A picture caption is worth a thousand words

Sheila Corr discovered an engraving with an extraordinarily long caption whilst researching pictures to illustrate the March 2011 issue of History Today.

A readership survey a few years ago revealed that many people crave more information about the illustrations we use in the magazine and wonder whether our website might provide this. The design of the magazine doesn’t allow much space for long captions, so lots of interesting facts gathered in my research, or fascinating extra detail about pictures themselves, have to be omitted. This engraving showing a ‘Scene in a London Gin Palace’ is a good example.

Rather surprisingly, I found the reference on Google Images when I was searching for material to illustrate Jessica Warner’s article ‘The People’s Palaces’ published in the March 2011 issue. As far as I could ascertain, no building designed with the express purpose of selling gin survive (Weller’s and Thompson’s are certainly long gone). Nevertheless, I was keen to illustrate how the basic idea of the gin palace developed into the public house, with a bar counter, that we are familiar with today. The interior of the ‘gin palace’ shown here looks extraordinarily like our idea of a pub. Eventually, after looking at several unillustrated editions of The Working Man’s Friend, and Family Instructor, I got hold of this picture in the 1851 edition at the British Library and discovered that there wasn’t just a caption, there was an entire article about the dangers of ‘London Gin “Palaces”’ to scare the Victorian reader. The article describes ‘the ill-clad, dirty, miserable wretches’ in the ‘haunt of depravity’:

‘notice that miserable little girl who is dressed in rags, and has no stockings or shoes on, but is exerting every nerve to reach up to the counter and push her mother’s gin bottle into the hand of the well-dressed buxom landlady’

The article provides details of the building’s ‘tasteful architecture and costly decoration’ and gave me enough information to identify which 19th-century pubs retain many of the salient features of gin palaces:

'Though the doors of these temples of Bacchus stand invitingly ajar, the inmates are not exposed to public gaze. The windows are generally placed high, or else the lower panes are curiously engraved, or have opaque curtains drawn across them, so that passers-by cannot see what is going on within’.