Losing ‘the war on drugs’: a nineteenth-century perspective

It is probably reasonable to say that for some people – the church, police, social reformers, and government – the consumption of alcohol has long been an issue of concern. Most of the problems of society in the nineteenth century seem to have been  associated with drinking at some point or another and sobriety was held to be a virtue. Whether they were were discussing poverty, domestic violence or anti-social behaviour the ‘demon drink’ was at the heart of the matter.

The Police Courts overflowed on Monday mornings with those dragged up from the cells on charges of being ‘drunk and disorderly’, ‘drunk and incapable’ or ‘drunk and refusing quit licensed premises’. Most were fined (with the threat of gaol if they didn’t pay up) while the worst offenders (i.e those that used violence or resisted arrest) could expect to spend a few weeks or months in a house of correction.

So one of the functions of the courts was to deal with the effects of alcohol but they also regulated the trade in beer and spirits. Justices of the Peace (magistrates) had been involved in issuing licenses from at least the late seventeenth century, and they continued to do this in the 1800s. Look above the door of any pub and you can often find the notice that denotes the right of the landlord to sell you a pint.

There were restrictions (locally applied) to the opening hours a landlord could keep but after 1872 the first national licensing law was introduced. The Intoxicating Liquor (Licensing) Act (also known as the Aberdare Act) was unpopular (as most restrictions on our consumption of ‘booze’ are!)  and it brought protests and a petition to Parliament, all to little effect.

Governments were also concerned to control the manufacture, importation and sale of alcohol (especially spirits) through taxation and this of course led to smuggling and the development of an illicit trade in home made alcohol.

In late March 1851 Henry Haines and Elizabeth Collins appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court charged ‘by the excise with having been concerned in working in a private still’.

Two officers of the excise, George Lowe and Richard Oliver, working on information they had received, turned up at a premises on St John’s Street, Clerkenwell at five o’clock on Monday, March 24th. They knocked the door and were met by a man who was struggling to restrain two large bulldogs. He quickly asked them to wait so he could tie them up, warning that otherwise they might bite them.

It was a ruse of course, while the excise men waited the man made his escape. Lowe and Oliver entered the building and soon found a kitchen with a large still in it. Haines was in his shirt sleeves busily working; Elizabeth Collins (who turned out to be the wife of the man that had run away) was also working in the kitchen along with a small boy, her son.

This was a serious operation; the officers reported that there was a ‘thirty-gallon copper still [which was] charged with rectifying spirits, and running from the worm end, and more than fifty-five over proof.  There were one hundred gallons of molasses wash in three tubs, and in a can seven gallons of strong spirits, and five bags evidently for yeast.’ There was lots of water and a fire burned under the still.

All of the goods were seized and the operation was shut down. Haines was fined £30 (about £1,7000 in today’s money) with a three month prison sentence with hard labour should he default on the payment. Collins was discharged on the assumption that she ‘acted under the coercion of her husband’.

It doesn’t reveal what the still was making but the widespread availability of cheap gin in the 1800s was a contemporary concern that agitated social commentators. Plenty of satirical prints and popular songs warned of, and  occasional celebrated, Londoner’s love/hate relationship with drink. This still was closed down but many others would have sprung up in its place; Haines’ fine might seem a hefty one but the profits to made outweighed the risks of being penalized. The authorities were fighting a losing battle, just as the we are losing (or have lost) the modern war on illegal drugs.

[from (Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 30, 1851]

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