Between 1715 and 1750 there were more deaths than births in London, with the greatest mortality among children. Many of these deaths were due to fetal alcohol syndrome as unhappy mothers-to-be sought solace in gin. And unhappiness was the rule, not the exception, and it wasn’t limited to pregnant women.
In the 18th century, gin mania in England reached epidemic proportions. Specifically mid-century which rife with robbery, murder, and venereal disease. Illness, due to a lack of clean water and food was rampant, smoke spewing from the quickly multiplying factories that ushered in the Industrial Revolution polluted the air.
But gin was cheap and provided at least temporary escape from the abject poverty, the filth, and hopelessness of the environment. It was the ascension of the Dutchman, William of Orange, to the British throne in 1688 that marked the beginning of the gin craze. William banned the importing of French wines and spirits and encouraged the distillation of spirits from home-grown grain. As a result, consumption of gin skyrocketed. So did drunkenness and social disorder.
The Gin Act of 1736 attempted to muzzle the run-away gin production by raising taxes on distilled spirits and making the sale of gin in quantities under two gallons illegal. Distillers also had to take out a fifty-pound license. This stimulated a black market in gin and caused riots in the streets and prison populations bursting with offenders to the Act.
As cheap gin flowed unabated, crime increased, men were rendered impotent, women ceased to care for their children, suicide rates jumped, and people sold their possessions to satisfy their insatiable thirst for perpetual drunkenness. All of this was emphatically depicted in William Hogarth’s famous 1751 satirical engraving Gin Lane. There is the carpenter pawning the tools of his trade for gin, the emaciated dying man still clutching his glass of gin, the neglected infant whose mother is being placed in a coffin, the woman forcing gin into the mouth of an infant to keep it quiet, the schoolgirls drinking gin, a barber who has just hanged himself, and the dominant figure of a woman in a drunken stupor whose child, disfigured by fetal alcohol syndrome, is falling to his death.
Others also took up the battle cry. Henry Fielding, in his book "Joseph Andrews", ridiculed the alcoholic way of life. “What must become of the infant,” he asked, "who is conceived in gin with the poisonous distillations of which it is nourished both in the womb and at the breast.” Authorities took note that no good was to come of this and passed the second Gin Act in 1751, forcing distillers to sell only to licensed retailers. No longer could gin be purchased from every corner grocer, tobacconist, apothecary, barber or jail keeper. Finally, the gin mania began to fade.
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