The Gin Act of 1751
William Hogarth (1697–1764)
Gin is the anglicized, abbreviated version of Genever, the Dutch name for the juniper berry, which is the main flavoring ingredient in the spirit. In the late 1600s, English troops returning from battle on the continent brought this clear wine to London in their bags. It was an instant hit, and by the 1680s, Holland’s exports had surpassed 10 million gallons.
Then, in 1689, England outlawed the importing of all spirits in order to promote domestic manufacture. Domestic distiller incentives made gin cheap and plentiful, changing the kingdom’s drinking habits. Gin supplanted beer and ale as the most readily available of the few viable social pleasures, and the working people embraced it wholeheartedly.
Gin had taken its toll by the 1720s, with more crime, higher mortality rates, and decreased birth rates in London. The Gin Acts of 1729, 1733, and 1747 attempted but failed to solve the problem by imposing taxes and licensing fees on dram shops that sold it. Every time, industry pressure and violent demonstrations from the “drinking poor” resulted in repeal, followed by even more prolific drinking across the city. In his famous Gin Lane lithograph, English engraver William Hogarth put a sign over a gin cellar that read: “Drunk for a penny / Dead drunk for two pence / Clean straw for nothing.”
By 1750, London was in the grip of a genuine pandemic. The Gin Act of 1751, Parliament’s reaction, was successful where earlier attempts had failed. In addition to taxes and duties, distillers were no longer allowed to sell at retail and could only supply licensed purchasers, thereby eliminating almost all tiny dram shops. For the first time, disobedience was met with harsh punishments, including flogging, jail, and even deportation. The end effect was amazing. Gin consumption in the United States fell from eight million gallons in the early 1750s to less than two million gallons by 1760, according to one estimate.
Dorothy George, a historian, called the 1751 legislation a “turning moment in London’s social history.” Others have questioned whether the act alone reduced laziness, crime, and social unrest, but it remains one of the few effective examples of alcohol prohibition laws to reduce civil disturbance.
The Repeal of Prohibition (1933).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)