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Chapter 22

GIN-SHOPS

It is a remarkable circumstance, that different trades appear to
partake of the disease to which elephants and dogs are especially
liable, and to run stark, staring, raving mad, periodically. The
great distinction between the animals and the trades, is, that the
former run mad with a certain degree of propriety--they are very
regular in their irregularities. We know the period at which the
emergency will arise, and provide against it accordingly. If an
elephant run mad, we are all ready for him--kill or cure--pills or
bullets, calomel in conserve of roses, or lead in a musket-barrel.
If a dog happen to look unpleasantly warm in the summer months, and
to trot about the shady side of the streets with a quarter of a
yard of tongue hanging out of his mouth, a thick leather muzzle,
which has been previously prepared in compliance with the
thoughtful injunctions of the Legislature, is instantly clapped
over his head, by way of making him cooler, and he either looks
remarkably unhappy for the next six weeks, or becomes legally
insane, and goes mad, as it were, by Act of Parliament. But these
trades are as eccentric as comets; nay, worse, for no one can
calculate on the recurrence of the strange appearances which
betoken the disease. Moreover, the contagion is general, and the
quickness with which it diffuses itself, almost incredible.

We will cite two or three cases in illustration of our meaning.
Six or eight years ago, the epidemic began to display itself among
the linen-drapers and haberdashers. The primary symptoms were an
inordinate love of plate-glass, and a passion for gas-lights and
gilding. The disease gradually progressed, and at last attained a
fearful height. Quiet, dusty old shops in different parts of town,
were pulled down; spacious premises with stuccoed fronts and gold
letters, were erected instead; floors were covered with Turkey
carpets; roofs supported by massive pillars; doors knocked into
windows; a dozen squares of glass into one; one shopman into a
dozen; and there is no knowing what would have been done, if it had
not been fortunately discovered, just in time, that the
Commissioners of Bankruptcy were as competent to decide such cases
as the Commissioners of Lunacy, and that a little confinement and
gentle examination did wonders. The disease abated. It died away.
A year or two of comparative tranquillity ensued. Suddenly it
burst out again amongst the chemists; the symptoms were the same,
with the addition of a strong desire to stick the royal arms over
the shop-door, and a great rage for mahogany, varnish, and
expensive floor-cloth. Then, the hosiers were infected, and began
to pull down their shop-fronts with frantic recklessness. The
mania again died away, and the public began to congratulate
themselves on its entire disappearance, when it burst forth with
tenfold violence among the publicans, and keepers of 'wine vaults.'
From that moment it has spread among them with unprecedented
rapidity, exhibiting a concatenation of all the previous symptoms;
onward it has rushed to every part of town, knocking down all the
old public-houses, and depositing splendid mansions, stone
balustrades, rosewood fittings, immense lamps, and illuminated
clocks, at the corner of every street.

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.'

The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can
hardly be imagined by those (and there are many such) who have not
witnessed it. Wretched houses with broken windows patched with
rags and paper: every room let out to a different family, and in
many instances to two or even three--fruit and 'sweet-stuff'
manufacturers in the cellars, barbers and red-herring vendors in
the front parlours, cobblers in the back; a bird-fancier in the
first floor, three families on the second, starvation in the
attics, Irishmen in the passage, a 'musician' in the front kitchen,
and a charwoman and five hungry children in the back one--filth
everywhere--a gutter before the houses and a drain behind--clothes
drying and slops emptying, from the windows; girls of fourteen or
fifteen, with matted hair, walking about barefoot, and in white
great-coats, almost their only covering; boys of all ages, in coats
of all sizes and no coats at all; men and women, in every variety
of scanty and dirty apparel, lounging, scolding, drinking, smoking,
squabbling, fighting, and swearing.

You turn the corner. What a change! 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.

We have sketched this subject very slightly, not only because our
limits compel us to do so, but because, if it were pursued farther,
it would be painful and repulsive. Well-disposed gentlemen, and
charitable ladies, would alike turn with coldness and disgust from
a description of the drunken besotted men, and wretched broken-down
miserable women, who form no inconsiderable portion of the
frequenters of these haunts; forgetting, in the pleasant
consciousness of their own rectitude, the poverty of the one, and
the temptation of the other. Gin-drinking is a great vice in
England, but wretchedness and dirt are a greater; and until you
improve the homes of the poor, or persuade a half-famished wretch
not to seek relief in the temporary oblivion of his own misery,
with the pittance which, divided among his family, would furnish a
morsel of bread for each, gin-shops will increase in number and
splendour. If Temperance Societies would suggest an antidote
against hunger, filth, and foul air, or could establish
dispensaries for the gratuitous distribution of bottles of Lethe-
water, gin-palaces would be numbered among the things that were.

Charles Dickens