The temptation of the gin palace door, 1844

An essay by Irish writer John Fisher Murray from 1844 gives us yet another portrait of the gin palace. And, as is often the case, through the veil of temperance disapproval, there are some evocative details to be enjoyed.

For example, haven’t we all come across inviting, tempting pub doors like this?

The doors are large, swinging easily upon patent hinges, and ever half-and-half—half open, half shut, so that the most undecided touch of the dram-drinker admits him. The windows are of plateglass, set in brass sashes, and are filled with flaming announcements, in large letters, ‘The Cheapest House In London,’— ‘Cream Of The Valley,’—‘Creaming Stout,’—‘Brilliant Ales,’—‘Old Tom, fourpence a quartern,’ — ‘Hodges’ Best, for mixing,’ and a variety of other entertainments for the men and beasts who make the gin-palace their home. At night splendid lights irradiate the surrounding gloom, and an illuminated clock serves to remind the toper of the time he throws away in throwing away his reason.

The other line that leaps out there is ‘Creaming Stout’ – a foreshadowing of the marketing that would arise around Guinness draught stout more than a hundred years later. It turns out this was a fairly common descriptor throughout the nineteenth century; here’s one example from 1855:

Creaming Ripe Porter, Treble Creaming Stout
SOURCE: Friend of India and Statesman, 20 September 1855, via the British Newspaper Archive.

Creaming Ripe Porter! Treble Creaming Stout! Bring these beer names back, somebody. (Not now, obviously.)

But let’s step back and look at the lie of the land – where would you find a gin palace? And what face does it present to the street?

Good eating deserves good drinking; and, if you have the wherewithal, you need assuredly not remain many minutes either hungry or dry. In London, the public-house is always either next door but two, or round the next corner, or over the way… The gin-palace… is generally at the corner of two intersecting streets, in a gin-drinking neighbourhood; it lowers, in all the majesty of stucco pilasters, in genuine cockney splendour, over the dingy mansions that support it, like a rapacious tyrant over his impoverished subjects.

Right, now it’s time to slip through that light-touch door and see what’s going on inside:

Within, the splendour is in keeping with the splendour without; counters fitted with zinc, and a long array of brass taps; fittings of the finest Spanish mahogany, beautifully polished; bottles containing cordials, and other drugs, gilded and labelled, as in the apothecaries’ shops. At one side is the bar-parlour, an apartment fitted up with congenial taste, and usually occupied by the family of the publican; in the distance are vistas, and sometimes galleries, formed altogether of huge vats of the various sorts of liquor dispensed in the establishment.

The intriguing detail here is the bar-parlour. We’ve only ever encountered one of these in real life, at the Bridge Inn in Topsham, Devon. That example is a cosy little domestic room with a fireplace and armchairs (we think, from memory) where the landlady occasionally invites favourite regulars to sit.

It’s funny to think of a family living in a gin palace, or at least the kind of den of debauchery depicted in Victorian literature and art.

Now we get a look at the customers and, of course, an obligatory glance towards the sexy barmaids:

Behind the counter, which is usually raised to a level with the breasts of the topers, stand men in their shirt-sleeves, well-dressed females, or both, dispensers of the ‘short’ and ‘heavy;’ the under-sized tipplers, raising themselves on tiptoe, deposit the three-halfpence for the ‘drop’ of gin, or whatever else they require, and receive their quantum of the poison in return; ragged women, with starveling children, match and ballad-vendors, fill up the foreground of the picture. There are no seats, nor any accommodation for the customers in the regular gin-palace; every exertion is used to make the place as uncomfortable to the consumers as possible, so that they shall only step in to drink, and pay; step out, and return to drink and pay again. No food of any kind is provided at the gin-palace, save a few biscuits, which are exhibited in a wire-cage, for protection against the furtive hand; drink, eternal, poisonous drink, is the sole provision of this whited sepulchre.

“Whited sepulchre!” we both cried, being of the generation that read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for GCSE English. It must be from the Bible or Shakespeare, then, we thought, and sure enough, it’s from Matthew 23:27:

Woe unto you… for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness…

Oof! The gin palace as Biblical symbol.

This theme is continued in the next passage which, judgemental or not, gives us some fascinating, vivid details:

There is not in all London a more melancholy and spirit-depressing sight than the area of one of the larger gin-palaces on a wet night. There, the homeless, houseless miserables of both sexes, whether they have money or not, resort in numbers for a temporary shelter; aged women selling ballads and matches, cripples, little beggar-boys and girls, slavering idiots, piemen, sandwich-men, apple and orange-women, shell-fishmongers, huddled pell-mell,in draggle-tailed confusion.

Pies, sandwiches, shellfish… Almost two centuries on, this is still the essence of pub grub. We can’t say we’ve ever had the urge to buy an apple or an orange down the boozer, though.

Well, fun as this brief visit has been, it’s probably time we pulled our lapels up and went out into that bloody awful weather…

The noises, too, of the assembled topers are hideous; appalling even when heard in an atmosphere of gin. Imprecations, execrations, objurgations, supplications, until at length the patience of the publican, and the last copper of his customers, are exhausted, when, rushing from behind his counter, assisted by his shopmen, he expels, vi et armis, the dilatory mob, dragging out by the heels or collars the dead drunkards, to nestle, as best they may, outside the inhospitable door.

You can read Mr Fisher Murray’s essay in full in various places including his own 1845 collection The World of London. The main image is adapted from an engraving from The Working Man’s Friend and Family Instructor, 25 Oct 1851.