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That Hogarth picture, "Gin Lane" also shows a mother so consumed with alcohol that she cares not that her baby is tumbling from her arms down a stairway to its death. Like a lot of people on first seeing the picture, I found that the most terrible and frightening part of the crowded scene, and one that has stayed with me for years.
I fancy that the picture illustrates an already acknowledged truism that gin has the potency to undo the strongest bond known to humans, that between mother and child; truly a ruinous influence when seen in its context.
The 18th century started with many stiff drinks available, especially French brandy and Dutch gin, but it was the English, or so-called Geneva gin, that became popular as a mass narcotic. Women in large numbers both drank and sold gin. It was a ready market for the grain producers who set up their own distilleries and thus realised greater profit in a depressed grain market. The government joined in by taxing and later licencing production. The gin craze was fuelled by economic protectionism.
The eight Gin Acts passed in Britain between 1729 and 1751 cynically maintained the flow of revenue while showing sham concern for public drunkenness; love the sin but loathe the sinner! That bastion of Georgian corruption, Sir Robert Walpole, played a key role in this balancing act.
The craze ended as it had begun, because of economic circumstances, not government legislation. The price of grain rose in 1751 so landowners could afford to abandon the stills. Rapid population growth and some disastrous harvests depressed wages and increased food prices, thus choking money available for alcohol. The now largely dead gin craze suffered one final blow in 1757, when the government banned the manufacture of spirits from domestic grain.