To celebrate London History Day we had a close look at our collections and tried to find records that reflected on London’s past but would speak to Londoners today; and that's how I found the Tippling Act.
Dutch-born William of Orange took the English throne in 1688, and with him came jenever, a juniper-flavored spirit from Holland. At the time, England was at war with France and the English government placed an embargo on French wine and spirits. For a small fee, however, it was possible to start a distillery business. Grain was cheap and plentiful, and a rough approximation of genever, called "gin," was easy to make. During the 18th century, the lives of London’s urban poor were short, brutal affairs. And although most could not afford the opium, brandy and wine favoured by the wealthy, nearly everyone could buy gin. Before too long, gin was even cheaper than beer and got a reputation as being the cause of much vice and debauchery.
The Tippling Act 1751 regulated the distilling of ‘Spirituous Liquors’, specifically gin, in fact it became known as the Gin Act.
The reason for the passing of the Act is described below:
‘… the immoderate drinking of distilled Spirituous Liquors by Persons of the meanest and lowest sort, hath of late years increased, to the great Detriment of the Health and Morals of the common People; and the same hath in measure been owing to the Number of Persons who have obtained Licenses to retail the same, under Pretence of being Distillers, and of those who have presumed to retail the same without Licence, most especially in the Cities of London and Westminster, the Borough of Southwark and other Places …’
The Act imposed a £5 annual licence that distillers would have to purchase, the equivalent of £430 today. An additional clause in the Act meant that distillers would not be able to sell their liquor directly to customers nor could any liquor be consumed on their premises.
1751 was the same year that William Hogarth’s Gin Lane was published. Hogarth's illustration of the evils of gin-drinking was published as a pair with ‘Beer Street’, as part of a campaign against the uncontrolled production and sale of cheap gin.
This Act was the 7th in a series of 8 Acts trying to regulate the consumption of alcohol. After the passing of this Act the number of gin shops was greatly reduced. Although there are stories of bootleg gin being delivered If people were found to be in violation of the Act they could be fined up to £10, sentenced to 3 months hard labour or transported to ‘any of His Majesty’s Plantations’ for up to seven years. If the last few years the rules around distilling gin has been relaxed and that’s why we’ve seen an explosion of smaller boutique distilleries.