I recently had the pleasure of a long-overdue visit to one of my favourite museums – the Sir John Soane museum, which owns the ‘Rake’s Progress’ and ‘The Humours of an Election’ series of paintings by William Hogarth. By happy coincidence, my visit fell at the time when all of Hogarth’s other series of paintings and engravings series had been brought together at the museum in an exhibition called ‘Hogarth: Place and Progress’.
The bulk of Hogarth’s work is set in London, so naturally I had a look for Hogarth-themed streets, of which there are quite a few, from fictional to real by way of some streets that are no longer in existence.
Beer Street and Gin Lane feature in engravings that Hogarth produced in support of the Sale of Spirits Act 1750, also known as the Gin Act 1751. (I have checked and can find no Beer or Gin streets, lanes, or otherwise in London, which is a shame.)
The Gin Act came about because of concerns about the amount of alcohol being consumed In 18th-century London. Alcoholism was widespread amongst the poor in the 1700s, and a ‘gin craze’ held sway in the city.
That gin craze was nothing like the modern thirst for expensive and exotically flavoured drinks paired elegantly with similarly exotic mixers. Then, gin referred to any grain-based spirit and it was cheap and potent, helping people to escape the misery of their lives.
In 1726 Daniel Defoe commented: “the Distillers have found out a way to hit the palate of the Poor, by their new fashion’d compound Waters called Geneva, so that the common People seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not to desire it”. It was the introduction of Dutch ‘genever’ to the UK that had led to the production of gin.
By the 1730s, over 6,000 houses (‘dram shops’) in London were openly selling gin to the general public. The spirit was available in street markets, grocers, chandlers, barbers and brothels, and workmen were often given their wages in cheap gin.
In an effort to combat this gin craze, the government introduced the Gin Act of 1736, which imposed hefty fines on licences for drinking houses. People, however, still wanted their gin and the legislation led to rioting. The act seemed to have served little purpose as, by the 1740s, gin consumption in Britain had reached an annual average of over six gallons per person.
The act was repealed in 1743 and then, in 1750, the Gin Act effectively restricted the distribution of gin. Other methods of attempting to curb gin drinking were to smooth the passage of the import of tea, which, along with coffee, was still beyond the means of most people; and encourage people to drink beer, which was less potent than gin and safer than the unhygienic drinking water of London.
Hogarth issued the engravings Beer Street and Gin Lane in 1751 to support the Gin Act. The prints were designed to be viewed alongside each other, depicting the evils of the consumption of gin, which encouraged drunkenness and led to a rise in crime, in contrast to the merits of drinking beer.
Although they don’t exist, the streets were set in recognisable areas of London: Gin Lane, depicting a drunken mother allowing her child to fall to its death, was set in what is now New Oxford Street but then was a notorious slum area. Nearby is a gin shop sign with the inscription, “Drunk for a penny. Dead drunk for two pence. Clean straw for nothing.”
Beer Street, by contrast, was set in a more prosperous area near to the church of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. There is bustling industry and commerce with prosperous men merrily quaffing beer from tankards.
Even the use of ‘street’ and ‘lane’ are significant: a street was originally a well-made, paved way, from the Roman ‘via strata’ or ‘paved way’. A lane, by contrast, was narrow and winding and, at one point, had only to be wide enough for two men to roll a barrel along it.
From fictional to extinct names: Hog Lane in Soho features in ‘Noon’ of the Hogarth series ‘The Four Times of Day’. Well-dressed French Hugenouts leave their church while nearby there is a bit of scuffle where, and I quote the catalogue here, “The other side shows a sequence that begins with a black boy grabbing a servant maid’s breasts, causing her to drop something off her tray; this smashes a plate of food held by a little boy, casing the contents to fall on the ground where they are grabbed by another child, all of these occurrences following from an act of unrestrained lust.”
Hog Lane was later called Crown Street and then became part of what is now Charing Cross road. It formed the boundary between the parishes of St Martin in the Fields on the west and St Giles in the Fields on the east. Hog Lane was once a relatively common street name in London, generally signifying that hogs were kept there. The Crown Street name came from the Crown Tavern, one of many inns on the street.
Another lost name is Grub Street, now Milton Street, which is considered to feature in ‘A Harlot’s Progress’, at the end of the sequence when the unfortunate protagonist of the series lies dying in a miserable garret and then is shown in her coffin. surrounded by uncaring onlookers.
Grub Street was known as ‘Grubbestrete’ in the 13th century and could have meant ‘street infested with maggots’, or it could have taken its name from ‘grube’, a ditch or drain, or from a personal name, as Grub was not uncommon in those days. Towards the end of the 17th century, the street became the haunt of poor and hack writers and the poet, Andrew Marvell, coined the phrase ‘Grub Street’, which became a generic term for sub-standard literary achievements.
The name was changed in 1830 in an effort to associate the street with a rather higher standard of literary achievement.