Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Drinking - Public Houses - Gin Palaces

George Cruikshank, Sunday in London, 1833

see also George Cruikshank in the Comic Almanack (March 1836) - click here

    ‘The primary symptoms were an inordinate love of plate-glass and a passion for gas-lights and gilding ... The extensive scale on which these places are established, and the ostentatious manner in which the business of even the smallest among them is divided into branches, is amusing. A handsome plate of ground glass in one door directs you 'To the Counting-house;' another to the 'Bottle Department; a third to the 'Wholesale Department;' a fourth to 'The Wine Promenade;' and so forth, until we are in daily expectation of meeting with a 'Brandy Bell,' or a 'Whiskey Entrance.' Then, ingenuity is exhausted in devising attractive titles for the different descriptions of gin; and the dram-drinking portion of the community as they gaze upon the gigantic black and white announcements, which are only to be equalled in size by the figures beneath them, are left in a state of pleasing hesitation between 'The Cream of the Valley,' 'The Out and Out,' 'The No Mistake,' 'The Good for Mixing,' 'The real Knock-me-down,' 'The celebrated Butter Gin,' 'The regular Flare-up,' and a dozen other, equally inviting and wholesome LIQUEURS. Although places of this description are to be met with in every second street, they are invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood. The gin-shops in and near Drury-Lane, Holborn, St. Giles's, Covent-garden, and Clare-market, are the handsomest in London. There is more of filth and squalid misery near those great thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city. We will endeavour to sketch the bar of a large gin-shop, and its ordinary customers, for the edification of such of our readers as may not have had opportunities of observing such scenes; and on the chance of finding one well suited to our purpose, we will make for Drury-Lane, through the narrow streets and dirty courts which divide it from Oxford-street, and that classical spot adjoining the brewery at the bottom of Tottenham-court-road, best known to the initiated as the 'Rookery.'
... All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the
illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. The interior is even gayer than the exterior. A bar of French-polished mahogany, elegantly carved, extends the whole width of the place; and there are two side-aisles of great casks, painted green and gold, enclosed within a light brass rail, and bearing such inscriptions, as 'Old Tom, 549;' 'Young Tom, 360;' 'Samson, 1421' - the figures agreeing, we presume, with 'gallons,' understood. Beyond the bar is a lofty and spacious saloon, full of the same enticing vessels, with a gallery running round it, equally well furnished. On the counter, in addition to the usual spirit apparatus, are two or three little baskets of cakes and biscuits, which are carefully secured at top with wicker-work, to prevent their contents being unlawfully abstracted. Behind it, are two showily-dressed damsels with large necklaces, dispensing the spirits and 'compounds.' They are assisted by the ostensible proprietor of the concern, a stout, coarse fellow in a fur cap, put on very much on one side to give him a knowing air, and to display his sandy whiskers to the best advantage.
     The two old washerwomen, who are seated on the little bench to the left of the bar, are rather overcome by the head-dresses and haughty demeanour of the young ladies who officiate. They receive their half-quartern of gin and peppermint, with considerable deference, prefacing a request for 'one of them soft biscuits,' with a 'Jist be good enough, ma'am.' They are quite astonished at the impudent air of the young fellow in a brown coat and bright buttons, who, ushering in his two companions, and walking up to the bar in as careless a manner as if he had been used to green and gold ornaments all his life, winks at one of the young ladies with singular coolness, and calls for a 'kervorten and a three-out-glass,' just as if the place were his own. 'Gin for you, sir?' says the young lady when she has drawn it: carefully looking every way but the right one, to show that the wink had no effect upon her. 'For me, Mary, my dear,' replies the gentleman in brown. 'My name an't Mary as it happens,' says the young girl, rather relaxing as she delivers the change. 'Well, if it an't, it ought to be,' responds the irresistible one; 'all the Marys as ever I see, was handsome gals.' Here the young lady, not precisely remembering how blushes are managed in such cases, abruptly ends the flirtation by addressing the female in the faded feathers who has just entered, and who, after stating explicitly, to prevent any subsequent misunderstanding, that 'this gentleman pays,' calls for 'a glass of port wine and a bit of sugar.'
     Those two old men who came in 'just to have a drain,' finished their third quartern a few seconds ago; they have made themselves crying drunk; and the fat comfortable-looking elderly women, who had 'a glass of rum-srub' each, having chimed in with their complaints on the hardness of the times, one of the women has agreed to stand a glass round, jocularly observing that 'grief never mended no broken bones, and as good people's wery scarce, what I says is, make the most on 'em, and that's all about it!' a sentiment which appears to afford unlimited satisfaction to those who have nothing to pay.
     It is growing late, and the throng of men, women, and children, who have been constantly going in and out, dwindles down to two or three occasional stragglers - cold, wretched-looking creatures, in the last stage of emaciation and disease. The knot of Irish labourers at the lower end of the place, who have been alternately shaking hands with, and threatening the life of each other, for the last hour, become furious in their disputes, and finding it impossible to silence one man, who is particularly anxious to adjust the difference, they resort to the expedient of knocking him down and jumping on him afterwards. The man in the fur cap, and the potboy rush out; a scene of riot and confusion ensues; half the Irishmen get shut out, and the other half get shut in; the potboy is knocked among the tubs in no time; the landlord hits everybody, and everybody hits the landlord; the barmaids scream; the police come in; the rest is a confused mixture of arms, legs, staves, torn coats, shouting, and struggling. Some of the party are borne off to the station-house, and the remainder slink home to beat their wives for complaining, and kick the children for daring to be hungry.

Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz 1836





THERE are few places in London where so great a variety of characters may be seen popping in and out in a short space of time, as at the bars of our modern gin-palaces. Even respectable men who meet each other by chance, after a long absence, must drop in at the nearest tavern, although they have scarcely a minute to spare, to drink a glass together at the bar, and enquire about old friends. Married women, we are sorry to say, many of them the wives of clever mechanics, also congregate when they ought to be providing the dinner for their families. Such things are thought but little of among those who are far from being numbered  with the lowest orders of society. Then there are young itinerant vendors of almost every imaginable thing - these are, also, constant members of the bar, confining themselves generally to pennyworths of gin. The costermongers, who come wheeling and shouting from opposite directions, with their barrows, if they chance to meet near the door of a tavern must, after a little gossip, go in and have their "drain." Added to these, there are the poor, the old, and the miserable, who look and feel "half-dead," as they themselves express it, unless they are "lighted up" every two or three hours with a glass of spirits. Many of these have become so habituated to drink that they care but little for food, and very rarely partake of a substantial meal; a pennyworth of boiled shell-fish, such as whilks or mussels, an oyster or two, or a trotter, or sometimes a fried fish - all of which are borne into into these places by hawkers every hour of the day - maybe taken as fair samples of the food consumed by these regular drinkers.
    Nor is it at the front of the gaudily fitted-up bars alone where such quantities of spirits are consumed. Women and children even are coming in with bottles; some of the latter so little, that, like the one which our artist has so truthfully sketched, they are scarcely able to reach up and place the bottle upon the zinc-covered bar. If the weather is cold they are generally sent out in their mothers' shawls and bonnets, the one trailing upon the ground, and the other completely burying their little dirty faces. Even these young miserable creatures are fond of drink, and may sometimes be seen slily drawing the cork outside the door, and lifting the poisonous potion to their white withered lips. They have already found that gin numbs and destroys for a time the gnawing pangs of hunger, and they can drink the fiery mixture in its raw state.

Illustrated London News, May 6, 1848

click here for Plate 1 of 'The Drunkard's Children'
by George Cruikshank, 1848

    But the gin-palaces are the lions of Drury-lane ; they stand in conspicuous positions, at the corners and crossings of the various intersecting streets. They may be seen from afar, and are lighthouses which guide the thirsty “sweater” on the road to ruin. 
    For they are resplendent with plate glass and gilt cornices, and a variety of many-coloured inscriptions. One of the windows displays the portrait of the “NORFOLK GIANT,” who acts as barman to this particular house; the walls of another establishment inform you, in green letters, that here they sell “THE ONLY REAL BRANDY IN LONDON,” and a set of scarlet letters announces to the world, that in this house they sell “THE FAMOUS CORDIAL MEDICATED GIN, WHICH IS SO STRONGLY RECOMMENDED BY THE FACULTY.” Cream Gin, Honey Gin, Sparkling Ale, Genuine Porter; and other words calculated utterly to confound a tee-totaller, are painted up in conspicuous characters, even so that they cover the door-posts. It is a re­markable fact, that the houses which are most splendid from without, appear most dismal and comfortless from within. The landlord is locked up behind his “bar,” a snug place enough, with painted casks and a fire and an arm-chair; but the guests stand in front of the bar in a narrow dirty place, exposed to the draught of the door, which is continually opening and shutting. Now and then an old barrel, flung in a corner, serves as a seat. But nevertheless the “palace” is always crowded with guests, who, standing, staggering, crouching, or lying down, groaning, and cursing, drink and forget.
On sober working-days, and in tolerable weather, there is nothing to strike the uninitiated in Drury-lane. Many a capital of a small German country is worse paved and lighted. Nor is misery so conspicuous and staring in this quarter as in Spital­fields, St. Giles’, Saffron-hill, and other “back-slums” of London. But at certain bestial periods, misery oozes out of all its pores like Mississipi mud. Saturday and Monday nights, and Sunday after Church-time, those are the times in which Drury-lane appears in full characteristic glory. A Sunday-afternoon in Drury-lane is enough to make the cheerfullest splenetic. For to the poor labourer the Lord’s day is a day of penance or dis­sipation. The cotton-frock and fustian-jacket are scared away from the churches and the parks by their respectful awe of rich toilettes and splendid liveries. For the poor man of England is ashamed of his rags ; he has no idea of arranging them into a graceful draperie in the manner of the Spanish or Italian Lazarone, who devoutly believes that begging is an honest trade. Even the lowest among the low in England are proud enough to avoid the society of a higher caste, though that superiority consist but in half a degree. They consort with persons of their own stamp, among whom they may walk with their heads erect. Church and park have moreover no charm for the blunted senses of the overworked and under-fed artizan. He is too weak and fatigued to think of an excursion into the country. Steamers, omnibuses, or the rail, are too expensive. His church, his park, his club, his theatre, his place of refuge from the smell of the sewers that infect his dwelling—his sole place of relax­ation—is the gin-palace. 
To provide against the Sunday, he takes a supply of fire-water on Saturday evening when he has received his week’s wages, for with the stroke of twelve the sabbath shuts the door of all public-houses, and on Sunday-morning the beer or brandy paradise must not open before one o’clock in the afternoon, to be closed again from three to five. Hence that unsacred still­ness which weighs down upon Drury-lane on Sunday-mornings. The majority of the inhabitants sleep away their intoxication or ennui. Old time-worn maudlinness reigns supreme in the few faces which peer from the half-opened street-doors; maudlinness pervades the half-sleepy groups which surround the public-house at noon to be ready for its opening; chronic maudlinness. pervades the atmosphere. And if a stray ray of light break through the clouds, it falls upon the frowsy loungers and the dim window-panes in a strange manner, as though it had no business there.

Max Schlesinger, Saunterings in and about London, 1853

In the gin palaces, bars are put up always for ladies' use. The common girls of the city are by no means admitted to the ladies' bar; they must stand at the common bar among crowds of men. The arrangement of London bars is very different from the American mode. On a stout shelf supported by columns of iron or wood, and going entirely around the room, is placed a number of ornamental casks, containing each from sixty to two hundred gallons. From these to the bar, are pipes placed out of sight, and when a liquor is called for, instead of handing down a decanter and allowing each customer to help himself, the "tapster," ascertains whether "threpence, fawpence, or sixpence 'orth," is desired, and proceeds to measure it out of the cask accordingly.
    At a large establishment I once enquired the number of sales averaged at the ladies bar. I accidentally spoke to the proprietor; he handed me a written account which he had been keeping for his own instruction and amusement. This was an account of sales from two casks. From one of the casks were drawn only the drinks; from the other, all liquor that was to be carried away from the store by respectable women. From the retail cask, or the ladies' drink cask, the small drinks had averaged for twenty-four days, sixty-three gallons - the contents of the cask - every four days. From the other cask, in pints and quarts, had been drawn on an average for the same length of time thirty gallons a day. This was all gin - that being the general drink of the "ladies." The casks are filled by means of pumps, as soon as emptied from the cellar - each cask having a gauge, so that the amount of liquor in each is always known.  . . . Next to gin, the people drink ale and stout. The breweries being exceedingly numerous, give employment to a large number of men and renders the prices unimaginably low.

W. O'Daniel, Ins and Outs of London, 1859

The Public-Houses of London, as distinguished from hotels, inns, chop-houses, eating-houses, and coffee-rooms, have undergone great changes within the last few years. They have been transformed from dingy pot-houses into splendid gin-palaces, from painted deal to polished mahogany, from small crooked panes of glass to magnificent crystal sheets, from plain useful fittings to costly luxurious adornments. The old Boniface, with his red nose and his white apron, has made way for the smart damsels who prepare at their toilettes to shine at the bar. The comfortable old landlady is less seen than formerly, esconced behind and amongst her rich store of cordials and compounds and liqueurs; she, too, must pass under the hands of the milliner before making her daily appearance in public. Even the pot- boy is not the pot-boy of other days; there is a dash of something about him that may almost be called gentility; his apron is cleaner than were the aprons of pot-boys twenty years ago; and the tray filled with quarts and pints of dinner-beer, carried out to the houses of the customers, seems to have undergone some change, for it is less frequently seen than "in days of yore."

George Dodd, The Food of London, 1856

see also George Sala in Gaslight and Daylight (1) (2) (3)

The quantity of spirits and compounds consumed in London of late years is supposed to amount to 15,417,000 gallons, of which by far the largest portion is gin; Scotch and Irish whisky, with rum and brandy, make up the total.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865 

see also J.Ewing Ritchie in Days and Nights in London - click here

see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click here