in the first half of the 18th century, drinking gin was endemic in England. In 1750-51 over 11 million gallons were consumed - and this number does not take moonshined gin into account.

Origins of gin: the dutch probably invented the flavouring of grain spirit with juniper berries, calling it 'Genever'. Visiting British soldiers found the drink to their tastes, and took the idea with them, shortening the name to 'Gin'.

Gin was an instant success in London, helped by the fact that producing it also got rid of surplus grain, which kept the grain price high. In 1720 Parliament passed the Mutiny Act, which absolved owners of a still from having soldiers put up in their houses. Soon, nearly every shopkeeper was selling gin if only to keep the unwanted military house-guests away.

In 1730, nearly 7 million gallons of gin were consumed, sold in at least 5000 shops around that time - and it got worse. By 1750, the percentage of houses selling gin was as high as 25 in some parishes, and 12% in Westminster, the centre of government. The purity of the drink was far from guaranteed, either, it was flavoured with anything that was readily available, including turpentine.

Henry Fielding blamed a crime wave on the excess consummation of hard liquor, stating that over 100,000 persons in London alone used it as their 'principal sustenance'. Gin was made and sold in hospitals, prisons and poor-houses. The parish records show over 9,000 children dying of gin in 1751.

William Hogarth published his two famous etchings 'Gin Lane' and 'Beer Street' in the same year, contrasting 'good' beer with 'bad' gin*. The most prominent feature of Gin Lane is a mother dropping her child over the rails of the stairs she sits on, more intent on taking a dose of snuff than safekeeping the kid.

The governing classes began to see that drunk labourers were not labouring that well, and efforts were made to curb the extent of the problem. Gin Acts were passed that limited the circle of persons allowed to sell gin, and fines imposed on non-compliance.

By the late 1760s, consumption was down to a fourth of the worst excess, to 'only' 3,5 million gallons. After that, the problem seems to have pretty much disappeared from the public eye's gaze.

*The Hogarth prints can be found here:

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