WOW ~ Word of the Week ~ Humming Liquor

Two weeks ago, I looked at William Hogarth’s engraving of Gin Lane, his depiction of London’s obsession with and addiction to blue ruin. It was equal parts satirical and heartrending.

This week I’m examining its sister piece, the less famous Beer Street. While gin was seen as a drink for the poor and desperate, beer was a drink for the hard-working everyman, a well-deserved reward for a honest day’s work. By the Regency era, gin still drew derision, while beer even came into vogue as a breakfast beverage for lords of the Corinthian set.

Having seen life from inside prison as a young boy when his father was incarcerated for an outstanding debt, Hogarth knew the hardships faced by those in want, and many think it later informed his art.

It definitely seems to have shaped his contrasts between Gin Lane and Beer Street.

Humming Liquor

Double ale, stout pharaoh.

Beer Street, William Hogarth, 1750-51, British Museum.

From the British Museum description:

A flourishing urban scene with well fed citizens; in the foreground, butchers, fish wives and a City of London porter hold large tankards of beer; a butcher lifts a skinny Frenchman into the air with one hand; in the background, paviours repair the street, chairmen carry a stout lady, tailors sew in a well lit attic, builders work on the roof of a house clad with scaffolding, and a warehouseman hauls a barrel to an upper storey – all are drinking beer; poverty appears only in the ragged coat of the artist painting the tavern sign and, more particularly, in the collapsing house of “N Pinch Pawn Broker”.

From the Wikipedia description:

In comparison to the sickly hopeless denizens of Gin Lane, the happy people of Beer Street sparkle with robust health and bonhomie. “Here all is joyous and thriving. Industry and jollity go hand in hand”. The only business that is in trouble is the pawnbroker: Mr Pinch lives in the one poorly maintained, crumbling building in the picture. In contrast to his Gin Lane counterpart, the prosperous Gripe, who displays expensive-looking cups in his upper window (a sign of his flourishing business), Pinch displays only a wooden contraption, perhaps a mousetrap, in his upper window, while he is forced to take his beer through a window in the door, which suggests his business is so unprofitable as to put the man in fear of being seized for debt. The sign-painter is also shown in rags, but his role in the image is unclear.

The rest of the scene is populated with doughty and good-humoured English workers. It is George II’s birthday (30 October) (indicated by the flag flying on the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in the background) and the inhabitants of the scene are no doubt toasting his health. Under the sign of the Barley Mow, a blacksmith or cooper sits with a foaming tankard in one hand and a leg of beef in the other. Together with a butcher—his steel hangs at his side—they laugh with the pavior (sometimes identified as a drayman) as he courts a housemaid (the key she holds is a symbol of domesticity). Ronald Paulson suggests a parallel between the trinity of signs of ill-omen in Gin Lane, the pawnbroker, distiller, and undertaker, and the trinity of English “worthies” here, the blacksmith, pavior, and butcher. Close by a pair of fish-sellers rest with a pint and a porter sets down his load to refresh himself. In the background, two men carrying a sedan chair pause for drink, while the passenger remains wedged inside, her large hoop skirt pinning her in place. On the roof, the builders, who are working on the publican’s house above the “Sun” tavern share a toast with the master of a tailor’s workshop. In this image it is a barrel of beer that hangs from a rope above the street, in contrast to the body of the barber in Gin Lane.

Beer, happy Produce of our Isle

Can sinewy Strength impart,
And wearied with Fatigue and Toil

Can cheer each manly Heart.
Labour and Art upheld by Thee

Successfully advance,
We quaff Thy balmy Juice with Glee

And Water leave to France.
Genius of Health, thy grateful Taste

Rivals the Cup of Jove,
And warms each English generous Breast

With Liberty and Love!


Slang term taken from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.