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Sunday, 9 November 2014

Drunkenness In The Eighteenth Century

By the turn of the eighteenth century over indulgence of alcoholic drinks was proving to be a considerable social problem both in Britain and North America.  At one stage in the early development of New York one house in four sold alcoholic beverages, whilst drunkenness was becoming the acknowledged national vice of Englishmen (though women were not so prone to intemperateness).

Highly alcoholic home-brewed distilled spirits were replacing ale as the nation’s favorite alcoholic beverage, gin in particular was cheap and drunk neat and as a result of the overindulgence of many it had become a social evil.

Whilst the common folk got drunk on ale or gin the upper classes were over indulging on ale, wine, port, French claret and champagne. Tracts in favor of temperance were being circulated by religious organizations and anxious patriots, which set out the awful fates that befell drunkards. Such sinners could be killed attempting to ride home at night whilst the worse for wear or maybe seized by a fit whilst drunkenly blaspheming. Whatever their means of demise their final destination was hell.

The extravagant drinking of gin presented a social problem in middle eighteenth century England, as described in the famous painter William Hogarth's engraving Gin Lane, which depicted the evils of the gin craze. After being introduced to Britain after the 1688 Glorious Revolution, gin's popularity took off after the government imposed a heavy duty on all imported spirits whilst allowing unlicensed gin production. Because of its cheapness due to the lack of tax and the low price of corn it became very popular among the poor and many gin-shops were created all over England.

By the 1730s there were around 8,000 gin-shops in London alone. In retaliation brewers increased the number of pubs and alehouses, but by the middle of the eighteenth century gin consumption was six times that of beer.

Religious and government leaders became increasingly concerned that the ensuing huge increase in gin drinking was leading to debauchery among the common folk. So many were perishing through over-consumption of alcohol in London at this time that the amount of people buried were twice that who were baptized. An attempt to deal with this was the 1736 Gin Act, which imposed high taxes on retailers but the increase in gin prices led to riots in the streets.

Fifteen years later the 1751 Gin Act was introduced imposing government inspection on distilleries and increasing again the taxes on spirits. This helped alleviate the problem but still ten years later medical authorities were attributing an eighth of the deaths of London adults to excesses in spirit drinking.

Beer drinking was seen as a good part of the national character and it maintained a healthy reputation, as it was safer than water. (Because the brewing of beer involves the boiling of water, the chances of catching water-borne diseases such as cholera were greatly reduced). In Hogarth's drawings the residents of Beer Street were shown in virtuous contrast to those of  Gin Lane. However by the mid eighteenth century many Englishmen were getting inebriated on beer due to their adoption of a strong beverage called “twopenny”, which was called thus as it cost two pence a quart. 

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