In today’s world we are all unfortunately fully aware of the influence the drug culture and drug addiction has on society as a whole, and the social issues it creates around us.
However, none of this stuff is ‘new’ as history tells us that back in London some 300 years ago, there was an even bigger addiction epidemic, that impacted most Londoner’s and almost brought the everyday morals of life and society to a complete standstill.
The addiction in question back then was ‘Gin’ – and last week ‘London Shoes’ explored in detail, the really interesting story behind the origins of this ‘Gin Craze’ – and then the fall-out and creation of the Victorian ‘Gin Palaces’.
For this particular trek out, ‘London Shoes’ had the pleasure of being accompanied by not just 1 but 3 folks who wanted to come along for the ride – my Mrs plus 2 longtime friends who I worked with some 45yrs ago, way back in the mid-1970’s at the Wardour Street branch of Barclays Bank in London’s west-end – where we were just junior members of staff who very much got into (and thoroughly enjoyed) the habit of sinking quite a few ‘cheeky ones’ in the pubs & clubs of Soho, every night after work.
Before examining these old remaining Victorian ‘Gin Palaces’ it probably makes sense to perhaps paint a little picture as to ‘why’ and ‘how’ they came to be.
Way back in the 1700’s French brandy and locally brewed beer was the preferred and affordable ‘tipple’ of London’s working classes.
In those times the general public of the ‘Smoke’ lived a life of total deprivation and squalor in the overcrowded slums – and so a little ‘tipple’ of booze was seen as a daily necessity to help raise their spirits and get them through the day.
However – in the late 1700’s the Brits had a bit of a fall-out with the French, and they stopped exporting their cheap brandy to our shores, leaving only beer as being the only ‘grog’ for the common man in the street to purchase.
This situation soon caused considerable dissatisfaction amongst London’s impoverished working classes, which in turn led to a massive and unprecedented rise in social unrest and crime.
So – in an attempt to pacify the general public, and keep them sweet, the Government of the day decided to openly encourage the distilling of the not particularly well known spirit ‘Gin’, by removing the tax on its production and sale, whilst keeping high taxes of the production and sale of beer.
So –all of a sudden, there became a massive demand for ‘Gin’, and to cash-in on this sudden ‘Gin Craze’, literally thousands of small independent gin distilleries suddenly cropped-up all over the place – everyone was into it.
There was no authoritative control or regulation on the production and sale of Gin – it was being distilled in all kinds of places, such as shops, residential homes, workhouses, doss houses, street alleys, lodging houses and even prisons – and more often than not, it was made up of all manner of ingredients and impurities – before being sold for next to nothing, to all the poor lower classes.
By the 1750’s there were said to be at least 7,000 ‘dram shops’ throughout London, distilling up to 10 million gallons of Gin per year – with the ‘Old Tom’ brand being the cheapest and most popular with Londoner’s.
Historic records of that time indicate that the average Londoner was consuming a half-pint of Gin per day and roughly 14 gallons of the stuff per year – and it wasn’t just adults addicted to the spirit, even children and small babies were given it as a way of keeping them quiet.
To put some comparison of this ‘Gin Craze’ with today’s world – public records from those times show that there were more Gin distilling outlets in London than there are fast-food take-away outlets in Greater London today.
With this crazy level of constant consumption, it was inevitable that there was going to be some serious trouble ahead.
People were so addicted to their daily doses of Gin that they had to feed their habit from activities such as prostitution, mugging, robbery, violence, fraud and even murder became the everyday way of life in London – just so the Gin addicts could get their fix.
London soon fell into total social and lawless chaos – with some Londoner’s even selling their kids in order to pay for their Gin addiction. In fact one awful court case of that time involved a husband & wife who murdered their own child, just so they could sell its clothes to help pay for their Gin fix.
The now very famous 1751 illustration by artist William Hogarth entitled ‘Gin Lane’ provides a good visual example of just how bad the Londoner’s everyday life had become as a result of this Gin addiction epidemic.
Because of the total social chaos and anarchy throughout London created by the ‘Gin Craze’ – the Government of the day had to do something fast to restore some sort of normality and social reform, and also reduce the ever increasing death rate of both adults and children. – so between the years of 1729 and 1751 they introduced a series of ‘Acts’ to try and halt the epidemic and restore social order.
These ‘Acts’ introduced high taxes on the production and sale of Gin, along with regulatory standards applied to anyone distilling the spirit plus tough sentences for anyone not conforming to these standards. Anyone caught breaking the law in the first instance, would receive a prison sentence – for a second offence it would be a prison sentence and a whipping – and for a third offence it would be automatic deportation to the colonies.
These government ‘Acts’ eventually did the job they were designed to do, as by the late 1700’s the consumption of Gin in London had decreased massively – and anyone still distilling or selling Gin had to be licensed, and the licensing requirements were extremely stringent.
The introduction of all these actions very quickly saw the total demise of all the back-street Gin producers – and as a result, everyday life and moral standards eventually returned to some form of normality.
To further encourage the working classes to drink Gin sensibly, legally and in a supervised environment – the concept of ‘Gin Palaces’ was created.
By 1820 the first of London’s ‘Gin Palaces’ were up and running – the first was located in Holborn and the second one in Old Street.
The design of these ‘Gin Palaces’ was based on the new style of retail shops that were being built in London at that time – and were fitted out with a type of shop counter as the main bar, where ale was pumped straight from the barrel and where spirits were readily available – allowing punters to be served more promptly and in a more civilised way, in a more conformed environment.
The interior of these ‘Gin Palaces’ were fitted-out with elaborate fixtures and fittings such as carved wooden paneling on the walls, ceramic and marble tiling on the floors and the walls, large decorative mirrors and engraved glass paneling – all illuminated by gas-lighting.
The design and décor of these early ‘Gin Palaces’ totally influenced the style and design of the many new pubs the Victorians were building in London throughout that period – and although not technically ‘Gin Palaces’ these pubs were also referred to as ‘Palaces’.
So – the quest for ‘London Shoes’ and its little entourage of followers for this particular trek out, was to track-down some of London’s remaining ‘Gin Palaces’ – taking a good look inside, soak up the Victorian ‘vibe’ and perhaps ‘sample’ some of their ‘alcoholic refreshments’ – and this is what was found:-
*Beefeater Gin Distillery – Kennington
The original Beefeater Gin Distillery was founded in 1863 and used to be situated in Chelsea. It moved its operation to Kennington (near the Oval Cricket ground) in 1958 – and is still an extremely globally productive manufacturer of mid-price Gin.
*The Cross Keys – Covent Garden
This magnificent little pub was built in 1849, and not only has it retained its original unique Victorian fixtures & fittings, such as gilded pillars and stone arches and a foliage frontage to its exterior – its interior is full to the brim of hundreds of items of memorabilia ranging from stuff like paintings, stuffed fish, pots, pans, a grandfather clock, an old manual shop till, plus many more interesting items.
*The Argyll Arms – Oxford Circus
Anyone who has been to, or walked past the iconic London Palladium would have seen this wonderful pub.
It was built in 1742 and most of its interior fixtures such as ornate mirrors, wooden paneling, mosaic tiled flooring and chandeliers are all from the pubs Victorian period.
There is even a separate ‘snug’ bar that was specifically built keep the riff-raff drinkers away from the gentry supping there.
*The Princess Louise – Holborn
‘The Princess Louise’ is one of my personal favourite London pubs – as it portrays a classic example of Victoriana design, which creates a unique ‘vibe’.
It was built in 1872, and its magnificent interior fixtures and fittings were all designed and installed by the top craftsmen of the day.
It has an original ‘shop-front’ as the main bar, beautiful ceramic and marble tiling on its floors and walls, massive ornate mirrors throughout, crafted wood paneling on its walls, a Victorian ‘Gents’ khazi in the basement – and separate wooden crafted ‘booths’ where punters could secretly converse with their colleagues, or possibly ladies of the night.
*The Punch Tavern – Fleet Street
The ‘Punch’ dates back to 1893 – and acquired its name as it was the drinking-hole for the journalists that worked nearby on the production of the satirical magazine “Punch” that was founded back in 1841 – it’s even got some original ‘Punch’ magazine prints hanging in its ‘loos’.
The entrance to the pub is covered with the original glazed tiling and mosaic flooring, and in its interior is the original pink marble bar, all lit up by a Victorian barrel shaped skylight.
*The Flying Horse – Oxford St
The Flying Horse is today the only pub actually situated on Oxford Street.
It was originally built in 1790 and then re-built in the Victorian era of 1839.
Its interior still has its Victorian fixtures & fittings such as ceramic and marble floorings, wall fixtures, ceiling murals, furniture and ornate mirrors.
*The Red Lion – Westminster
Records show that there has been a pub on the site of todays Red Lion, since the early 1400’s.
The re-build of current Red Lion pub building was done in 1890 – and because the pub is located directly opposite from the Houses of Parliament and close by to Downing Street, it is commonly known as the politicians ‘local’ – and you can quite often find members of the house at the bar grabbing a quick ‘snifter’ in between sittings in the ‘House’.
So – with my little ‘tour party’ having spent the day traipsing all over the ‘Smoke’ tracking down and then venturing inside these magnificent Victorian ‘Gin Palace’ pubs –obviously knocking back a few ‘cheeky’ beers and glasses of ‘mother ruin’ on the way (purely for research purposes of course) – we ‘slurred’ our goodbyes and headed back (gingerly) to the ‘burbs’.
If you ever find yourself near any of the pubs mentioned above, I thoroughly recommend you pop in to check them out – you certainly won’t be disappointed – Hope you enjoy the photos of ’em.
A full photo summary of the Victorian ‘Gin Palaces’ of old London Town
Street signage outside the ‘Punch Tavern’ pub – making reference to it having been a Victorian ‘Gin Palace’