After marriage, dissolution, and prostitution, William Hogarth turned his jaundiced eye toward poverty; specifically, the slums of St. Giles. As did Sir John Gonson, whom we met in one of my posts about A Harlot’s Progress, feverishly attempting to clean up the sexual sins of Covent Garden. It seems the Justice now had a passion to prosecute those with a new fever – gin.
The “Gin Craze,” as it was called, nearly destroyed London in the first half of the 18th century. The “slow but sure poyson” was robbing Londoners of all manner of wisdom and reliability to maintain even the most basic activities of daily living. William Hogarth’s print Gin Lane, circa 1750-51, marked the beginning of the end of the period, but illustrated every evil and ill about it. The central figure of the woman so bewitched by gin that she’s driven to prostitution and condemned by syphilis, letting her baby fall to his death, shocked the world as much then as it does now – but it was not artistic license. It was shocking, horrid, reality.
In 1734, mother and gin addict Judith Dufour took back custody of her two-year-old child from a workhouse, then promptly strangled the child so as to sell its new set of clothes to be able to buy gin. Another woman, Mary Estwick, let a toddler burn to death while she lay passed out from gin.
And where were the men? A little further down the stairwell; that is, not even making it home, lying in fermenting stupors in gutters and alleys, or locked away in prison.
Gin Lane, William Hogarth, 1750-51, British Museum.
From the British Museum description:
A scene of urban desolation with gin-crazed Londoners, notably a woman who lets her child fall to its death and an emaciated ballad-seller; in the background is the tower of St George’s Bloomsbury; in this state, the child’s face has been changed so that the face is wizened and the eyes sunken.
From the Wikipedia description:
Other images of despair and madness fill the scene: a lunatic cavorts in the street beating himself over the head with a pair of bellows while holding a baby impaled on a spike—the dead child’s frantic mother rushes from the house screaming in horror; a barber has taken his own life in the dilapidated attic of his barber-shop, ruined because nobody can afford a haircut or shave; on the steps, below the woman who has let her baby fall, a skeletal pamphlet-seller rests, perhaps dead of starvation, as the unsold moralising pamphlet on the evils of gin-drinking, The Downfall of Mrs Gin, slips from his basket. An ex-soldier, he has pawned most of his clothes to buy the gin in his basket, next to the pamphlet that denounces it. Next to him sits a black dog, a symbol of despair and depression. Outside the distiller a fight has broken out, and a crazed cripple raises his crutch to strike his blind compatriot.
Images of children on the path to destruction also litter the scene: aside from the dead baby on the spike and the child falling to its death, a baby is quieted by its mother with a cup of gin, and in the background of the scene an orphaned infant bawls naked on the floor as the body of its mother is loaded into a coffin on orders of the beadle. Two young girls who are wards of the parish of St Giles—indicated by the badge on the arm of one of the girls—each take a glass. In front of the pawnbroker’s door a starving boy and a dog fight over a bone, while next to them a girl has fallen asleep; approaching her is a snail, emblematic of the sin of sloth.
In the distance the church of St. George’s Church, Bloomsbury is seen, but only faintly, and the picture is composed so the pawnbroker’s sign forms a huge corrupted cross for the steeple: the people of Gin Lane choose to worship elsewhere.
This poem accompanied the original issuance of the print:
- Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught,
- Makes human Race a Prey.
- It enters by a deadly Draught
- And steals our Life away.
- Virtue and Truth, driv’n to Despair
- Its Rage compells to fly,
- But cherishes with hellish Care
- Theft, Murder, Perjury.
- Damned Cup! that on the Vitals preys
- That liquid Fire contains,
- Which Madness to the heart conveys,
- And rolls it thro’ the Veins.