Mother's ruin

Craze: gin and debauchery in an age of reason

Jessica Warner <em>Profile, 267pp, £16.99</em>


Heavy drinking is usually thought to be a predominantly masculine activity. In her scholarly study of the eight Gin Acts passed in Britain between 1729 and 1751, Jessica Warner makes the case for "feminising" liquor, because women in large numbers both drank and sold gin, and because the drink itself became known as Madame Geneva, a sister to the better-known sibling John Barleycorn.

At the beginning of the 18th century, there were many stiff drinks available, especially French brandy and Dutch gin, but it was the English, or so-called Geneva gin, that became popular as a mass narcotic. Warner shows how the government's need for new sources of revenue and landowners' need for a new market for surplus grain created the circumstances in which a gin craze could arise: economic protectionism encouraged the rise of distilleries, and the rise in real wages and cheapness of food in the early 18th century gave consumers the surplus with which to indulge their taste for intoxication. The Gin Acts were a cynical exercise in maintaining the flow of revenue while attempting to mitigate the worst consequences of public drunkenness - a kind of perverse and preposterous attempt to love the sin but loathe the sinner. Not surprisingly, we find that reliable Georgian villain, Sir Robert Walpole, the avatar of corruption. He played a key role in the balancing act.

Outside the charmed circle of the Whig political elite, both friend and foe (such as Daniel Defoe and Bernard Mandeville) deplored the consequences of the mass binge,which saw the "lower orders" reeling around London in a stupor and inebriated women neglecting infants and children. By 1743, England was imbibing 2.2 gallons of gin annually per head of population, and drinking it in the same quantities they used to drink beer. As the average man or woman of the 18th century was a physically feeble specimen by our standards, their systems were poorly equipped to metabolise large amounts of alcohol. Occurrences of sudden death through heart attack became widespread: one man dropped dead after downing a quart of gin in half an hour. Because the sale of gin on the streets became a free-for-all, and the drunken masses were losing the habit of deference, the government tried to regulate sale by restricting it to licensed vendors; to enforce the law, it had recourse to paid informers. But soon polite society found it had traded one evil for another, because eventually informers were seen to pose a greater danger to society than those they informed on. By setting neighbour against neighbour, they triggered riots, and riots - especially to paranoid conspiracy theorists such as Walpole - always meant one thing: crypto-Jacobitism.

Professor Warner's archival research is impeccable. If she had been content to write a modest monograph, the result would have been exemplary. Unfortunately, she uses her findings on society in the first half of the 18th century as a launch pad for a series of wild extrapolations.

I have no quarrel with a leftist perspective on Georgian society provided it is, as in the work of E P Thompson, within the historical idiom. Doubts arise when Warner uses terms such as "elitist" about 18th-century reformers; this simply introduces an anachronistic dimension. And she overdoes the notion of "unintended consequences" (as well as the phrase itself). It may be true, as she says, that moral panics about drugs, whether the gin craze or crack cocaine in our own day, always involve reducing complex problems to simple answers. Thus drugs, not poverty or alienation, cause crime; the countryside and its values are always good, the city always bad.

One needs to be very careful about making analogies between an 18th-century drug and a 21st-century narcotic. To take just two obvious objections to Warner's simplistic thesis: in the 18th century, someone mugging to get money for gin risked death via the Bloody Code; today, a mugger may well receive no more than a slap on the wrist or be put on probation. And whereas the gin craze involved petty crime and minor delinquency, today's drugs involve the very different nightmare of organised crime.

One can agree with Warner's strictures on the fatuous Reagan-Bush campaign against drugs while wondering what exactly this has to do with her ostensible subject matter. Her liberal-leftist critique is particularly unfortunate in the light of her own historical conclusions.

The gin craze came to an end because of economic circumstances, not government legislation. Once the price of grain rose, in 1751, landowners could afford to ditch the distillers. Rapid population growth, coupled with a succession of disastrous harvests, drove real wages down and increased the price of food, thus choking off the surplus expendable on alcohol. The gin craze suffered the coup de grace in 1757, when the government banned the manufacture of spirits from domestic grain.

In short, it was the market that ended the drug craze of the 18th century. I am not sure that this conclusion, incontestable from her disinterested scholarship, is necessarily one that Jessica War-ner, the committed liberal-leftist, would find palatable.

Frank McLynn's most recent book is Wagons West (Pimlico)