A Frenchman visits a gin palace, 1873

"Non, merci."

In early 1873, English newspapermen were amused to discover that the French critic and novelist Alphonse Karr had been writing about London gin palaces for Le Figaro.

Karr is these days best known for epigrams such as “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’ll confess we’d never heard of him at all until we came across a mention of him in an article in the British Newspaper Archive.

Fortunately, thanks to the magic of online digital archives, it’s fairly easy to read a version of Karr’s original text as collected in an 1876 anthology of his writing.

Here’s our attempt at tidying up Google’s automatic translation:

Let’s talk about cabarets and cafes.

This must be dealt with from three points of view, one of which is completely modern and contemporary.

The first point is drunkenness, its hideousness, its dangers; the second, the thefts, the tricks and the poisonings practiced by certain merchants; the third, the application of cabaret and coffee to street politics – or rather to agitation, to the spread of false or exaggerated ideas, to the poisoning of minds.

It seems that to see drunkenness in all its horrible stupidity, in England you have to visit the shops, the palaces, dedicated to it – gin shops, or gin palaces.

A flood of ragged beings move incessantly towards the temple, on the door of which shine, on large copper plates, the words gin, beer, spirits – that is to say, forgetfulness, absence stupor.

A room a hundred feet long, all furnished on one side with huge barrels painted in various colors, with portraits of the queen in between.

In front of the barrels, a long counter or bar and many waiters constantly busy pouring. In the crowd, there are as many women as men and women are often, in fact, in the majority.

We approach the bar, money in hand with a sort of dumb reverence, as if we were going to receive communion; in a low voice, gin or spirits are asked for; the glass, not filled until the waiter has received the money, is accepted in silence and with an icy seriousness; then we will sit on a long bench leaning against the wall in front of the barrels; here we remain motionless, silent, in a sort of ecstasy and contemplation of the barrels; a little later we rummage in our pockets and count our money; we return to the bar, we drink and we return to the bench, from where we return to the bar; and always thus as long as there is money.

Everyone knows how rigorously the sabbath is observed in England – any distraction is strictly prohibited; the only exception is the gin shop. It is enough that they should look closed, but you only have to push the door to enter. The State and Church seem to believe that there would be danger in leaving one day per week free of that awful misery – one day when people don’t forget and fall asleep like brutes.

The British take on his story was perhaps understandably arch: this daft foreigner didn’t understand how pubs worked and, worse, was some sort of temperance advocate. Here’s how it was reported in a syndicated story that appeared in numerous newspapers on and around 9 January 1873:

Not a word for the neat-handed Phyllises behind the counter. This is hardly courteous on the part French litterateurs, who are fond of ogling them when they do come here… M. Alphonse Karr a very remarkable man; one time, it we remember right, he even aspired to the dignity of citoyen, but has ever been animated with a strong dislike of perfidious islanders. It is very clear that he has never heard the Licensing Act.

Those barmaids again!

We wonder if any more confident French speakers than us might be able to dig out more accounts of English pubs and drinking culture. For example, this advice looks intriguing:

L’intérieur de ces établissements si nombreux présente quelque intérêt en ce qu’il explique la société anglaise. Il y a d’abord la salle du comptoir (bar-room), sorte de terrain neutre sur lequel des hommes et des femmes debout se rencontrent pour étancher leur soif aux flots d’ambre liquide…