The gin palace vs. the pub, 1836

Exterior of a gin palace.

In 1836, somebody calling themselves ‘Observer’ put out a treatise in six parts comparing gin shops, or gin palaces, with pubs.

We’d never come across it until it popped up in a search for something else via the Hathi Trust website. What particularly caught our attention were the illustrations, reproduced below.

The introductory paragraph to the first issue suggests to us that it might have been a propaganda tool of brewers keen to bolster the image of beer as a healthy, moderate alternative to spirits:

A Succinct Historical Narrative of the Gin-shop; its Commencement, rapid Increase, its Collapse and System, with the inherent Evils, special Influences, deceptive Allurements, and demoralizing Nature of its Workings, carefully dissected, analyzed, and Comparisons drawn, proving the System to be worse than an intolerable Nuisance; while the Public-house System is shown to be both highly Useful and Necessary.

In fact, later on, the author grumbles that the Morning Advertiser (which, don’t forget, is an ancient institution) refused to run an advert for his series of pamphlets because it was so strident in defence of publicans and might offend gin-palace operators.

Interior of a gin palace.
Interior of a gin palace. Notice the cheerful child buying hard booze, no doubt about to descend into a life of debauchery.

Even so, it can’t help but make gin palaces sound rather glamorous and exciting, especially in its description of the original gin palace, Thompson’s on Holborn Hill:

Porter and ale, though kept, were as nothing in their calculation, being very seldom good, and were rarely asked for; the spirit department, however, made ample amends by the quantity disposed of. In wines, too, a successful and extensive portion of business was kept up, and the community, at the time, considered these marts as real conveniences. Indeed, to such a height was the fame of Thompson’s carried, that it was almost looked upon as an omission of duty for a person journeying from Padding ton to Bow, or from Highgate to Newington Butts, with the thousand etceteras and vice versas, not to turn into that celebrated Gin-shop to taste some one of the famed cordials, served from the fair hand of one of four handsome, sprightly, and neatly-dressed young females, but of modest deportment.

There’s something very old-fashioned and at the same time extremely modern about how the role these barmaids played in drawing in custom:

To receive [gin] from such fair hands appeared to enhance the value of the dram, led to, an after conversation among friends, and a recommendation to go and do likewise. The female portion, too, whose curiosity is ever on the alert, could not remain passive observers of such weighty affairs; two motives too powerful to resist, namely, a dram at the famous Holborn-hill Gin-shop, and as affording an opportunity of casting a scrutinizing glance at the so-highly-spoken of bar-maids, operated as a spell, and myriads, either purposely or in accidentally passing, were drawn in thither. Their keen eyes were not less active than the palate; observations were freely made to a friend, or to the family at home, closely scrutinizing the demeanor, the stature, dress, figure, hair, eyes, &c., and a hundred or two supplementary remarks being indulged in, would supply no inconsiderable portion of gossip.

Unfortunately, Observer goes on to observe, gin palaces proliferated and became dens of debauchery, luring in young people with their gaslights and slang-laden banter.

Engraving number three.
A second exterior view of a gin palace – looks much like the ideal of the Victorian pub, doesn’t it?

Public houses, meanwhile, remained humble, simple, morally-upstanding places…

[A] man on proceeding to his business in the morning will pass one or more Public-houses without seeing them; there is no flare to allure him, and his half-pence remain safe. Not so with the Gin-Palace; it catches his eye afar off, he is dazzled and drawn as a fly to the candle; having no power to resist its flare, in he turns, and in less than half a minute, twopence is gone for a glass of Old Tom. We next find him on his way to breakfast. He can passively look at the Gin-Palace, it has then no charm, for he cannot sit down to rest; there is no fire for him to toast his slice of bacon, he cannot boil his egg, there is no salt, there are no knives and forks provided, no plates, and not a bason of tea to be had. He can now stalk away to one of the modest-looking Public-houses he had passed by in the morning: we here see him indulged with everything he can desire, although it is difficult to please; he has called loudly to be served quick, with his half-pint of tea, the price three halfpence—which, on departing, he tells the landlord to put up to his account, and he will pay him on Saturday night.

It’s fair to say, then, that as a document of what pubs and gin palaces were like in the 1830s, this might not be the most objective source.

Yet another engraving.
Oh, no – it’s gone off the rails in this gin-shop. That bloke’s dropped his pipe.

Still, there’s no reason to doubt the veracity of this lovely detail – an account of the delivery of porter in the days when pubs stored vast amounts in their cellars for ageing:

Under the public-house system it was common… for the Porter-brewers to send from six to twenty-four drays, laden with porter, to one house according to the extent of its sale… There are very few people in London, above the age of youth, that have not to remember waiting at some of the crossings in streets, while a long train of Porter-drays have passed by, so closely up to each other as to prevent any attempt at getting through…

There are plenty of other nuggets to pick out. Do go and have a look.

One thought on “The gin palace vs. the pub, 1836”

  1. That final detail – the road-train of porter drays – is quite something. That’s a lot of porter, and somebody must have been drinking it (the Public House as presented here sounds positively abstemious).

    A Political Hack Writes: out canvassing recently, mostly with younger people, I’ve been struck by all the boozing that doesn’t happen. Even in the 80s and 90s – which is the last time I was politically active – it would have seemed quite natural to “retire to the pub” after a successful door-knocking session, or to fit in a pint or two with lunch if you were on an all-dayer. Now, not so much – or rather not at all; it would seem downright eccentric. But then, we’re in a society where even the busy pubs mostly order beer in nines. Getting back to those porter drays, you’re not going to get through all that beer on evenings out and at weekends. I think what those volumes of beer tell us is that, in those days, for an awful lot of people – primarily male people, to be fair – beer was just a constant element of life.

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