‘There’s no accounting for taste’

Most of us will be familiar with the notion that alcoholics will drink anything when they are desperate, even meths. Clearly this has a long history as this case from the Thames Police court in 1877 shows.

On 2 May 1877 Isaac Levy appeared before the sitting justice at East Arbour Street to answer a charge of possessing adulterated methylated spirits. Under the term of legislation passed in 1856 (18 & 19 Vict, c.38) meths had to produced and sold under license and Levy had none. The case was brought by the Inland Revenue who were after Levy for £100 (the penalty under the act).

One of the IR’s officers had visited Levy’s premises in Middlesex Street (better know to Londoners as ‘Petticoat Lane’ for its weekly clothes market) in January. There he had found two bottles of meths – one hidden in a recess and the other in a cupboard – about a pint and a half in total. He took a ample of each to Charles Birch, the Revenue’s  chemist, who analysed them.

Birch found that the sample was ’41 degrees underproof, flavoured with aniseed, and seven ounces of sugar to the gallon’. Adding the aniseed and sugar would, the chemist pronounced, have given the meths a ‘medicinal effect’. Levy owned that it was his liquor and said he drank it because he couldn’t afford the costs of spirits in the local public house. Whether Levy had it for his own use, or was selling it as a medicine or as a ‘spirituous liquor’ the court did not discover. What was clear in the opinion of the magistrate was that the defendant was guilty within the terms of the law.

However, he must have had some sympathy with the culprit because he reduced the penalty to the lowest amount possible, fining him £25  rather than the full £100. This was still a hefty sum to find and quite possibly would have resulted in Levy’s ruin unless he had friends and family to assist him.

Was Isaac an alcoholic? The East End of London was awash with cheap booze and the Temperance Movement targeted the area in the last quarter of the century. This must have been a thankless task but the volunteers who tried became so connected to the courts of the capital that they laid the foundations for the modern Probation Service. The Police Court Missionaries (as these early social workers were called) offered support to those appearing in court in return for their ‘pledge’ to abandon the demon drink.


[from The York Herald , Thursday, May 03, 1877]

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