18th CENTURY GIN – A CRIPPLING POISON BY ANY OTHER NAME
We’ve written a lot about gin – and gin glasses in particular – over the years, almost entirely as a result of the pernicious scars it managed to carve into the collective English consciousness after its three separate periods of holding a large part of the population in stupified thrall in the 18th and 19th centuries. The glasses themselves, due to their sheer abundance, have provided a long-lasting legacy, but the impact of gin on the culture of our country is also evidenced by the rich repository of language which was left behind.
The cant and jargon of gin’s malignant proliferation throughout society could fill a (relatively small) exercise book (if you wrote in quite large handwriting), but for today’s introductory course in gin-speak, we’ll restrict ourselves to the names of the harrowing distillate itself, and one or two other choice examples of usage.
The blue ruin is perhaps the foremost of these casual monikers, dating from gin’s first attempt to lay low the stout yeomen and women of these shores – the original gin craze. Simply put, it was a ruinous beverage and was often tinted blue by any number of additives which unscrupulous backstreet distillers would add to make it marginally less unpalatable such as turpentine – or sulphuric acid. Typically, this blue tint is now the symbol of particularly high-end gins, the colour being imparted by botanicals such as angelica or bergamot, which really couldn’t be much further removed from the constituent parts of the original potation.
A little further back in time when gin was little known outside of its place of origin in the Netherlands, it first came to the attention of Englishmen cast as the general soldiery of the Franco-Dutch and Nine Years’ Wars of the late 17th century which raged across the low countries (the first of these conflicts is notable for our brave lads having fought first for one side and then the other in a fine example of self-serving political expediency, but I digress). Alcohol flavoured with juniper berries was a staple Dutch medicine, given to our troops for its restorative properties amidst the misery of numerous battlefields, where its invigorating effect soon earned it the name ‘Dutch Courage’.
However, it’s with the more domestic usage that our interest lays. These included epithets such as moonshine (especially in Yorkshire, that one), frog’s wine, heart’s ease, and the splendidly evocative ‘strip me naked’. The implied licentiousness of this last one sits rather uncomfortably alongside the assertion that the rough gins of the early 18th century actually impaired male fertility, to such an extent that – for the duration of the gin craze – London’s birth rate was overtaken by the death rate, in spite of the fact that morals may have been not inconsiderably loosened!
Gin ‘cocktails’ also had their own names – Dog’s Nose was a mixture of gin and beer (apparently served as cold as the canine extremity in question) and Cobbler’s Punch was a revolting sounding concoction of gin, water, vinegar and treacle – and you thought these new-fangled rhubarb and ginger gin liqueurs sounded somewhat dubious!
At the less adulterated end of the scale, clean, pure gin was known as All Max (when taken undiluted, without water and at maximum strength), and the reputation of particularly good distillers could be feted by their name being adopted by the wider populace. The product of the Deady & Hanley distillery on London’s Hampstead Road was one such variety of renown, and when asking for the finest quality gin, those in the know would request ‘a quartern of Jackey” – this being from Jack, the diminutive of John which was Mr Hanley’s christian name; a quartern was a quarter of a pint, also known as a ‘go’. This same gin was also referred to as Old Tom, which went on to become a generic name for any good quality, slightly sweet gin; I’d love to be able to report that this came from Mr Deady’s name to afford him equal stature to his partner, but I am unable to confirm this.
Elsewhere you would find gin referred to as Genever Print (a naval term), daffy, cream of the valley, clear crystal, Brian O’Lynn (good old rhyming slang), eye-water or cat’s water, with this last one being derived from the perception that gin was particularly popular with the ladies. Now this brings us on to perhaps the most famous alternative name for the drink – mother’s ruin. It is believed that this can be traced back to one of the many marvellous engravings by William Hogarth, whose satirical artworks showed all the purulent sores of contemporary society laid bare for derision and contempt. One such work was ‘Gin Lane” which shows a dissolute selection of characters in varying stages of drink-addled desperation. One of the central figures is a clearly paralytic woman, sitting slumped on some stairs and grubbing around for a pinch of snuff while her baby falls screaming from her bosom and plunges over the handrail on to the street below. Purportedly, this depicts a real person – one Judith Defour who was so bewildered and sickened by her addiction to gin that – in order to raise money for her next ‘fix’ – she stripped her baby Mary bare and left her to die in a ditch, selling her clothes for a few pennies. Defour was arrested and hanged and her degenerate actions etched in infamy – a ruined mother indeed.