William Hogarth’s Gin Lane is best described as “chaos”—commotion, poverty, physical and social disruption, all shown in unstable perspective. The centerpiece is a blissfully oblivious drunk mother in rags, covered by chancre-like sores. She is unaware that her nearly naked baby is falling to his death. At her feet is a starved soldier, holding on to a gin bottle and either already dead or close to it. We see a hanged man in the upper right of the image, a coffin dangling on a pole (the sign of an undertaker’s shop) in the center, and a pawnshop owned by Mr. Gripe on the left, where people are lined up to pawn clothes and household necessities to buy gin. There is a falling building, a corpse being dumped out of a coffin, and so on. This is gin-induced chaos, indeed.
But this, in 1751, was old news. Gin had been invented in the 17th century in the Netherlands, by distilling juniper berries with spirits from barley. It was cheap and very potent, and, imported into England, turned into a national craze. Its effect on the populace (mostly on the poor) was to intensify crime and civil disorder in an already-unstable society. Gin was taking the place of beer as the national drink. It was easier to make, and the profit margin was higher. Women were said to drink gin more than men did. Abuse of gin was common in the Army and Navy, among the regulars and the officers as well. Getting a “license” to sell gin was a joke.
There were efforts at control. In 1734, Dr. Stephen Hales,1 scientist and clergyman (and discoverer of the blood pressure), anonymously published A Friendly Admonition to the Drinkers of Gin, Brandy, and Other Distilled Spirituous Liquors. He inveighed against the craze for gin. Furthermore, he had actually experimented on the blood and blood vessels of animals and found that spirits thickened the former and narrowed the latter. But this fledgling scientific approach had little effect. By 1736 in London, one-sixth of all dwellings were selling gin. Farmers loved the increased demand for grain, the government liked the increased revenue from the tax on gin, and of course the Company of Distillers opposed regulation. Enforcement of licensing laws was impossible. Prohibition was tried and failed. Yet the role of alcohol in promoting poverty and crime was recognized. Samuel Johnson opined that no one was happy unless drunk.
William Hogarth (1697–1764) was born, lived, and died in London. Apprenticed early to an engraver, he then oscillated between making portraits of the well-to-do and executing prestigious history paintings on the one hand and, on the other, designing satirical sequences of society’s moral failings (which he felt were many). Early on came A Harlot’s Progress, a series of six narrative pictures showing the decline of a young woman from prostitution to death. Soon, not to scant the men, came The Rake’s Progress. His cynicism was savage.
In 1748, Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones and other novels and a friend of Hogarth’s, became London’s chief magistrate. The next year, Fielding cofounded the “Bow Street Runners,” considered today as the original police group in London. Convinced of the evils of rampant gin drinking, he took up the crusade. In 1751, he published An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase in Robbers,2 highlighting the roles of poverty, crowding, and gin, among others. One month later, Hogarth published cheap prints of Gin Lane to reach as many of the populace as possible. They sold very well. (They were also paired with a companion engraving, Beer Street, which extolled the advantages of beer: The scene is peaceful, and everyone is fat and happy.)
That year, a realistic new gin act was passed and enforced, and soon gin consumption fell dramatically. It was a landmark in public health—an early effort to promote social reform by pressuring Parliament.
The attitudes of various segments of the population toward alcohol abuse demonstrate an interesting phenomenon. The clergy (particularly Protestants) were outspoken in favor of sobriety. As for physicians, medical texts of the time rarely, if ever, mention “gin” or “alcohol.” This is true in Peter Shaw’s3New Practice of Physic (1753). A generation later, in Buchan’s4Domestic Medicine (1785), gin is mentioned approvingly as a tonic, and alcohol is not mentioned. There is a brief chapter on intemperance, which reads like a sermon. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “alcoholism” does not appear as a word until 1852! In short, alcohol abuse was not categorized as a disease. Instead, it was regarded as a moral failing, whose control was best left to the clergy.
Perhaps art in this case influenced public health. It is difficult to be sure. The conjunction of Fielding’s book and Hogarth’s prints may well have provided a literary/artistic “one-two punch” to the gin monster. They served different target audiences with differing viewpoints. Fielding’s small book was designed to influence the educated and the sociopolitically minded. But this was a minority group. Estimates of the literacy rates at the time are uncertain, but they were no more than 50% for men, less for women, and even less for those most afflicted by the gin epidemic—the rural and the poor. But they, in turn, may well have been the part of the public most likely to see and be affected by the instant power of Hogarth’s prints, the meanings of which could be easily “read,” even by those who could not “read.”
1. Hales S. A Friendly Admonition to the Drinkers of Gin, Brandy, and Other Distilled Spirituous Liquors. 20106th ed Farmington Hills, Mich Gale ECCO Print Editions
2. Fielding H.Zirker MR An Enquiry Into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers and Related Writings. 1988 Middletown, Conn Wesleyan University Press
3. Shaw P. A New Practice of Physic. 2010 Charleston, SC BiblioBazaar
4. Buchan W. Domestic Medicine. 1790 London, UK A. Strahan