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Why were alehouses and gin-shops threatening to the authorities?
This essay will argue that alehouses and gin-shops were threatening to the authorities because they were deemed to disrupt the established social, political and economic order. Commentators of the time, labelled alehouses as ‘nests of Satan’ and gin-shops as the source of ‘Theft, Murder and Perjury’. These hostelries were perceived a widespread menace linking them to crime, poverty, sedition, drunkenness and idleness. At the time, drinking took place in three main types of institutions: the coaching inn that supplied lodgings, victuals and replacement horses, taverns mainly in towns supplying beer and wine, and lastly ‘alehouses’, small, often one room, offering only beer. Whilst evidence suggests that government, Parliament, county magistrates and parish constables did not always worry about the same threats, it is likely that much protest and condemnation emanated from the inhabitants of the towns and cities. This viewpoint is supported by extensive research carried out on petitions, legislations, pamphlets, ballads and woodcut prints. There appears a difference in the charges levelled by the authorities between alehouses and gin-shops. With the alehouses, they were concerned in policing to prevent licentiousness and drunkenness, and the latter by moral reformers, targeting the spirits trade and the social problems caused by the labouring classes addiction to gin. This essay will look in detail at the threats posed by the alehouses and the response from government and Parliament. The protests rose from the judgments of the emerging middle-classes, moral reformers identified as Puritans, and local inhabitants. From the mid-seventeenth century, the authorities identified the potential seditious nature of some of the activities within the alehouses. The second part will identify the dangers that the gin craze posed to society at large, the size of the growing problem and the speed of the response of the authorities in tackling this issue.
The social function of the alehouses, providing drinking, eating, gambling, dancing and even flirting cannot be underestimated, as these no longer occurred in churchyards following the English Reformation of the 1530s. Recent studies estimate that by 1570 there were 24,000 alehouses, a ratio of 1 every 142 inhabitants, this rose to 50,000 by the 1630s and hit a peak of 60,000 in 1700, a ratio of 1 to every 87 residents. Clearly, as evidence suggests, alehouses were becoming more and more popular, and more and more common within society. The corollary of this expansion infers the central nature and focus of social activities inside the alehouses. It was widely accepted that the alehouses were an essential institution ‘run by the poor for the poor’, and provided vital income for the innkeeper. In many ways, the alehouses could be said to offer the poor and the unemployed an alternative home. Throughout this period the number of wage-earners within society grew and it is very likely that the authorities feared that people worked just long enough to earn their beer-money rather than spending it on their families, as a petition in Pewsey in Whiltshire demonstrates. It could then be further claimed that this led to a greater strain upon poor relief provided by the parishes because of feckless parents. Samuel Pepys, the diarist, reflects this viewpoint in one of the ballads in his collection: in ‘The Bad-Husbands Folly or Poverty made known’ a drunken husband who used to spend all his money in strong beer, neglecting his family obligations, repents and vows not to return to the alehouse because ‘Bad company did me undo’. The Licencing Act of 1552, set in motion some legal controls over the proliferation of the alehouses, the law stated that to open an alehouse a licence issued by two local Justices of the Peace and evidence of a good character were required. It should also be noted that the late 1500s were a period of bad harvests, hence Parliament and magistrates were probably concerned in storing the grain rather than allowing it to be used for brewing. However, this legislation failed to curb the growth in numbers of the alehouses due to the people not complying with the law and most of them remained unlicensed.
This section will address the concerns of the moral reformers, known as Puritans, and of the self-declared ‘better-sort’ or ‘chief inhabitants’ of the towns towards the alehouses. Puritanical thought emerged from Protestantism and comprised a moral view of family life in line with scripture. They exercised authority via positions of prominence within society and were ministers of religion, Justices of the Peace, the middle-classes and the gentry. Puritan ministers were not opposed to drinking alcohol in moderation, however the excesses of the alehouses, with all that that entails and the resultant effects on family life were to be condemned. Ministers often took the lead in organising petitions against disorderly alehouses that attracted thieves, prostitutes, gamblers and female drunkards. This ‘hotter sort of Protestants’ wrote pamphlets attacking the tipplers of the ‘drunkard’s academye’ as immoral, depraved and dissolute. Moreover, alehouses attracted people of ill-repute who preferred to drink rather than attend church services on the Sabbath. In addition, a recent study has proved that Puritans disliked the ritual of ‘health-drinking or toasting, full of ceremony, that reminded them of Papist traditions of drinking from the same cup. Besides, healths were often described as lascivious acts that deliberately scorned puritan values and, by declaring allegiance to the king, they were straightforward in resisting Cromwell’s puritanical regime. Whilst during the Interregnum of 1649-1660 no new legislation was enacted against the alehouses, greater enforcement was undertaken to vet and bar royalist sympathisers from obtaining a licence.
Another offensive came from the local yeomanry, gentry and middle-class, who unlike the Puritans, did not seek to suppress all the alehouses, but to censure the ones who were deemed to be in excess, those without a licence, off the beaten path, unruly and disruptive. It was clear that the sheltering of vagrants and prostitutes, the trade of illicit goods and excessive alcohol consumption beyond the point of drunkenness, led to a lack of sleep at night, fights and unchaste behaviour. This habit is cited in the case of Michael Fayered of Inworth in Essex who was accused of having ‘evill rule in his house all night long’. Even women alehouse-keepers were deemed to be a menace with the assumption they were setting up brothels and running these establishments with immoral sexual conduct. The number of court cases and protests brought to the attention of government, who sought to limit the effects of drunkenness, led to the Acts of 1604, 1606 and 1618. For the first time, being drunk in public was a finable offence and the annual renewal of licences was established. These acts were more successful than the 1552 Licensing Act and provided some control in confining disorderly behaviour. However, gaming, swearing, tippling, theft, assault and illicit sex were common cases in the law courts.
James Scott in his book claims that alehouses hosted a radically subversive culture, one that was well hidden from the view of the elites, hence he coined the term ‘hidden transcript’. In support of his thesis, he cites a court case of 1691 where an ale seller in Whiltshire denied hearing any seditious discourses in his house, and that he usually advised his customers not to talk about government’s affairs. This statement may infer that political discourse was commonly taking place. In addition, it is possible that it was within the inns and taverns, institutions frequented by the ‘better-sort’, that plots against the Crown were hatched. At the same time authorities were concerned about what was really taking place in the alehouses. In the light of these inappropriate political discourses, the targeting of the alehouses might have become a priority for the authorities who sought to crack-down on these behaviours by instituting ‘spies’. Records from seventeenth-century Southampton show that a tight surveillance, by both publican and landlords, was in place to make sure that their principal use, victualling and lodging, remained the primary purpose and disorderly behaviour actively discouraged. Thus, the emphasis of the authorities shifted to all forms of recreational drinking which were assumed to be a threat to law and order. Recent historical investigations support the viewpoint that the role of the alehouses for social purposes was more important than the subversive nature previously thought. The observed correlation between alehouses and drunkenness has, in recent years, moved into investigating the alehouse sociability in a more lenient and a less radical approach. The scholar Mark Hailwood demonstrates that it was not always the case that alehouses were the source of lewd behaviour and political radicalism, and that the relationship between getting drunk and being sociable was not antagonistic but interdependent. Sociability might have provided social cohesion among people who worked and lived in the same neighbourhood, a jovial environment rather than chaos and disorder. From the proliferation to the peak of the alehouses it took roughly one hundred and fifty years, and several Acts of Parliament before the authorities brought the alehouses ‘under control’. By the end of the seventeenth century a new threat appeared on the horizon, namely the Gin Craze.
Looking at the effect gin shops had on society and their threat to the authorities, there was an ever-increasing consumption of gin following the banning of French brandy in 1689 by William III. This ban and the London Company of Distillers losing its monopoly led to the increased production of cheap British gin and the establishment of unregulated distillers, who often put turpentine and other lethal ingredients as part of their concoctions. Consequently, thousands of small gin-shops opened in cellars, back rooms of private homes, some people even sold it from pushcarts in the streets. With no regulations in place and a cheap price, the so-called Gin Craze took off. By the mid-1720s the practice of regularly attending dram shops, especially amongst London’s labouring and poor classes, had become a significant social and health concern for the authorities, with the impeding need to pass legislation designed to control the consumption of gin. In contrast to the alehouses, the gin trade and its consumption were opposed mainly by the ‘propertied classes’, Puritans and a coalition of Middlesex and Westminster Justices. It can be claimed that the 1729 Gin Act did little or nothing to limit the number of unlicensed premises, which in London alone were about 4,000. Protests against the gin trade reached a fever-pitch by 1735 with the publication of pamphlets, cartoons and treatises. These discourses claimed that drunkenness caused by gin in the street was responsible for social disorders, with an increased number of robberies, fights, murders and deaths by intoxication. It was inferred that the consumption of gin may have been linked to idleness and the incapacity to work, resulting in opportunistic crimes being committed to obtain money to satisfy their addiction to ‘Mother Gin’. The Puritans feared that the addled minds of drunk people might have supported the ever-present Jacobean threat, resulting in a return to Catholicism in Britain. These concerns have been well summarised in the 1736 Thomas Wilson’s pamphlet Distilled Spirituous Liquors the Bane of the Nation: people were ‘enervated by a fatal love of a slow but sure Poyson’. The likely lobbying of Sir John Gonson, a Westminster magistrate, associated with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, and Sir Joseph Jekyll, played an active role in the contended passage of the 1736 Gin Act that increased license fees and fines, and also aimed to reduce the smuggling of gin. Historians have started to investigate the impact of gin drinking on society, and according to Peter Clark, the reformists’ campaign against the spirits trade was ‘exaggerated and sensationalist’. His theory is supported by records of the time which demonstrate that in Clarkenwell, Mile End and Stepney, where gin selling was widespread, there was no substantial evidence of increased crime rates, and this was also reflected in the wider country.
Despite legislation being enacted in 1736, it failed to regulate gin selling leading to widespread public disorder by 1738. Many of the gin-shops and street gin selling occurred in the southern and eastern suburbs of London where gin was mostly popular amongst women. The increasingly observable situation of drunk mothers and neglected children caused moral outrage to the Puritans with their view of family life. There was a polarisation between drunken behaviour and thriftiness promoted by moralists. It was believed that heavy drinking was increasing the number of mothers and babies’ deaths, and that gin was the root of disruption of domestic oeconomy and respectability. It was also widely perceived that gin-drinking mothers were regarded to produce a ‘Spindle shank’d generation’, with the foetus being damaged in the womb. Above all, it was a commonly held thought that drunkenness led to fecklessness, and people were condemned to a life of misery. The renowned 1751 engraving by William Hogarth, Gin Lane, highlights all these threats posed to society. The print pictorialises the violence of excessive gin consumption depicting a ragged bare-breasted mother scraping the contents of her snuff box as her child is toppling from her arms down a cellar that bears the inscription Drunk for a penny, Dead drunk for twopence. The new 1751 Act was effective and restricted retailing to respectable sellers and raised duties on distilling, subsequently gin consumption fell. Overall, it can be asserted that the offensives of Parliament, middling urban society and reformers towards gin consumption blamed the poor for their behaviour.
This essay had discussed the different reasons why alehouses and gin-shops were a threat to the authorities in early modern England. Even though the consumption of ale had existed within English society in perpetuity, the increased popularity and concentration of excessive beer drinking became a problem from the mid-sixteenth century. Although the authorities were not against drinking per se, they were worried about the acts of disorder caused by excessive drinking. The authority exercised on the alehouses came from above, government and Parliament, and from below by Puritans and citizens. On the other hand, the gin craze was a sudden import from the continent in the late 1600s and started in metropolitan areas as opposed to the mostly rural alehouses. As demonstrated, the gin craze presented similar problems to the authorities as the alehouses, but included more acute threats that required urgent action: extreme criminality, adult mortality and infant deformity. It should be noted that the authorities’ reaction to the alehouses spanned a period of about one-hundred and fifty years and multiple acts of legislation by Parliament. This is a marked difference to legislation against the gin trade that took over a period of about twenty years culminating in the provisions set out in the Act of 1736. The seditious nature of alehouses only became to be considered a problem from the mid-1600s, prior to this period the alehouses were a focus of social discord which could have deemed to have been a threat to authority but it was not in its nature seditious. On the other hand, gin-shops were deemed to be seditious since their inception. The difference in the response by authorities to the alehouses and gin-shops could be partially explained by the hidden rural proliferation of the alehouses amongst the poor, compared to the self-evident chaos observable in Gin Lane by the urban upper and middle-classes. The influence of puritanism and its revulsion of the amoral family values, that resulted from the gin-craze, was probably more keenly felt in the metropolitan areas rather than in the countryside. Ultimately, it is very interesting to note the changes in historical perspective with regards to beer. As detailed in Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane, intended to be viewed together, alehouses were not seen as places of chaos and disorder any more, they were rather a site of social conviviality, in contrast with the parish of St. Giles portrayed as an urban image of an alcohol-induced road to oblivion.
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 Christopher Hudson 1631 in Peter, Clark, ‘The Alehouse and the Alternative Society’ in Donald Pennington and Keith Thomas (eds.), Puritans and Revolutionaries. Essays in Seventeenth-Century History presented to Christopher Hill, (Oxford, 1978), p.47
 Hogarth, William and Fielding, Henry, Gin Lane, (1751) <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Beer- street-and-Gin-lane.jpg>[accessed 15 February 2017]
 Mark, Hailwood, Alehouses and Good Fellowship in Early Modern England, (Boydell and Brewer Ltd, 2014),p.5
 Peter, Clark, The English Alehouse: a Social History 1200-1830, (London, 1983),pp.42-47
 Clark, The Alehouse,p.53
 Patricia, Fumerton, ‘Not Home: Alehouses, Ballads and the Vagrant Husband in Early Modern England’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies,32:3 (Fall 2002),p.505
 Hailwood, Alehouses,p.41
 James, Nicholls, The Politics of Alcohol: A History of the Drink Question in England, (Manchester University Press, 2011),p.11
 Sir Richard Grosvenor 1625 in Hailwood, Alehouses,p.19
 Angela, McShane, ‘Material Culture and Political Drinking in Seventeenth Century England’, Past and Present Supplement 9, (2014),p.260
 Marika, Keblusek, ‘Wine for Comfort: Drinking and The Royalist Exile Experience, 1642-1660’, in Adam Smyth (ed.), A Pleasing Sinne. Drink and Conviviality in Seventeenth-Century England, (Cambridge, 2004),pp.55-68
 Bernard, Capp, England’s Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and Its Enemies in the Interregnum, 1649-1660, (Oxford University Press, 2012),pp.162
 Keith, Wrightson, ‘Alehouses, Order and Reformation in Rural England, 1590-1660’ in Eileen Yeo and Stephen Yeo, (eds.), Popular Culture and Class Conflict 1590-1914: Explorations in the History of Labour and Leisure, (The Harvester Press Limited, 1981),p.8
 Nicholls, Politics,pp.13-15
 Scott in Hailwood, Alehouses,p.65
 James, Brown, ‘Drinking Houses and the Politics of Surveillance in Pre-industrial Southampton’, in B. Kümin (ed.), Political space in Pre-industrial Europe, (Ashgate, 2009),pp.61-80
 Mark, Hailwood,'”It puts good reason into brains”: Popular Understandings of the Effects of Alcohol in Seventeenth-Century England’,Brewery History,150 (2013),p.14
 Peter, Clark, The ‘Mother Gin’ Controversy in the Early Eighteenth Century, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society,vol.38 (1988),p.68
 Wilson in Jonathan, White, ‘”The “slow but sure Poyson”: The Representation of Gin and its Drinkers,1736-1751,’ Journal of British Studies,42:1(2003),p.46
 Clark, Mother Gin,pp.74-75
 Maddox in White, The Representation,p.59-63
 Nicholls, The Politics,p.40
 Hogarth, Gin Lane, (1751)
 Hogarth, Beer Street and Gin Lane (1751)
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