Gin Lane revisited in 1888

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One the most powerful images of the negative effects of alcohol is William Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’. The engraving is Hogarth’s attack on the evils of imported ‘foreign’ liquor – ‘jenever’ or Dutch gin. He produced this to contrast with ‘Beer Street’ drawing a clear comparison between ‘honest’ English beer and the stronger more dangerous spirit that gripped so many Londoners in the 1700s. London suffered a  ‘gin craze’ at mid century that forced government to act against it, passing the last of several gin acts in 1751 aimed at reducing consumption by raising prices through taxation. Actually it was rising prices for grain that weaned Londoners off gin by the 1760s, coupled with higher food costs people simply couldn’t afford it.

Hogarth’s Gin Lane (above) has a woman holding (or rather dropping) a baby at its centre. It is this image that sums up the affect of alcoholism on the addict; a total abdication of responsibility in pursuit of the next ‘fix’ of gin. Anyone familiar with modern drug addiction will recognize this as having very similar consequences.

Gin did not go away in the 1760s and remained a popular and cheap way to get drunk in the 1800s. By then campaigners against alcohol had developed more sophisticated ways to encourage abstinence – as the Temperance movement and the Salvation Army attest. Sadly, they don’t seem to have been able to do much for Mary Sullivan.

In September 1888 Sullivan, a 44 year old mother, was found dead drunk in Woolwich High Street by PC Williams (127R). The policeman had been alerted to Sullivan by the large crowd that was quickly gathering around her. She was drunk and had a baby in her arms, which she was flailing about. The child was crying and Mary was angry with it.

As he approached her he saw her dash the baby’s head against a nearby wall. He rushed over, secured her and the child and asked her where she lived. Mary had no home; homeless, impoverished and probably abandoned by the child’s father, she was at her wits end. It was not uncommon in the poorer districts of London in 1888.

A woman standing nearby offered to pay for a night’s lodging for Mary but she refused the charity. The baby seemed ok so PC Williams warned her and carried on his beat. Some time later he found her again, sitting on a  doorstep holding the child in front of her. The child was naked and another crowd were berating her, some threatening to lynch her for her cruelty.

For her own safety, and that of her baby, PC Williams now arrested her (as he probably should have done earlier). At the station the child was examined by the police surgeon and was taken away from Mary and sent to the workhouse infirmary to be cared for. At Woolwich Police court Mary Sullivan was sent to prison for 14 days hard labour. At least there she might have a chance to sober up.

[fromLloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, September 9, 1888]

A life destroyed by the ‘demon drink’

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Alcoholism is a debilitating addiction than ruins not only the life of the person affected but that of those around them. Since the Second World War most of the attention of the police, courts, and prison service has been on  drugs such as cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and MDMA (with all the various derivatives and combinations) and with good reason. All these drugs have the capacity to destroy lives as well. But while all of the above are proscribed and subject to sanctions under the criminal law, alcohol remains legal and freely available. Like tobacco, alcohol is recognized as being harmful but is simply taxed, not banned.

In the 1800s the negative effects of drink were well understood; drink was blamed for all manner of society’s problems form unemployment to fecklessness, poverty to mental illness, domestic violence to mental illness and suicide. All of these social issues were linked to the excessive consumption of the ‘demon drink’. In the early years of Victoria’s reign the Temperance movement established itself; from small beginnings in the late 1820s it had grown into a significant lobbying group by the 1850s. It attempted, unsuccessfully, to  get parliament to pass a prohibition bill in 1859 but it continued to promote abstinence by urging working men and women to sign the pledge.

It was recognized from the middle of the century that alcoholism was a disease and not simply a vice. Since it was not merely a weakness of character it was possible to treat it, and cure it and this was the beginning of modern efforts to deal with addiction to all sorts of substances.

Margaret Malcolm was a good (or perhaps ‘bad’) example of the evils of drink. She was brought before the sitting magistrate at Westminster Police court in August 1878 for being found drunk and disorderly in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. She’d been carried to the local police station on one of the new Bischoffsheim hand drawn ambulances, being incapable of walking.

That was Friday 16 August and the magistrate fined her 8which her husband  paid to keep her out of gaol. On Monday (the 19th) she was back in court and this time Mr Woolrych fined her 21sand told her she was an ‘incorrigible drunkard’. Margaret pulled out a card to show that she had ‘joined the teetotalers’ and promised that she ‘would never drink again’.

Her pledge didn’t last the day: at around five in the afternoon PC Charles Everett (185B) found her drunk, ‘stopping the vehicles in the street, [and] making a great noise’. When he went to arrest her she threw herself to the ground and refused to budge. It took some time to get her up and into custody and in the meantime a large crowd had gathered to see what all the fuss was about.

Back in court before Mr Woolrych she had nothing to say for herself. The magistrate was told that Margaret had been in court on at least fifty occasions previously. Her long-suffering husband had paid nearly £200 in fines in just a few years. To put that in context £200 in 1878 is about £13,000 today. It would have represented almost two years wages for a skilled tradesman, or you could have bought 7 horses with it. Margaret must have had a loving husband (more than many working-class women had in the 1870s) and one who was, whenever possible, determined to keep her out of prison.

He hadn’t always succeeded; she’d been to prison several times when magistrates like Mr D’Eyncourt had refused the option of a fine in the forlorn hope that it would curb her drinking. On this occasion the law continued to be a blunt instrument: with no option available to him to send Margaret for treatment (as a court might today) she was fined 25(£80) or three weeks’ hard labour. The court report doesn’t tell us whether Mr Malcolm dipped into his pocket this time.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, August 25, 1878]

Drug dealing in Rotherhithe, an age-old problem

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Most of the drugs that are prohibited by law today were legal in the nineteenth century but contemporaries recognized that there was a problem with drug use. Opium eating and smoking was widely condemned and attempts were made to restrict its use after 1868 by only allowing its sale by registered pharmacists. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that opium, morphine, cocaine, and some morphine derivatives were classified as ‘poisons’.

Most of the concern was with alcohol, not recreational drugs, and the real moves against cocaine, cannabis, psychedelics and heroin came well into the twentieth century.  Cocaine was prohibited in 1916 amid concerns about its use in the armed forces, and after the First World War Britain had to take steps to introduce a dangerous act under the terms of the Hague Convention in 1920 and later when we became a full member of the League of Nations. Amphetamines were not controlled until 1964, heroin three years later, while cannabis (which had been banned as an amendment to the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1928) use grew in the 1960s and many prosecutions followed.

Nineteenth-century London didn’t have a problem with drugs but there were prosecutions in relation them. In June 1883 William Dell, a druggist’s assistant, was brought up at the Guildhall Police court accused to stealing over £25 worth of drugs from his employer. In today’s money the amount he’d stolen (£25-30) would be around £2,000, so it was not an inconsiderable sum.

We have no idea from the report exactly what drugs Dell was supposed to have taken from Messrs. Evans, Lescher, and Webb at 60 Bartholomew Close, or whether he was planning on selling them around Rotherhithe where he lived. His lodgings on Ilderton Road were raided after he was searched by the pharmacy manager as he left work.

Mr. Forsyth (the manager) said all employees were subjected to a search after a stock take revealed that chemicals were missing. Dell was clean but he hadn’t got his usual bag and when that was brought down about £2 worth of drugs were discovered inside. Much more of the company’s property was discovered when lodgings were searched.

In court Dell pleaded guilty and asked the magistrate to deal with him summarily, so he could avoid a jury trial and a stiffer sentence. Alderman Fowler acceded to his requests and sent him to prison for four months at hard labour.

Everyone will have their own opinion of drug prohibition. Today there is a well-established drug culture in Britain which has survived 100 years of attempts at restricting it. While many young (and older) people die of drug-related conditions and many more suffer from the mental health related effects of non-prescription drugs, the main consequence of 100 years of prohibition has been to criminalize tens of thousands of drug users and to allow a criminal network of drug pushers to develop. Just as the 18thamendment to the Constitution of the United States in effect created the Mafia, the banning of recreational drugs has created the gang culture and levels of organized crime in the UK (and abroad) that we see today.

People will take drugs, and people will be damaged by taking drugs, but there is nothing the state can do to prevent this happening by prohibition. Education and a safe (or safer) environment for drug use is the only way that society can hope to beat addiction and the crime that flows from it.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, June 21, 1883]

Losing ‘the war on drugs’: a nineteenth-century perspective

It is probably reasonable to say that for some people – the church, police, social reformers, and government – the consumption of alcohol has long been an issue of concern. Most of the problems of society in the nineteenth century seem to have been  associated with drinking at some point or another and sobriety was held to be a virtue. Whether they were were discussing poverty, domestic violence or anti-social behaviour the ‘demon drink’ was at the heart of the matter.

The Police Courts overflowed on Monday mornings with those dragged up from the cells on charges of being ‘drunk and disorderly’, ‘drunk and incapable’ or ‘drunk and refusing quit licensed premises’. Most were fined (with the threat of gaol if they didn’t pay up) while the worst offenders (i.e those that used violence or resisted arrest) could expect to spend a few weeks or months in a house of correction.

So one of the functions of the courts was to deal with the effects of alcohol but they also regulated the trade in beer and spirits. Justices of the Peace (magistrates) had been involved in issuing licenses from at least the late seventeenth century, and they continued to do this in the 1800s. Look above the door of any pub and you can often find the notice that denotes the right of the landlord to sell you a pint.

There were restrictions (locally applied) to the opening hours a landlord could keep but after 1872 the first national licensing law was introduced. The Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Act (also known as the Aberdare Act) was unpopular (as most restrictions on our consumption of ‘booze’ are!)  and it brought protests and a petition to Parliament, all to little effect.

Governments were also concerned to control the manufacture, importation and sale of alcohol (especially spirits) through taxation and this of course led to smuggling and the development of an illicit trade in home made alcohol.

In late March 1851 Henry Haines and Elizabeth Collins appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court charged ‘by the excise with having been concerned in working in a private still’.

Two officers of the excise, George Lowe and Richard Oliver, working on information they had received, turned up at a premises on St John’s Street, Clerkenwell at five o’clock on Monday, March 24th. They knocked the door and were met by a man who was struggling to restrain two large bulldogs. He quickly asked them to wait so he could tie them up, warning that otherwise they might bite them.

It was a ruse of course, while the excise men waited the man made his escape. Lowe and Oliver entered the building and soon found a kitchen with a large still in it. Haines was in his shirt sleeves busily working; Elizabeth Collins (who turned out to be the wife of the man that had run away) was also working in the kitchen along with a small boy, her son.

This was a serious operation; the officers reported that there was a ‘thirty-gallon copper still [which was] charged with rectifying spirits, and running from the worm end, and more than fifty-five over proof.  There were one hundred gallons of molasses wash in three tubs, and in a can seven gallons of strong spirits, and five bags evidently for yeast.’ There was lots of water and a fire burned under the still.

All of the goods were seized and the operation was shut down. Haines was fined £30 (about £1,7000 in today’s money) with a three month prison sentence with hard labour should he default on the payment. Collins was discharged on the assumption that she ‘acted under the coercion of her husband’.

It doesn’t reveal what the still was making but the widespread availability of cheap gin in the 1800s was a contemporary concern that agitated social commentators. Plenty of satirical prints and popular songs warned of, and  occasional celebrated, Londoner’s love/hate relationship with drink. This still was closed down but many others would have sprung up in its place; Haines’ fine might seem a hefty one but the profits to made outweighed the risks of being penalized. The authorities were fighting a losing battle, just as the we are losing (or have lost) the modern war on illegal drugs.

[from (Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 30, 1851]

Drink: the curse of the working classes…

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Throughout the nineteenth century the problem of drink (especially the drinking habits of the working classes) were the subject of intense discussion. The Temperance Movement began in the early 1820s and while it began by advocating ‘moderation’ it became more radical, demanding the prohibition of the sale of alcohol and urging people to take the pledge of abstinence. The Band of Hope was founded in Leeds in 1847 and a national organization grew from this in 1855. In 1864 William Booth founded the Salvation Army with temperance one of its key tenets.

Of course while many people agreed that moderation and even abstinence were a ‘good thing’, others either resented the attack on their lifestyle and ‘freedoms’ or saw temperance as a threat to their business and livelihood. Publicans and brewers in particular can’t have welcomed the emergence of an anti-alcohol movement.

In 1850 Mr. William Townsend was due to speak on the subject of the ‘social. moral and religious condition of the working classes’ at the Temperance Hall at Horsleydown, in Bermondsey. Before the meeting placards were printed and distributed announcing the lecture. He rose to speak but had not got very far into his lecture before he was interrupted.

A group of people close to the podium stepped forward and threw red paint at him, covering the front of his clothes. The men then left and Mr. Townsend, to his credit, finished his speech.

However, as he was leaving and stepping into a cab ‘his assailants’, who had been waiting for him nearby, rushed forward and chucked a quantity of flour all over him; he was now, as the paper dubbed him, the ‘red and white lecturer’!

Townsend told the magistrate he knew who his attackers were and his worship issued a summons for them to appear to answer the charge. Perhaps they were members of the ‘skeleton crew’ supposedly hired by landlords to thwart the efforts of the prohibitionists.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 28, 1850]