DRUNKEN EXCESS – BY ORDER OF HIS MAJESTY’S GOVERNMENT
We’ve taken many a look back at the English preoccupation with gin over the years, from the affected posturing intended to mirror the tastes of the Anglo-Dutch royal court at the end of the 17th century to the abject squalor of London’s gin-craze which held so many in its lethal thrall to 1750 or thereabouts. What’s perhaps lesser known is that there were two further, historical instances where gin again threatened to inflict ruinous damage on the population of these susceptible shores, both of which saw their own proliferation of glasses from which the perfidious distillate could be taken.
With demand having subsided during the latter part of the 18th century in the wake of decades of injurious dependence, it began to rise – dramatically – once again during the Regency period, and yet again it was the tinkering of His Majesty’s Exchequer which was instrumental in exacerbating the problem. Taxation on ales and beers had been creeping ever higher for some years, and by the first decade of the 19th century, the lower classes – in particular – were returning to their precious spirit in droves, made ever-more appealing by its relative cheapness.
This period saw the advent of ‘gin shops’ - essentially simplified pubs, which did away with most of their fixtures and fittings to enable a swifter throughput of consumers. Tables, barstools even the bars themselves were dispensed with, so that the hostelries became more like a take-away establishment than any sort of convivial venue for socialising. This suited the public, who just wanted to consume gin in the most expedient way possible. The pubs used to retain the odd barrel of beer or ale to comply with licensing laws rather than having to reapply for warrants as a retail premises with their more vexatious taxation, but it was fairly dissolute way of running a business. However, they were able to sell their products something like 25% cheaper than properly-kept hostelries, so trade boomed and a newly-debilitating gin craze seemed imminent. Everybody was happy, even though for consumers it was more a case of inebriate stupefaction.
Those in government noted the direction in which things were heading, and almost immediately blamed the drunken proletariat themselves, suggesting that wages must be too high, as there was clearly too much disposable income for it be ‘wasted’ so profligately on gin. Particular attention was made to the excesses of a Saturday night following the distribution of the week’s wages, so much so that the gin houses were required to remain closed on a Sunday, but folk simply bought higher volumes of liquor to take home before they day of enforced rest, and so the crapulence became more widespread and invaded many a home, rather than being largely confined to the immediate proximity of the gin outlets.
Ultimately, though, it was greed which curtailed, or at least significantly impacted the working class’s self-destructive binge drinking. By 1815, the dingy gin shops began to be refurbished in the pursuit of a more-monied, higher class clientele, and the sumptuous gin palaces of Dickensian renown began to appear – the next and quite distinct stage in England’s turbulent relationship with genever.
However, more of that anon, and to the real subject of our interest – the vessels from which the opium of the masses was delivered. The original gin glasses of early 18th century vintage, when the initial craze was at its febrile heights, were essentially mass-produced, throwaway items – with the simplicity that you’d expect from such a commodity. Those which characterised the third great wave of gin consumption remained basic and inexpensive, but still exhibited the preferences of the day. Cut glass had been all the rage for some time, and even gin glasses now had sliced facets or petal-moulding and would often also include angled knops and folded feet. They were relatively small – designed to contain a penny or tuppeny ‘shot’ of gin, and you can imagine dozens of the things being dashed against walls and floors as carousing tended more towards the riotous end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, the volume in which such glasses were made has ensured that they are still readily available at very reasonable prices. That said, as the palaces began to replace mere shops, given their loftier aspirations, so the glasses began to be made to more exacting standards – but we shall return to these on another occasion