imminent extinction. When Thomas Paine, a radical and deist who rejected formal religion and its constructs, was regaled by Christians during his last days. When, a few days before he died, a member of the New Jerusalemites knocked on his door and told Paine that the sect has rediscovered the keys to the true faith that had been lost for 4000 years, Paine replied that “they must be very rusty”.
Regency Obituary pages are formulaic, but the choice of formula tells you a great deal. When people died in great pain and suffering, there is a real hierarchy of phrase. In nearly every case, there is ” resignation” and on occasions there is “perfect resignation”. There difference is unclear; it may just be the ability to pay for an extra word. “Composure” is much more common than “calmness”-perhaps the former contains more acceptance, and implies preparing for death. These words were very powerful- even Thomas Paine uses them. His own last will and testament says that he dies “in perfect and resignation to the will of my creator God”
There are few references to heaven or immortality in Regency obituaries-perhaps this was too obvious or a little presumptuous? Many people declared their obedience to the will of the Creator- especially if they had suffered before their death. It was not death that they resigned themselves to, but suffering as God’s will. Mrs Pascoe (wife of Mr Pascoe, Surgeon) died in Tregoney, Cornwall aged 59 of a “protracted and severe affliction”. She was happy to attribute this to divine will without bitterness. “Throughout the whole time she evinced perfect composure and resignation. It was also made clear that during this time she maintained “benevolence”.
Six other people’s deaths are recorded in the Royal Cornwall Gazette on the same day. Thomas Parry was 102 and rose early until the day of his death. He was a poor labourer who would not have made it into the paper if he had died at 51. Eleanor Litcher was 76- a devoted servant. James Pinney and Thomas Hornblower’s death was regretted by the friends. There were trophies for all in this case.
Sometimes you needed a lot of patient resignation. Mrs Amos of Deal has been suffering with an affliction- not named- for 7 years before her calm death aged 73. Perfect resignation seemed to be more about the quality of life rather than the age of death.
Sir William Rule died with perfect resignation in December 1815- as he was our first man, we have his full name. About 50% of women mentioned in Regency obituaries are given a first name. He was a former surveyor of the British Navy and there is no mention of the cause of death, or that it was long and lingering. That is the only one I can find
Elizabeth Carrick of Bristol died with resignation and fortitude, as “befitted her worth and unaffected piety”- she was modest in her acceptance of her painful illness. Although acceptance of the divine will was not mentioned in this case, it is clear that it was not considered appropriate to try to fight the illness- perhaps the exact opposite of our attitude today. Sarah Dew died in the same newspaper after a long illness also.
Not everybody died with perfect resignation if they died of something horrible. In Hull, December 1816, Mrs Nesfeld of Scarborough died aged 26 without resignation and William Tootal of Wakefield aged 28 died “with”

Sometimes illnesses are often described as “hopeless”, presumably to emphasize the degree of achievement in dying well. This is Mrs Bulwer of Norfolk had 21 lines in the Norfolk Chronicle in 1810. It is not clear at what point that she discovered Christian patience, but we can be charitable and assume it was at the beginning. Here are some of her virtues;


Most prolonged illnesses seemed to be measured in months or years. But Sarah Yeatman of Bristol had been ill for only six days before she died in July 1812, and she did it with perfect resignation. Most of those who died with perfect resignation were relatively old for their time; there are fewer young people who died with resignation, but are some, Mary Colmar of Hotwells was 15 and died a lingering death, and she managed resignation, but there was no suggestion that this was enhanced because of her age. Causes of death never seem to be mentioned
Dying vicars had a higher bar. They had to continue their role as examples to others even to the death-bed. Henry Crowe, Rector of Wolferton, Norfolk (and two other parishes; clearly he was less accomplished in the greed department) died “the death of the righteous”- this was clearly a set of things that he did, a process, not merely a righteous person dying. Another rector in Norfolk was said to have “taught his parishioners how to die”

Perfect resignation was not about death; it was about accepting fate, even when they involved immense suffering before death. The other group of people who were said to “evince perfect resignation” were criminals about to be executed. Indeed this was a more widespread use of the expression than in obituaries. Criminals had not suffered pain or illness, so it was not that experience they resigned themselves to; it was the will of God.

More about perfect resignation amongst those about to be hanged here

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