Today marks the 250th anniversary of one of London’s most destructive riots, and it all started over an attempt to stop people drinking gin.
This was the era of the so-called Gin Craze, when the consumption of gin jumped manifold in the UK, and especially in London.
The origins of the Gin Craze can be dated to the abolition of the monopoly held by the London Guild of Distillers, and then the relaxation of licensing, so that even small kitchens could produce gin legally.
So popular was the distillation of gin that it was said that barely a street in London didn’t have a “hole in the wall”, where someone could get a tot of gin.
By the 1740s, the average Londoner was drinking 2.2 gallons (10 litres) of gin per year. And, that’s gin that was usually sold at about double the strength of the stuff we gently sip today with our tonic. Oh, and they didn’t have tonic either.
As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson, who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a “drunken ungovernable set of people”.
Daniel Defoe famously described the time saying that: “the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion’d compound Waters called Geneva, so that the common People seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not to desire it”
It was to try and curb the consumption of gin that the government passed a number of laws over the decades, but it was the Gin Act of 1769 that was to lead to days of riots across London in protest.
The main clause in the act was to ban distillation by small producers in London and imposed high taxes on the rest, but crucially, to protect alliances with European countries who were assisting in the American War of Independence, taxes on imports, especially of brandy which had been high, were abolished.
The Gin Act had been debated in Parliament and passed into law on 23rd March 1769 to beat the Easter holidays when sales surged, and been enforced immediately, with a number of people being arrested for selling the newly illicit gin in London.
This made the clampdown more widely known, and on 30th March, the head of the Protestant Association, Lord George Gordon gave an inflammatory speech at Spitalfields where he called the new law a favour to European — mainly Catholic — countries, and accused the government of using the Gin Act to impoverish Protestant Londoners who made a living from selling gin.
Fired up by his speech, two days later a huge crowd, estimated at 40,000 to 60,000 strong marched on Parliament to demand the repeal of the Gin Act, many wearing dark blue cockades which had become a symbol of the protestors as it was the same colour as the juniper berry.
The protestors were eventually dispersed with little trouble when the government summoned soldiers from the local Wellington Barracks.
However, the crowds then spread out, and started attacking houses thought to belong to the large distillers or Europeans importers of spirits. Some even took to attacking the few Catholic chapels in London, such as the Sardinian Embassy Chapel in Holborn.
The most notorious incident was when the crowds assembled at Moorfields and set off to attack nearby Newgate Prison, where gin sellers had been imprisoned. The attack on the prison almost destroyed the building, and amongst the gin sellers, a large number of other prisoners escaped in the mayhem.
The King issued a proclamation that evening summoning the army to deal with the rioters.
It was the next morning, the 2nd April that the army was finally called in, and an order issued to fire on any crowds of more than four people that refused to disperse. This was to be latter a very controversial move, as the Riot Act wasn’t formally read out, so the army’s actions which would today be condemned, was also possibly illegal.
About 285 people were shot dead, with another 200 wounded. Around 450 of the rioters were arrested. Of those arrested, about twenty or thirty were later tried and executed. An attempt to attack the Bank of England was narrowly averted when a combination of the London Military Association and regular troops repulsed rioters, resulting in heavy casualties.
The Gin Riots were finally put down on the evening of 2nd April as the crowds scattered. It was said that more property was damaged during the riots than in the entire French Revolution.
Lord Gordon, who many blamed for the Gin Riots was also arrested, and indictment stated that he “most wickedly, maliciously, and traitorously did ordain, prepare, and levy public war against our said lord, the King”. He was charged for High Treason, but acquitted as they were unable to prove that he had been seeking to overthrow the government, simply to change the law.
Although the government maintained the law, they softened the restrictions on local distillers and a campaign grew up to promote beer instead. Hogarth’s famous Beer Street and Gin Lane drawings being a propaganda tool to promote beer over gin.
Although the government trued to suppress the name, the riots were for a while known as the London Gin Riots, and it took some time for them to gain their more common name, the Gordon Riots. They are today seen more as an anti-catholic movement, as a large number of Europeans were attacked, but the riots, 250 years ago today, were really about an attempt by the government to stop people drinking gin.
Lord Gordon later died in disgrace and poverty in Newgate Prison, but his name was to live on — as a certain brand of Gin might be rather well known as Gordons.
One curious legacy of the riot though is that from that point onwards until as recent as 1973, a detachment of soldiers was based at the Bank of England to protect it against any more riots. The soldiers finally stopped guarding the bank 200 years later, on 31st March 1973, the eve of the London Gin Riot’s anniversary.
Yes, it’s that time of year again – an April Fool.
As usual, I’ve woven a tale around some very real events.
There were riots at government attempts to cut down on drinking gin in the 1730s, but they were small scale and more often aimed at informers than the government.
There however was a serious riot in London, instigated by Lord Gordon, but it was anti-catholic in nature, and not pro-gin. There was also a Gin Craze, but the two were separated by about 30 years.
I hope you enjoyed this little bit of mischief, and maybe had a nice gin while reading it.