William Hogarth would be turning in his grave if he knew that his infamous engraving, Gin Lane, was responsible for an affectionate nickname for the spirit.
It has had many names: Dutch Courage, Hollands and Ladies Delight but the most well known name for gin has to be Mother’s Ruin! Hardly the most complimentary of names, it’s usually said tongue in cheek though it’s origin, the central figure of Hogarth’s Gin Lane is far from positive.
The society depicted in GIn Lane is depraved, starving and “dead drunk”. The gin cellar is crowded, the owner making money from the losses of others on low quality products; the sign outside the shop proudly declaring “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, clean straw for nothing”. All of the other businesses are shutting, apart from the undertaker and the pawnbroker who both make a roaring trade from the drunks who sell their meagre belongings to buy just another pint of gin. The inhabitants are thin, almost emaciated, angry and lazy. Very few people are working, instead choosing to drink and let their trades fall by. At its centre is the ruined mother, slumped with her baby falling out of her arms and to its death. This was not supposed to be a frightening image of the future if gin consumption remained as it was but a stark image of the effect that gin was having on the country at that time.
Gin Lane was published in 1751, alongside Beer Street, as part of a UK-wide campaign to have gin creation and consumption placed under firm control. Hogarth was close to Henry Fielding who had written a treatise explaining the evils of gin, together they were part of the same, anti-gin movement. Consumption of gin had been at 7 million gallons in the capital alone and there were fears that dependency on gin was destroying quality of life, turning the Brits into shiftless, reckless and unproductive people as well as damaging health, businesses and promoting lewd and lascivious behavior. The fight against the gin craze was the 18th century's war on drugs.
Gin’s reputation in modern day Britain still carries some of its seedy past but the means of production and those that drink gin are unrecognisable from those that would be “drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two”. Gin is a premium drink to be relished, it’s different flavours and varieties to be compared and enjoyed sensibly.
Gin is affectionately called mother’s ruin today; what’s the best name you’ve heard for gin?
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