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Gin in Regency England

While industrialists in Manchester were busily engaged in developing the factory system, investors in London were applying its principles to the capital’s old pubs. The result was a coldly efficient business model. Jessica Warner explains how it worked and why it failed.

'Gin Juggarnath or the Worship of the Great Spirit of the Age', 1835, G CruikshankThe Labour Party’s 2010 manifesto committed it to protecting the ‘pubs on which community life depends’. The underlying alarm that the traditional English public house is rapidly disappearing has been raised so many times over the past two centuries that it may seem a small miracle that any are still standing. Some of the threats to the pub are more real than others, however, and of these one of the most serious came from the monster gin palaces of the Regency era.

The palaces began to appear in the early 19th century in all of England’s rapidly growing towns and cities – in Manchester and its suburbs of Bolton and Blackburn, in Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Hull – but also in smaller places such as Lincoln and Scarborough. But these new venues were small in comparison with the great palaces that were built in London between the 1820s and 1830s. The 14 largest of these were serving a total of more than half a million customers a week at their peak and, on a good night, any one of them could take as much as a guinea a minute.

For several years these establishments seemed poised to drive London’s old pubs out of business: the drinks were cheaper, the settings fancier and, according to an article of 1835, the more capital investors poured into improving the premises, the more ‘publican after publican was compelled to embellish expensively or lose the trade’. The palaces were infinitely more efficient in moving customers in and out and by all accounts they should have eliminated the competition. In the short term the gin palaces flourished and their owners made enormous profits by turning old pubs into assembly lines that could serve hundreds of people an hour. In the long term, however, the model was a failure. The primary reason for this was that the success of the palaces depended on turning the experience of drinking into a mere mechanical act.

Palaces for all

Charles Dickens and George Cruikshank have done much to shape our impression of gin palaces. The first in his Sketches by Boz, the second in his increasingly lurid cartoons of shabby drunkards drinking themselves into an early grave. In both instances we are given a strong visual idea of gas lights and plate glass windows on the outside, gleaming counters on the inside and, behind these, huge casks of fancifully labelled spirits – ‘Old Tom’, ‘Young Tom’ and the like. Their basic layout was established by about 1815. The idea behind this was to promote high customer turnover. Long counters, already a fixture in many shops and pubs, were added and chairs removed along with all other amenities that might have encouraged people to linger. Customers would enter through one door, buy their drinks at a counter and, having downed them, promptly exit through another door.

Today the palaces are mostly remembered, if at all, for their architectural conceits. Several were designed by notable architects.The first, and in many ways the most notorious, Thompson and Fearon’s on Holborn Hill, was designed and built by John Buonarotti Papworth between 1829 and 1832. (Papworth’s other projects included the Landsdowne Place and the Crescent in Cheltenham.) The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, founded in 1826 with the goal of publishing improving literature for the working classes, wrote slightingly in 1837 of the palaces’ ‘jumble of awkward, tawdry, meretricious finery’, but even it had to concede that some were major buildings in their own right, including one by George Maddox and another by the architect William Inwood (or one of his sons).

Investors in palaces singled out existing public houses, buying them and pouring vast sums into their renovation. The cost of converting a ‘common public-house’ in Southwark into a ‘splendid gin-palace’ was rumoured to be £3,000. Twice that amount is supposed to have gone into furnishing a gin palace in Lambeth. Buildings on this scale represented huge investments of capital. The Temperance Journal (1839) estimated £2,000 for an establishment of an ‘ordinary class’, £10,000 or more for one of the showier palaces. If valuations from retail bankruptcies are any guide, investments in the palaces were high even by the inflated standards of Regency London. Of a list of these failed businesses, only one, the haberdashery of Stephens and Croft, put a comparable sum (£4,000) into improving its premises.

The new palaces were a far cry from the old gin shops of the 18th century. These served drams to a handful of customers and, because they were small-scale and often unlicensed, tended to be hidden from view, often operating out of the backroom of a shop or private home. One such shop in St Thomas, Exeter, was typical. It was run by a widow, Mrs Elizabeth Knapman. In 1838 a neighbour complained about the noise, ‘there being but a slight partition dividing the shop from the sitting-room of the dwelling-house’. Gin shops like Mrs Knapman’s continued to operate well into the 19th century, though they had faced competition from wine and spirit merchants who were selling cheap drams as a sideline from as early as the 1780s. By 1791 the latter were mockingly referred to as ‘Wine and Brandy Vaults’, an epithet that would subsequently be shortened to ‘gin-vaults’.

The new style palaces operated as both on- and off-licence establishments. A spur to their development  was an ill-conceived piece of legislation intended to reduce smuggling. In 1825 duties on English spirits were reduced from 11s 8¼d a gallon to 7s. The most immediate effect of this was to make spirits more affordable to the working classes, especially as beer, to all intents and purposes, had been priced beyond their reach. In London, the price of porter had jumped from 3½ pence a quart in 1791 to 5½ pence in 1819. One thing the new generation of gin shops had in common with the old was the welcome they extended to the poor. This was a group that the pubs, with their expensive offerings and ambition to attract a more upscale clientele, were increasingly excluding – in 1826 the writer Sydney Smith took them to task for ‘treating humble and ill-dressed people with the most sovereign contumely and contempt’.

A long counter and an absence of chairs were a feature of the gin palaceWith the reduction of duties the consumption of domestic spirits more than doubled in England and Wales, rising from just under 3,700,000 gallons in 1825 to just over 7,400,000 in 1826. The number of licences to sell spirits also shot up and with them the number of gin palaces. The combination – rising consumption and an explosion of outlets – fuelled the nascent temperance movement. Concerns about the effects of both surfaced shortly before the official launching of the British and Foreign Temperance Society in 1830. A great many people believed that the working poor were squandering both their money and time on cheap gin. The new-style gin shops first came under sustained attack in autumn 1829 when the magistrates in Middlesex, who controlled the licensing of pubs across north London, urged their colleagues to withhold licences from speculators who were buying out old alehouses for the sole purpose of retailing spirits. The satirist George Cruikshank weighed in, publishing in 1829 a particularly macabre cartoon ‘The Gin Shop’ in Scraps and Sketches and the subsequent attention it received in the newspapers encouraged concerned citizens to voice their own complaints in letters to the Editor of The Times.

It was in one such letter dating from 1829 that the new buildings were compared to palaces, but the epithet ‘gin palace’ did not appear in print until the end of 1833. A year later it was being used with increasing frequency in newspapers, temperance propaganda and even in a comedy which appeared in December that year, Harlequin and Queen Mab.

A model for success

The label ‘gin palace’ mocked the size and garishness of the new buildings. But the term also pointed to another defining feature: the fact that they were purpose-built like the new large-scale department stores and pubs. The British and Foreign Review (1840) likened the palaces to ‘traders on a large scale – the Swan and Edgars of their trade’. The Era (1839) compared the practice of selling drinks over a counter with that of selling ‘goods in a draper’s shop’, while the Temperance Journal evoked the ‘mercantile-house’: ‘Your gin-palaces are scarcely more than this’.

These huge shops provided a business model for the gin palaces that centred on three features: low wages, low prices and high-volume sales. The practice that set all of this in motion was that of ticketing merchandise. Fixed prices allowed retailers to dispense with skilled clerks. In turn, reduced labour costs allowed them to sell at a discount. Entrepreneurs who followed the model made their profits not through customer loyalty but through high turnover. And to attract a steady stream of new customers they relied on increasingly eye-catching window displays.

The cardinal feature of the grand shops was their cash nexus. Every relationship, whether between employers and employees or between proprietors and customers, was reduced to a mere monetary exchange. The gin palaces took this state-of-the-art retail model and applied it to an activity (drinking) that had always had a strong social component. The result was something of a paradox. The palaces were enormously crowded places and yet the experience of the typical drinker was a solitary one. One of the most outspoken of the proprietors, Henry Bradshaw Fearon, commented that eight out of ten of his customers would drink a penny’s worth of gin ‘in less than a minute’, upon which they would immediately leave. The American politician Theodore Sedgwick visited three palaces in Holborn in 1836 and in each he saw customers going ‘in at one door and out at another’. None of the people ‘stayed long, as far as we could see; they came in, drank, and went off.’ Or, as another observer put it in 1831: ‘Every minute the door opens, and some slide in, and some slide out, without saying a word to each other.’

This pattern of hasty drinking in part reflected the status of the clientele. A large number, if not most, were recent immigrants to the cities, whether London or the factory towns of the north. They were, by extension, strangers to each other. But the pattern was also glumly consistent with the haste and indifference with which many working-class people in the capital necessarily bolted down their food. Customers might conceivably have lingered had there been seats. But there were none, just as there were no newspapers, no meeting facilities and no activities or games such as were offered in pubs. Instead, premium was placed on cultivating repeat business and maximising turnover. The physician, John Hogg, a great enemy of the palaces, played up this distinction when he asked what might happen ‘if the poor man, tired from his labour, [should] ask leave to sit down and take his pot of porter’? His exhausted labourer would ‘most probably be told by one of the flippant attendants at the bar that they can give no such accommodation; that, in fact, they do not provide room for people who come there on business’.

The flippant attendants Hogg mentions are unlikely to have said even this much to the average customer, not when there were so many behind them waiting to be served. When George Wilson, a grocer living on Tothill Street, St James’s, was asked to testify before a parliamentary committee on drunkenness in 1834, he spoke of men working ‘in their shirt sleeves behind the counters, the exertion from the number of customers not allowing them to wear their coats’. The barman described by the journalist George Augustus Sala in 1859 was in constant motion, one hand on a tap, the other ‘presented for the requisite halfpence ... his face is flushed; his manner short, concise, sententious. His vocabulary is limited; a short “Now then”, and a brief “Here you are”, forming the staple phrases thereof.’

The great spirit dealers

The one person customers almost never saw was the gin palace owner. Most chose to live as far away as possible from the noise and commotion of the premises, typically in the suburbs. David Brooke, a Leeds factory worker who testified before the same committee, told how the owner of the local palace had recently moved into a new house, ‘more like a mansion than a tradesman’s residence’, in the suburb of Woodhouse. Owners who lived on the premises spent little or no time interacting with their customers. George Wilson spoke of landlords who lived like gentlemen and kept ‘horses and grooms, and large establishments, and shopmen to serve their customers’. If they did any work at all, it was to ‘superintend the counting-house department, and give orders to those around them’. A few years later, in 1838, the Morning Chronicle was similarly grumbling about ‘the gin-seller, who drives up to his establishment in his four-wheel chaise, and who leaves the spinning of his gin and the gathering of his large profits to his barmaids’.

The great question was where these men got the money to build the palaces and here their critics could only speculate. They were sure that the distillers were operating their own tied-house system but, while there is occasional evidence for this, it is far from overwhelming. The 1834 committee hoped to turn public opinion against the palaces by showing that there was a cartel behind them, but it failed to produce hard proof. One witness spoke vaguely of a ‘company formed in London for the purpose of buying any old free public-house that can be met with’. Elsewhere he baldly claimed that a ‘great many’ of the palaces were ‘under the control of the great spirit dealers’. Robert Edwards Broughton, a London police magistrate and barrister, was more cautious, saying that he knew of individual investors, but not of any company per se. Thomas Hinton and Thomas Hartley were also circumspect, the latter saying only that ‘there never appears any want of money to enlarge or to decorate these places’.

For contemporaries the most elusive piece of the puzzle was how the owners of the gin palaces could make a profit by selling at a discount, especially after they had spent thousands of pounds upgrading their facilities. The answer, all too familiar to us today, was to keep prices low by keeping wages down and turnover high.

Temperance reformers could have solved the puzzle had they considered more deeply the implications of the counts they made of the palaces’ customers. But it better suited their purposes to attribute the palaces’ profits to unscrupulous business practices. The usual explanations came down to the two offered by the Lord Mayor of London, Henry Winchester, in an exchange with a publican in 1834: ‘Either the gin must be very bad, or the glasses very small, to afford any profit.’ In at least one establishment, the glasses must have been very small indeed, for they were supposed to have held just a farthing’s worth of gin. The existence of ‘squib’ glasses especially designed for Manchester’s child labourers, and which held a halfpence’s worth of gin, was also rumoured.

Not only was the gin ‘very bad’, it was also watered down. This had been standard practice in the 18th century, but the palaces cut even more corners. They did not serve shots of pure spirits: they served mixed drinks and weak ones at that. Fearon made no secret of selling gin containing equal parts water and spirits. The drams at another palace were allegedly so weak as to be ‘little better than strong grog’. Theodore Sedgwick tried a half-penny’s worth of gin and found it ‘undoubtedly adulterated; it seemed to be sweetened, and certainly had not the flavour of pure gin’.

In accusing the palace owners of diluting their drinks and then serving them in ridiculously small measures temperance reformers undercut their own  argument, namely that the new-style drinking establishments had led to a major increase in drunkenness among the working poor. So which was it? Did the palaces lead to an upsurge in alchohol consumption or were the drinks they served too weak and too small to have made much of a difference?

In the short run, per capita consumption of spirits did increase. But the driving force behind that increase was not the palaces: it was the sharp reduction in duties that took place in 1825. And at no point did per capita consumption come close to the high (2.2 gallons) reached at the height of the gin craze in 1743. In 1831, by contrast, the average English person aged 15 or older was drinking just 1.42 gallons of spirits a year. To put the figure in historical perspective, it is significantly higher than today’s average (just over a half-gallon per head), but considerably lower than the 5.9 gallons the average American was drinking in 1830.

Reinventing the gin palaces

In their first incarnation, the gin palaces filled for the poor the void left by the pubs. They also welcomed another ostracised group: women. If temperance reformers are to be believed, female customers actually outnumbered men in the palaces that catered to Manchester’s factory workers in the mid-1830s. One is supposed to have been frequented by ‘not fewer than 2,000 persons, chiefly females’, on a Saturday night. Another, kept under close observation for eight Saturdays in a row, reportedly served an average of 163 women and 112 men every 40 minutes.

The 1830 Beer Act effectively ended the monopoly of the palaces by giving the poor a new place to drink: the beer shops. In return for paying an annual excise of two guineas any ratepayer could now sell beer and within days of the Act’s taking effect thousands of licences had been purchased for the new ‘Tom and Jerry shops’. The Beer Act also made beer more affordable by abolishing the duty on beer (though not on hops and malt). At the same time, owners of existing licensed establishments embarked on a new round of improvements in an attempt to create an attractive alternative to the dingy beer shops. While the palaces led the way, the pubs were never far behind. There was, however, one crucial difference: the new pubs did not, as a rule, sacrifice sociability. If anything, they made this their chief selling point. Games and wholesome sport – skittle, lawn bowls, quoits, cricket, baths and a swimming pond – these were the principal attractions of William Laxton’s 1839 blueprint for a suburban public house in the ‘Old English Style’.

By the 1850s the distinction between the gin palaces and the newly renovated pubs was quickly fading. Part of the reason lay in the growing prosperity of the working classes: rising wages, combined with reduced duties on beer and spirits, meant that many of those who had once used the palaces could now afford to buy their drinks from a pub. The haughty publicans Sydney Smith complained about were also more accommodating, if only because the middle classes increasingly preferred their homes and clubs to the rowdiness of the pubs.

What is fascinating is the direction of this change: the pubs could have become more like the palaces and visually they did. But ultimately, it was the palaces that became more like the pubs. The practice of building ever-more elaborate drinking establishments continued unabated for another half-century, but the idea that pubs are as much social as commercial spaces emerged unscathed. There are countless businesses that succeed by moving their customers in and out like so many parts on an assembly line; the English pub is not one of them.

Jessica Warner teaches history at the University of Toronto's Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

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