'Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be'
‘Gin Lane’ was never a real London street. But in the eighteenth century the streets around the church of St Giles in the Fields, a short walk south of Tottenham Court Road tube station, were the heart of the ‘rookeries’ of St Giles – the worst slums in Europe, and the heartland of the ‘gin craze’ and its effects. It was here that William Hogarth – London’s greatest and most savage satirist – set his vision of social and moral collapse.
Born in 1697, Hogarth was the son of a poor London schoolmaster. He began his career as an apprentice to an engraver on Leicester Fields. His first satirical print, published in 1721, lampooned the collapse of the ‘South Sea Bubble’, and by 1751, the year of ‘Gin Lane’, he was London’s leading satirist and a gifted portrait painter. The worst effects of the gin craze were more than a decade past, but In October 1748 the War of the Austrian Succession came to an end. British forces had been heavily invested in the war, and within a few months more than eighty thousand demobbed soldiers and sailors were back on the streets of British cities. Many feared a new crime-wave fuelled by cheap gin, and this inspired Hogarth to his greatest stroke of satire.
It’s easy to forget that ‘Gin Lane’ did not stand alone, but was one of a pair with another engraving – ‘Beer Street’. Hogarth contrasted the virtues engendered by English beer, and the vices provoked by foreign gin. In ‘Gin Lane’ he shows all the good things in life being neglected in a desperate struggle for gin. The distillery and the pawnbroker are thriving, but workmen are pawning their tools. A child cries as its mother is buried in a pauper’s grave. And a drunkard has impaled a baby on a spit.
But our eyes are drawn to two figures in the foreground. On the right, a demobbed soldier is starving to death, carrying a bottle of gin. On the left, a drunken, pox-raddled woman – perhaps ‘Madam Geneva’ herself – takes a pinch of snuff. Her child, who has fallen from her arms towards the hard stone floor of a cellar, which is also a gin shop. Over the entrance is engraved ‘Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence, clean straw for nothing’. Beneath the picture Hogarth added verses by his friend James Townley, a clergyman and dramatist:
Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught,
Makes human Race a Prey.
It enters by a deadly Draught
And steals our Life away.