Academic

Booze, Brexit and Britannia – Britain’s Gin Crazes

Written by Sophie Whitehead. The long and complex history of gin is often overlooked when discussing Britain's 'drink of choice', a history which still has implications for our understanding of gin today.

   It is practically impossible to imagine a more quintessentially British tradition than having a gin and tonic; it is perhaps on par with the Queen or a summer garden party. However, this typically British drink is relatively new to the British Isles. Gin was brought to Britain by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Over the decades that would follow, the drink would come to represent a myriad of different concepts: from Protestantism and Britishness to debauchery and even perhaps most strangely, infanticide. The plurality of gin is perhaps something that contributed to it being such a powerful symbol both in the 1720s and in the present day. Arguably, gin drinking has had a renaissance; most bars (when they’re open) display tens if not hundreds of gin varieties, and sales of artisan brands in supermarkets have increased by 167 percent. Gin has once again become the popular drink within British society and according to a YouGov poll, it has even overtaken vodka in its popularity. This gin renaissance could in fact be termed the second Gin Craze and analyzing the commonality between the two crazes helps to decipher what it is that gives gin such power both as a symbol and as a subject of change and reform. These factors are: gin seen as a Protestant drink, the use of female iconography surrounding gin and the feminisation of the drink.

   Historian James Nicholls in his book The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England, notes that ‘at the start of the eighteenth-century gin stood for modernity, free trade and economic security’. Gin was used to present a side of the dichotomy of Georgian society, and arguably has a similar representation in the present day. In contemporary Britain, the question is whether to be included or excluded from the European Union, while the question of the day for Georgian Britons was making a choice between Protestantism or Catholicism. Whilst on the surface it may appear that these divisions differ greatly, they both are used to understand concepts of ‘Britishness’, and the role that Britain should play within Europe and more widely Christendom. Gin being brought over by William of Orange, ‘the great protestant deliverer’, would help solidify its role as the British, and at the time more importantly, Protestant drink. This further crystalised gin’s role as a tool of Protestant propaganda, which strained Anglo-French relationships: first through Louis XIV, who in 1685 would revoke tolerance for French Protestants, and later by William of Orange who would place a blanket ban on French brandy through a series of reforms including the 1690 Distilling Act and the 1694 Tonnage Act. Unlike the later bans on gin, the ban on brandy did not cause mass revolt and Daniel Defoe, a prominent trader and journalist at the time, even commented that ‘people seem not to value the French brandy as usual and even not to desire it.’ Arguably this lack of desire to revolt against this legislation was because of the rise of gin, the Protestant drink and ‘the spirit of patriotism.’ Through the revolts against the Gin Laws, which would ban gin, the British public would feel a greater affiliation with gin than the monarchy as demonstrated by the popular protestors chant ‘no gin no king’. Gin was not only used to protest but to protect the monarchy: it is no coincidence that the peak of the Gin Craze from circa 1720 to its eventual ban in 1751, coincided with the Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745. Gin came to represent ‘British liberty’ and at the start of the Gin Craze was used as a symbol of Britishness. While this narrative would change and gin would become a symbol of debauchery within society, gin would still represent an image of ‘anti-Frenchness,’ within eighteenth century Britain. 

   Arguably, a feature that can be used to track this change over time is the use of female iconography with regards to the symbols of gin and Britain. In the first Gin Craze, the use of female iconography was widespread. However, in the second Gin Craze (or ‘Ginnaissance’ as it has been termed by historian Olivia Williams), the use of iconography is brand specific. Gin in the first quarter of the eighteenth century was represented solely by Madam Geneva, with her name originating from the Dutch term jenever meaning juniper, the main product used to flavour gins. The character of Madam Geneva was what historian Emma Major compared to an ‘alcoholic, demotic Britannia’. Madam Geneva quickly became a British institution. The evidence of her significance, and proto-celebrity status is visible to the reaction to the anti-gin acts. After the first Gin Act in 1736, people held funerals for Madam Geneva, with prints produced to commemorate her death.

     In the modern period, however, the most poignant use of female iconography within the realm of gin is Queen Victoria, pictured on the bottles of the Bombay Sapphire distillery. Both Queen Victoria and Madam Geneva represent epitomes of a particular type of ‘Britishness’; a type of British patriotism that is rightly uncomfortable to many British people. This discomfort of strong patriotism is perhaps why female iconography is much less prominent in the present day. While gin is still associated with ‘Britishness’ in some circles and reinforced by some brands, the plurality of different artisan brands means that whilst this is undeniably still a significant narrative, it is no longer the dominant one.

A “gin and gingerbread”. Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

   One aspect of gin drinking which has arguably transcended temporal changes, is the concept of gin as a feminine drink. This is reflected within the demographic of people prosecuted for breaking the Gin Laws (three-quarters of whom were women), as well as modern-day advertising campaigns presenting gin as a drink ‘designed by women for women’. Whilst the concept of gin as a female drink has remained constant, the attitudes of contemporaries towards the feminisation of the drink has changed dramatically. Today within the sphere of toxic masculinity, gin is representative of the fear of being seen as feminine, in what has been termed the ‘Ginder Dilemma’, whereas gin in the eighteenth century represented female sin and debauchery. The fear of the danger from women drinking gin, and in one instance the fear that gin would cause spontaneous combustion, was taken so seriously that it was even debated by the Royal Society in 1745. Aside from the more lighthearted fear of spontaneous combustion, there was also a fear surrounding how gin affected women as mothers, both before and after giving birth. Some physicians argued:

Unhappy mothers habituate themselves to these distilled liquors, whose children are born weak and sickly, and often look shrivelled and old as though they had numbered many years.

   There was also an argument, contested at the time, that gin drinking made women worse mothers. This was a concept furthered by two horrible cases of infanticide, one concerning a nursemaid who was so intoxicated by gin that she threw a baby in a fire, mistaking it for a log. Another infamous case was of Judith Dufour, who in 1743 murdered her two-year-old child to sell their clothes for a ‘quatern of gin.’ It is important to acknowledge that whilst it is true that women drinking while pregnant would most likely have a negative effect upon the fetus, the overemphasis on the dangers of women drinking was arguably a result of a fear of social mobility women would gain from gin rather than the feigned concern for female health. Gin in the first Gin Craze was a drink ‘designed by women, for women’: women would lean into this stereotype using it to their advantage to get around the licensing laws by selling gin under names such as ‘Cuckold’s Comfort’ and ‘The Ladies Delight’ with euphemisms for gin to this day encompassing themes of femininity.

   Gin in the most literal sense is a distilled alcohol flavoured with juniper berries, but as discussed, it represents more than that. To some members of society, it represents patriotism. To women, it means a fresh space, a novelty drink without archaic ties, such as beer or whiskey. Arguably, what made gin so powerful, both in the eighteenth century and in the current ‘Ginnaissance’ is this novelty aspect. Although reinvigorated through artisan production, gin’s plurality is what makes it a special yet dangerous tool for propaganda. Within the current political climate of Brexit and toxic masculinity, it would be easy for gin to fall into the same traps and stereotypes that it was forced into years ago; endangering the safe, diverse spaces it was able to occupy before.

Written by Sophie Whitehead

Bibliography

Bragg, Melvyn. The Gin Craze.” In Our Time, BBC Radio 4, London, UK,December 15, 2016.

Dillon, Patrick. Gin: The Much-Lamented Death of Madam Geneva: The Eighteenth-century Gin Craze.London, UK: Thistle Publishing, 2013.

Nicholls, James. The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2011.

Warner, Jessica. Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason. London, UK: Profile Books, 2002.

Warner, Jessica. “Faith in Numbers: Quantifying Gin and Sin in Eighteenth-Century England.” Journal of British Studies 50, no. 1 (2011): pp. 76-99.

White, Jonathan. “The “Slow but Sure Poyson”: The Representation of Gin and Its Drinkers, 1736–1751.” Journal of British Studies 42, no. 1 (2003): p. 35-64.

Williams, Olivia. Gin Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London. London, UK: Headline, 2014.

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