Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Low-Life Deeps, by James Greenwood, 1881 [first published 1875] - London's Bane

[... back to menu for this book]



SAY the energetic and well-meaning gentlemen who would convert the whole country to be total abstainers - the lurking devil at the heart and core of the whole business, is not so much that pure spirit or a simple effusion of good hops and roasted barley hurts the man who drinks it: it is the sickening concoctions, the baneful ingredients, that the unscrupulous publican finds it to his profit to add to the various liquors he dispenses that works the main mischief. The "this" that destroys the liver, the "that" that benumbs the heart, the t'other that scorches up and withers the brain - the slow and insidious poisons that the publican sells in the guise of "good liquor." Without doubt, this is the most powerful weapon the total abstainers wield; and it is equally certain that they have availed themselves of the privilege to the fullest possible extent. It is on this spear that they are perpetually spitting the unlucky possessor of a licence to sell spirits and beer, and holding him up to public execration as a fiend in human shape-a sort of bloated vampire, squatted on the bodies of his million victims, whose blood and sustenance he has devoured. And though, of course, calmly reasoning people have felt it incumbent on them to make broad allowances for party-blind exaggeration, there exists a universal opinion, that the publican does doctor "his liquors." Doctor is the mild phrase used. Gentlemen of the House of Commons speak of it as an established fact. [-193-] Ministers in the pulpit denounce it as a prevalent abomination, and no one contradicts them. Magistrates and judges proclaim in open court that, were it not for the pernicious and blood-inflaming concoctions that publicans sell in place of wholesome beverages, not one-tenth of the present number of criminals would be brought before them; and really the publicans' silence under such a formidable battery of accusations might well excuse those who opine that there must be "something in it."
    How much? A penn'orth of proof is worth a shipload of surmise. There is no use in beating a bush with a straw, or in whispering our suspicions of these intentions to a company of crows blackening a corn-field. If the publicans really are mixing poisonous drugs with their liquors, let us see to what extent.
    Acting on this resolve, I recently procured eight samples of gin - of common gin, such as is sold over the public-house counter at the rate of thousands of gallons every day. I thought it best to "sample" public-houses situated in the lowest neighbourhoods - not be it understood, because I wished to write a "sensational article," and artfully devised to obtain choice material to that end, but purely as a means of saving myself trouble. My idea was to take the very worst neighbourhoods; and then, if the result were very bad, to take neighbourhoods of a better class, in hopes of being able to show that it was only the hole-and-corner license-holder - the tradesman who accommodated the quality of his goods to the coarse and vitiated taste of his customer - that chiefly required looking after; and that the great majority of licensed victuallers are as honest in their dealings as could be desired, and entitled to the respect of their fellow-men. The most notorious neighbourhoods round London were visited for my gin collections - Saffron-hill, Leather-lane Shadwell; the New-cut, in Lambeth; Kent-street, in the Borough; Chapel-street, Westminster; Shoreditch, and Flower and Dean-street, in Spitalfields. A half-pint of gin was [-194-] procured at each place, and tenpence was the price paid for it - except in the Shoreditch case, where, on the strength of a prominent announcement made by a publican that he had on tap the very finest Old Tom at fourpence halfpenny a quartern, I became his customer to the extent of ninepence. Eight pints of beer were bought at the same time and at the same houses, and the sixteen samples were sealed and placed in the hands of a thoroughly competent analytical chemist, who has made a most careful examination, and returned to me the following "report," which I have more pleasure than I can express in laying before the reader. It should be premised that pure gin, as it is sent out from the distillery, commonly contains forty per cent, of real spirit, or absolute alcohol, to sixty parts of water, and that the most notorious ingredients of gin adulteration consist, or rather are popularly supposed to consist, of tincture of capsicum, paradise grains, turpentine, sulphate of zinc, and salt of tartar.
    Results of chemical analysis of eight samples of London gin:-
    Sample marked "L." -This was procured from the unsalubrious neighbourhood of Saffron-hill, a place abounding in courts and alleys, and peopled by as ragged, brawling, tippling a population as London can produce. In this sample there were found thirty-three parts of real spirits, and nothing besides but water sweetened with sugar and a suspicion of cayenne pepper.
    Sample marked " G." -This was from Leather-lane-from the very worst part of the lane - from a public-house in an alley of low repute; in fact, one frequently visited by the police. Real alcohol thirty-two per cent. No sulphate of zinc, no paradise grains, nothing besides the spirit, except sugar and water and some harmless aromatic flavourings.
    Sample "H." -From Shadwell - from Ratcliff-highway, where, as soon as the gas is lighted in the evening, swarms of women of the most hideous type emerge from their loathsome [-195-] dens, the sole business of whose life is to make sailors drunk and plunder them. In a neighbourhood such as this, if in any, there exists a temptation for the dishonest publican to "play tricks" with his gin. The lucrative pursuit of the vile trade that the women follow depends in great part on the accommodating disposition of the publican, and therefore the women dare not complain, and the sailors half their time are spoony drunk, and will swallow anything as long as gentle "Poll" of Wapping presses it on his acceptance. Well, what is the worst that can be said of the gin of Ratcliff-highway? Only that it contains thirty-one per cent. of spirit, with sugar and water. This sample, however, is prominent among the rest on account of one objectionable quality. "H" is very fiery from the presence of tincture of capsicum, says the chemist.
    Sample marked "O." - This from the New-cut; from the roaring, rattling market-place that is literally crammed on Saturday night, road and pathway, by working men and their wives; whose belief in its being lucky to spend the "market penny" is as old-established as it is respected. It is the New-cut to which every teetotal lecturer in the country refers when he wishes to present to his hearers a soul-thrilling picture of what may be witnessed in certain parts of London on the Sabbath-day, as soon as the houses are opened after church time, and on the Sabbath evening; the New-cut, with its every tenth house a tavern, and its many legends of publicans who have "made their fortune" in ten - in seven years! How much of the enormous profit that goes to bring about this miraculous result is derived from the sale of poison? None at all, if the half-pint of gin marked "O" may be regarded as a fair sample of the whole. It is the old story repeated - thirty-two parts spirit, with sugar, water, and a flavouring of juniper.
    Sample marked "M," from Chapel-street, Westminster. Another of poverty's market-places, and on Saturday night full as a fair; the costermongers with their barrows uproariously [-196-]  competing for trade with the shopkeeper. The house from which Sample M was procured stands in the midst of all this, and does a roaring trade as the attendant barmen, muscular of build, with their bare arms, attest. But the publicans of Chapel- street, Westminster, don't poison their customers. Their gin- brew is of the mildest description, yielding but twenty-six per cent. of spirit. It is stiffish cold gin and water moderately sweetened.
    Sample marked "F " hails from Shoreditch, and yields better money's-worth (United Kingdom Alliance, forgive me!) than the last-mentioned. It shows thirty-two and a half of absolute alcohol, and all the rest is water and sugar, with a spice of aromatic flavouring.
    Sample marked "I" is from the region of dirt and squalor, of lodging houses and drunkenness - Kent-street, in the borough. But even the publicans there have a conscience that preserves them innocent of the crime of hastening their customers' deaths beyond the speed at which simple alcohol is capable of carrying them. The gin of Kent-street is of fair average quality, registering thirty and a half - water, sugar, and "aromatic seasoning" being called in as substitutes for the amount of alcohol of which the original liquor has been plundered.
    Sample marked "Q" was culled in the "worst Street in London -Flower and Dean-street, Spitalfields. There is no harm in it beyond those intoxicating qualities peculiar to gin; and even this "Q" landlord, no doubt with a laudable desire to keep at as low a temperature as possible the exciteable passions of the peculiar people who are his customers, keeps down his standard of alcohol at twenty-nine.
    As to the rest, it is the same story hitherto seven times repeated - sugar, water, and aromatic flavouring, with a slight "fortifying" of cayenne pepper.
    And this exhausts the Gin budget. I must repeat that what I have here stated is the result of deliberate and painstaking [-197-] examination by men well experienced and trustworthy; and, as I need not remark, absolutely free from party feeling. Undoubtedly it may be taken that the examples here put forth fairly represent the sort of "gin" that is sold in all parts of London, including its very worst parts; and I respectfully submit that it sets the "hole-and-corner" publican, as he has been styled, in a much more respectable light than vague unfounded rumour has hitherto afforded him. He is not half so black as he has been painted - no, nor a twentieth part. Not that he is blameless. Tincture of capsicum is by no means a healthful ingredient in a drink that is consumed in such enormous quantities; and it cannot be denied that the publican resorts to it as a means of lending a semblance of strength and heat to his "Old Tom" that it could not otherwise lay claim to.
    The gin disposed of, I next turned my attention to beer.
    Originally there were eight pints; but the bottle that contained one of them by accident was broken, so seven were all that passed for analysis into the hands of the chemist.
    Seven samples, each representing the popular English beverage, to "rob a poor man" of which is commonly accounted an offence deserving the severest punishment human ingenuity can inflict; and all collected from just that kind of public- house where beer worship is most devoutly observed. The seven pints have been put on their trial fairly - and without prejudice, excepting that slight degree of it which human nature is bound to harbour against anybody or anything brought up to be examined "on suspicion." It cannot be denied that my seven pints of beer were taken on suspicion. As I viewed the black row of bottles at the chemist's, each wearing a red cap of sealing-wax, I could scarcely forbear shaking my head in grave doubt, as I wished they might pass through the ordeal to which they were condemned, finally to be found "Not guilty," and acquitted without a stain on their character. I hoped that they might be so fortunate; but I was troubled with serious misgivings. They came professedly from [-198-] the very lowest of the beer family - common, vulgar fourpenny; they had, one and all, been drawn without a moment's warning from the cellars in which their natures had been corrupted. Pure enough might be the liquid consigned by the jolly dray-men to those mysterious depths, the wide wooden jaws of which gaped in the pavement to receive it. But what happened afterwards ? Where were the customers of that prosperous individual who unblushingly announced himself a "brewers' druggist?" What terrible hidden meaning lurked in the wording of that oft-repeated advertisement inserted in the publicans' own trade newspaper by out-of-work barmen, "clever at cellar work?" The mere screwing of a pipe into a bunghole, the tilting of a barrel, surely could not involve an amount of cleverness that was worthy to be vaunted? Besides, it seemed that there must be some truth in what everybody said, and what everybody almost was prepared to vouch for. It may be all very well as regards gin, I had been told. Gin is an article sold by the distiller to the retail-dealer at a price that enables the latter to clear a handsome profit, even though he sells it as pure as he receives it. It is altogether different with beer - with common beer, such as every publican in London keeps on draught at fourpence a quart. It costs, when bought of the most eminent brewers, within a shade of what it fetches; and the publican who would live and pay his way is bound to "extend" it. To do this, he must use something more than mere water. If he did not the extended stuff would be so threadbare that the most inexperienced would see through it. The beer-drinking public likes its liquor with a "body." It insists on an article that is "full in the mouth" - an article that, when swallowed, comforts the stomach as food comforts it. What can the beer-seller do? He has no fiendish desire to poison his fellow-creatures. If they would put up with the naked imposture it would be the same thing to him, and would save him a world of trouble; but since they insist on the disguise, all [-199-] that he can do is to smother his conscience, and make it as pleasant tasting as possible. All this sounded terribly ominous for my seven pints.
    Well, the trial is over, and what is the result? Hear it and be amazed, all ye that hitherto have regarded the shining pewter pint and quart pot but as whitened sepulchres, in which lurked corruption and death, none the less because he was disguised under the names of cocculus indicus and green copperas. Hear it and rejoice, all ye that throughout your manly lives have staunchly stuck to "brown beer," declaring your belief that some beer might be better than other, but that of bad beer there was none, and with eager lips saluting its creamy mantling in token of your undeviating loyalty, upon every convenient opportunity - rejoice ye, for here is proof that your affection has not been misplaced nor your confidence abused ; your beer has been grievously maligned. To be sure, it is not so artless and innocent as might be desired; but it contains no poison; assuming, that is to say, that the seven samples that have undergone the severest tests it was possible to apply to them may be regarded as fairly representing the great bulk of fourpenny beer that in pints and "pots" crosses thousands of metal-topped counters every day throughout the year. As with the "quarterns of gin," they were collected from the lowest neighbour- hoods; and the following is the "report" returned:-

April 29, 1871.


  Percentage of real Alcohol by Weight. Cocculus Indicus Picric Acid or Copperas. Common Salt/
M. (Bermondsey) 5? Neither Yes
T. (Shadwe]l) 4? Neither Yes

O. (Spitalfields)

5? Neither Much
H. (New-cut) 4? Neither Very much
Q. (Shoreditch) 4 Neither Yes
F. (Whitechapel) 4? Neither Very much
I. (K-street, Boro') 4 Neither A littke

[-200-] Adulterated porter is commonly three parts or less porter and one part water, the resulting weakness in quality being masked by the addition of colouring matter, brown sugar, and bitter drugs, one of which produces lethargic stupor. I am of opinion that these samples have not been so adulterated.

Pharmaceutical and Practical Chemist, Hornsey Rise.

    It may be as well to mention that the above-named gentleman, to make assurance doubly sure in a matter of such importance, submitted portions of each sample to Professor Attfield, of the Pharmaceutical College, whose return precisely agrees with Mr. Broad's.
    It appears, then, as a rule, that the drunkenness which is said to peculiarly afflict the lower orders of humanity is, after all, real, unadulterated drunkenness, and that the coal heaver who swigs pots of beer until he is fairly floated off his herculean legs is as genuinely drunk as his affluent brother, whose means enable him to indulge in the genteel inebriation that champagne affords. It is all a question of alcohol, and the purchaser of an humble pint of porter may be tolerably sure of getting twopenn'orth of the spirit of tipsiness for his twopence. Still, the amount of satisfaction to be derived from a perusal of the "report" above falls far short of perfection. Undoubtedly, it should be an immense relief to learn that the chances are considerably against green copperas or cocculus indicus contributing their poisonous qualities to the social glass; but, this much admitted, the publican does not come off with flying colours by any means. The account of salt is seriously against him. Salt is an invaluable agent in the preparation of our food and drinks but it is very possible to abuse the use of it. There can be no question that this is what the publican of the present day is doing. Why does he dose his beer with "much," with "very much" salt? Is it out of a laudable regard for the taste of his customer that he flings the saline grains into the beer butt with [-201-] so liberal a hand, or is it - and the suspicion will creep in - because he has discovered in salt as an adulteration of beer certain virtues that enable him to forego the use of the old-fashioned ingredients of sophistication? It is no more necessary to add salt to beer than it is to add sand to sugar or water to milk. It serves no honest purpose, except, perhaps, that it may help to "clear" the beer; but there are a score of other things that are more effective for the purpose. As a "mask" to the water with which the beer of the brewer is extended, it must be but flimsy and transparent. What benefit, then, does the publican derive from his use of "much salt?" With nothing to guide us to a conclusion, and treating the question as a riddle to be guessed, it at once occurs to the shrewd guesser - salt is a provocative of thirst Can this be the solution of the problem? Is the revolution that has taken place in the "preparation of beer for the public during the last few years the result of a discovery made by some keen, calculating member of the craft, who argued thus: "By the use of certain drugs that a fastidious public regard as more or less objectionable, I am enabled to produce, at a cheap rate, a beverage, the stupefying qualities of which shall exceed those of the genuine article. Jack Jones, who drinks as much beer as any man, likes it. Jack judges of the quality of beer by the quantity he is able to drink of it before he is made drunk. Jack finds that three pots of my mixture knock him clean off his legs, and then he reels home 'glorious.' So much for pernicious adulteration. Now, suppose I turn over a new leaf. Instead of using in my beer drugs that produce 'lethargic stupor,' I will dilute it with nothing beside burnt sugar and water, with the addition of a fair sprinkling of salt. With plenty of salt in his liquor, he will keep sober twice as long as formerly, and his drink making him thirsty, he will imbibe at least twice asmuch; and, while I bag as much again of his money as I used to do, it will go none the harder against my peace of mind to know that under the [-202-] new system he gets drunk in a proper and legitimate manner." I by no means advance this as the correct answer to the riddle, Why does the publican use "much salt" in his beer? It is merely a guess. Beyond this If "give it up," and respectfully await the unriddling from some one in possession of the secret.
    On the whole, however, I think it must be granted that the publicans of London will lose nothing in public esteem by the revelations which my modest inquiries into the two staple articles of their trade have enabled me to make. To be sure, it is not much to prove that a large body of influential tradesmen are not stained with the guilt of enriching themselves at the cost of health-the life even-of the very people on whom they most rely for support; but it is a great deal to assist in dispersing the cloud of suspicion that undeservedly, and by virtue of vague rumour only, has been so long permitted to overshadow them. That the publicans of London are innocent of all "tricks of trade" cannot in truth be stated; but they never pretended that such was the case. Indeed, bearing in mind how easy they might have set themselves right with the public as regards the graver charges of adulteration that have for so long been openly asserted against them, it it hard to understand why they have remained silent.