Gin Craze

In the 18th century, an epidemic of drunkenness swept across London, thanks to the introduction of a new drink - gin. It became a symbol of laziness and moral deficiency. It eventually took government intervention to stop it. What caused this Gin Craze and how was it stopped? Let's find out!

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Table of contents

    The Gin Craze Content Warning StudySmarter

    Problem of the Gin Craze

    The gin craze of the 18th century led to a rise in drunkenness, crime and social disorder, and the government responded with a series of laws aimed at curbing consumption. Despite these efforts, the problem of the gin craze continued until the early 19th century, when public opinion began to shift against gin and other spirits.

    A gin craze is a period of time in which gin consumption and production significantly increased, often accompanied by a cultural obsession with the spirit

    Causes of the Gin Craze

    The main cause of the Gin Craze was economic protectionism brought about by war.

    Economic protectionism

    Government policies restricting international trade to stimulate the domestic economy.

    In 1688, the Dutch-born William of Orange took the throne of England.

    The Gin Craze William of Orange StudySmarterFig. 1 - Statue of King William III in Petersfield

    A year later, Britain was at war with France in the Anglo-French War which was on and off until 1815. To try and damage the French economy, the government put high tariffs on the import of brandy - a liquor made in France that was very popular in Britain.

    TariffTaxes or duties that need to be paid on imports or exports.

    The government also lifted many of the restrictions on the domestic production of alcohol. The production of gin was encouraged because it was originally from Holland - seeing as William of Orange was originally Dutch, it was thought patriotic.

    Gin Craze The Gin Shop illustration StudySmarterFig. 2 - Depiction of an eighteenth century gin shop by George Cruikshank

    In addition, food prices had dropped, and people's wages were rising, so people had more disposable income to spend.

    All of this combined to cause a huge rise in the production and consumption of gin. However, the availability of gin, especially amongst the poor, led to a rise in drunken behaviour that had serious consequences.

    Effect of the Gin Craze

    By 1730, there were roughly 7,000 legal gin shops in London and on average, 10 million gallons of gin were being distilled each year. Of course, this was only the legal gin trade - there were plenty of illegal drinking dens and bootleggers who distilled gin illegally.


    A person who made and sold illegal alcohol.

    For the poorer classes of London, gin offered a cheap way to keep warm and escape the drudgery and misery of their everyday lives. It could be bought for a few pennies on street corners.

    Gin also allowed women to start drinking alongside men. Gin became popular amongst women and was blamed for mothers' neglect of their children and a rise in prostitution, becoming known as 'Mother's Ruin'.

    Gin (18th Century)

    18th-century gin was far from the sophisticated, botanical drink that we think of today. It was powerful, and distillers would sometimes cut it with other ingredients, like turpentine (commonly known today as paint stripper) and even sulphuric acid! This made it dangerous if consumed frequently or in large amounts.

    Historical accounts speak of the widespread violence, alcoholism, and social devastation caused by the Gin Craze. The full extent of the issue became clear in 1734 when the story of Judith Dufour reached the ears of Parliament.

    Judith Defour

    In 1734, it was reported that a woman named Judith Defour had strangled her two-year-old daughter and sold her clothes to buy gin. Defour took her daughter, Mary, from the workhouse for a few hours during the day, obtaining permission from the authorities. Then, with a friend, she stripped her daughter in a field and strangled her, before dumping the body in a ditch.

    This obviously shocked the city, and once Parliament had heard about it, they were forced to do something to combat the Gin Craze as Defour became the embodiment of the dreaded Mother's Ruin.

    Government Reaction to the Gin Craze

    By 1734, the government realised that it had to do something to stop the rapid consumption of gin. These were their main tactics:

    • Increase the price of distilling licenses so only reputable distillers could make gin.
    • Increase restrictions on the production of gin, so it became more expensive.

    The government also faced pressure from public leaders and religious figures who denounced gin and the poorer classes who were so inclined to it.

    This was done through the passing of five 'Gin Acts' in 1729, 1736, 1743, 1747, and 1751. They had varying degrees of success - the two most influential acts were those of 1736 and 1751.

    The 1736 Gin Act

    1736 introduced taxes and licenses for the production of gin. It established an excise tax of 20 shillings per gallon of gin distilled and made it compulsory to have a license to produce gin, which cost £50 - the equivalent of about £8,000 in today's money.

    Excise taxTax that is imposed at the point of manufacture rather than the point of sale.

    This was intended to ensure that gin became a luxury item that was not widely available. However, it did not really work. Only two licenses were taken out. Bootleggers thrived, illegally distilling gin that was often cut with harmful substances. Consumption of gin did not really decrease.

    The Act was later repealed in 1743 as it was not very effective.

    The principal cause of all the vice and debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people.1

    - A description of the effects of gin by Middlesex Magistrates

    The 1751 Gin Act

    The 1751 Gin Act prohibited the selling of gin to unlicensed merchants and only allowed larger manufacturers to produce gin, having reduced the price of licenses.

    The government also encouraged the importation and drinking of tea in order to rival gin, and encouraged men to drink beer instead.

    This act was largely successful, and the Gin Craze is considered to have ended by 1757.

    The Gin Craze: Overview

    Artists such as Hogarth were instrumental in this paradigm shift with his depiction of the civilised Beer Street a stark contrast to the chaotic Gin Lane. Coupled with the acts, the price of beer began to fall. This narrative became prominent in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

    The Gin Craze William Hogarth Gin Lane StudySmarterFig. 2 - William Hogarth's depiction of the chaotic Gin Lane

    Although Mother's Ruin and the example of Judith Defour should be attributed to gin addiction, we must also remember that the appalling living conditions in increasingly urbanised areas and lack of knowledge of germs also contributed to a huge number of fatalities. It is easy to point to a new more economically conscious, capitalist existence as the cause of gin's popularity, and a willingness to break the French monopoly on liquor. However, for White, the craze had a clearer explanation.

    Addiction expressed some of the consequences of the alienation characteristic of urban capitalist society. It formed part of the broader process of human estrangement that subsumed eighteenth-century social relations.2

    - Jonathan White, 'The “Slow but Sure Poyson”: The Representation of Gin and Its Drinkers, 1736–1751', 2003

    Gin Craze - Key takeaways

    • The Gin Craze was a period of prolonged public alcoholism and social destruction that took place in 18th-century London due to the rise in the consumption of gin.
    • It was caused by economic measures taken by the government which encouraged the production and consumption of gin.
    • It was said to be responsible for the rise in public violence, prostitution, laziness, and the destruction of property.
    • The government took responsibility for it in 1734 after the actions of Judith Defour.
    • They passed several 'Gin Acts' to try and stop the craze, but only two of them had any real impact - the ones of 1734 and 1751.
    • The Gin Craze was mostly over by 1757.


    1. Patrick Dillon, Gin: The Much-lamented Death of Madam Geneva (2004), pp. 52.
    2. Jonathan White, 'The “Slow but Sure Poyson”: The Representation of Gin and Its Drinkers, 1736–1751', Journal of British Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1 (January 2003), pp. 35-64.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gin Craze

    What was the Gin Craze about?

    The Gin Craze refers to a period of alcoholism and addiction in eighteenth-century London.

    What caused the Gin Craze?

    The economic protectionism of the new Dutch king, William III of Orange meant that gin, initially made in Holland, became popular in Britain,

    How did the government react to the Gin Craze?

    The government introduced a series of acts to combat the Gin Craze, notably increasing its price of it and creating and marketing alternatives such as beer.

    What was the impact of the Gin Craze?

    The Gin Craze raised awareness of the issues of alcoholism and its effects, particularly on mothers.

    What year was Gin Craze?

    The Gin Craze lasted from around 1730 to 1757.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Judith Defour killed her daughter and sold her            for gin.

    How many legal shops selling gin were there in 1730?

    Bootleggers were approved by the government.


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