This is an image of London blighted by alcohol. The viewer’s eye is immediately caught by the figure in the foreground: a drunken mother who blithely lets her baby tumble from her arms. At her feet sits a half-naked, near skeletal figure clutching a bottle of gin and a cup.
There are other horrors to be found. On the left of the image, a wizened human face can be seen gnawing at a bone alongside a dog. Above them, a craftsman and a cook pawn their tools and utensils for drinking money. On the right of the image, gin is poured into the throats of a small baby and a man in a wheelbarrow; a blind man has his crutch stolen stolen as he stands. Death punctuates the background of the picture: a naked woman is lowered into a coffin. Through an open section of wall above the distiller’s barrels, a hanged man looks down on the wares that caused his downfall.
William Hogarth’s Gin Lane is one of the most famous and graphic depictions of alcohol abuse ever published. Surprisingly, though, it is not prohibitionist in intent. This image is not a call to ban alcohol. It is really an advert for beer.
This becomes clear if one looks at its companion print, Beer Street. This shows a much happier scene. The people are drinking, but are healthy and industrious. A drunken man puts his arm around a woman and tries to steal a kiss but, tellingly, she still holds the key to her room. The pawnbroker here has shut up his shop and is surrounded by signs of prosperity. Significantly, all this industry and well being is accompanied by beer. Even one of the bearers of the sedan chair in the background is permitted to take a swig from his tankard.
Hogarth’s engravings were published in February 1751 in support of the Gin Act of that year. This act introduced the licensing of merchants selling raw spirits in an attempt to cut down on their consumption. Gin had become increasingly popular in the early eighteenth century and was widely regarded as a blight on the working classes. Previous attempts to raise taxes on spirits had lead to riots and other forms of unrest. Rather than price out the demand for spirits, the act of 1751 successfully restricted their supply, and the consumption of gin began to fall.
But there was a recognition that gin could not simply be withdrawn from supply; it needed a replacement. Tea was commonly promoted as a benign substitute, but beer was a cheaper alternative. While Hogarth’s Beer Street may seem comically idyllic, it should be remembered that the beer of the day was not as strong as most ales and lagers today. It was certainly far weaker than gin and much easier to drink in moderation.
Aside from its horrific images, what is striking now about Gin Lane is that it presents a much more nuanced and balanced argument than that which came to dominate the following century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, alcohol abuse was often seen as a cause of poverty rather than a symptom. Well organised and prominent temperance movements became increasingly influential, and alcohol was blamed for all manner of social ills. During World War One, future Prime Minister David Lloyd George famously declared, ‘We are fighting Germany, Austria and drink, and so far as I can see the greatest of those three deadly foes is drink’.
Prohibition was seriously considered in Britain at this time, but fortunately it did not occur: the United States’ failed experiment with prohibition between 1919 and 1933 has shown the crime problems caused by such legislation. In tackling alcohol abuse, most policy makers now pursue tactics of encouraging moderation and awareness rather than outright abstinence. In many respects, this is not dissimilar to the approach advocated by Hogarth in the mid-eighteenth century.
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