Spirit of the Age
Gin has long been London’s tipple of choice. Together, we’ll explore one of the legacies of this love affair, the Victorian gin palace
From its birth in the slums of the late 17th century to the gin craze of the 18th century and the gin palaces of the 1830s, not forgetting the invention of the gin and tonic and a 21st-century renaissance, gin is to London what whisky is to the Celtic countries.
Londoners have always loved their gin, sometimes a little too much. As immortalised by Hogarth’s 1751 print Gin Lane, the craze had reached epidemic proportions among the city’s poor in the preceding few decades.
From 1720 to 1751, when the gin craze was at its peak, one in four houses had a still, and the drink could be bought cheaply from a public house or shop – there were between 6,000 and 7,000 dram-shops in London – as well as street wheelbarrow vendors. Mass drunkenness sparked national concern and it would take five acts of parliament to quell the craze.
But with the backstreet distillers shut down, the Victorian predilection for big business on the rise and gin back on the road to respectability, a new gin-loving era was on the horizon with the arrival of London’s glittering gin palaces.
Big-spending beer brewers, keen to exploit the population’s increasing disposable income, set about mimicking the ornate style of glamorous new department stores and shops.
With the recently introduced gas lighting and elaborately styled with spectacular tiling, woodwork and cut glass, gin palaces appealed to drinkers from all walks of life.
Several of these establishments were even designed by the most esteemed architects of the day. Thompson and Fearon’s in Holborn, the first gin palace to open in 1831, was designed John Buonarotti Papworth, whose accomplishments included designing the Montpellier Pump Room in Cheltenham and refurbishing Boodle’s gentlemen’s club in St James’s, London.
By the 1850s, there were some 5,000 around the city. In 1836, the young journalist Charles Dickens described their allure in Sketches by Boz: “All is light and brilliancy… the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling.”
Yet, resplendent surroundings aside, gin palaces were still designed for the mass consumption of cheap gin and differed from public houses; there was usually no seating or food served, and they were often rather raucous. The gin was stored in huge barrels and served in jugs and smaller casks as part of increasingly alluring concoctions such as “cream of the valley” or “celebrated butter gin” to help create the allusion of sophistication.
No early gin palaces survive in their original glory. However, many were refitted during the public house boom of the late Victorian age in a style greatly inspired by the gin palace. Thankfully, some of these London hostelries survive today and can claim a straight line of descent to this illustrious heyday, allowing you to get a taste of those glamorous gin-crazy times.