Welcome to the first in our series of #clerkenwellcuriosities
Let's find out more about the role our EC1 played in the rise (and fall) of the gin trade!
The next time you are sipping your gin and tonic in the sunshine outside The Crown Tavern, spare a thought for the rather more sordid history of this classic tipple. And Clerkenwell plays a significant role in gin’s progression from lethal “Mother’s Ruin” to the rather more palatable London Dry you are enjoying today.
Back in the early 1700’s London was in the grip of what is now referred to as a “gin craze” and Clerkenwell was the site of many of the capital’s 6,000 illicit gin shops.
Apologies if this puts you off your G&T but at that time many of Clerkenwell’s gin establishments favoured a somewhat special recipe for the gin they produced and sold cheaply. They cut a few corners by distilling the spirit in pots using sawdust swept from the floors of local taverns and butchers. Then as a finishing touch, rather than flavour the resulting brew with the more traditional juniper, they used turpentine and even sulphuric acid. The resulting spirit was indeed lethal - and incredibly potent. Imagine the hangover!
There was actually little time spent recovering from the excesses as the spirit was so cheap (hence the oft-quoted “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, clean straw-free”)
and so potent that the poor literally drank it up around the clock in order to escape from the grinding poverty of their daily lives. In fact, in many ways, it was a more palatable option than drinking water which was usually contaminated by raw sewage and other tasty delights.
Detail from “Gin Lane” engraving by William Hogarth.
But all good things must come to an end (!). The powers that be were concerned that gin was fast becoming the staple diet for the impoverished of London. The "gin craze" was having a devastating effect on the nation as a whole, resulting in escalating crime and soaring death rates which were both attributed to the insatiable demand for the addictive spirit amongst the poor.
In 1729, Parliament stepped in to introduce the first in a series of Gin Acts which eventually phased out most - although not quite all - of the illicit production and sale of gin, and aimed to gain control of the industry by forcing establishments to trade from licensed premises.
So let’s raise a glass to the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, and the arrival and establishment of more “respectable” distillers such as Langdale’s, J & W Nicholson & Co, Booth’s and Gordon’s who were drawn by the ready supply of fresh (and now thankfully clean) water that Clerkenwell had always been well known for.
Detail Booths Gin Distillery Freize, Turnmill Street, EC1
And here in Clerkenwell, they began producing a clear, and much less toxic, liquid which became known as the familiar London Dry Gin.
So bottom’s up, chin chin, cheers and down the hatch. And let’s get another turpentine free round in. Even if it now costs a bit more than a penny.