Published: 20/03/2003, Volume II3, No. 5847 Page 24 25

Craze Gin and debauchery in an age of reason

By Jessica Warner

Publisher: Profile Books. ISBN: 1861976704. 288 pages.£16.99

The gin craze that swept London in the mid-18th century took a terrible toll on civilised life. This vile drink could make mothers incapable of caring for their babies. It could leave children stunted and unable to grow up into the cannon fodder England so badly needed for its wars against France. If you were a hopeless old hag, it could even make you explode.

Yes, such was the moral panic that physicians convinced themselves that those who drank to excess might spontaneously combust and be reduced to ash while leaving their surroundings and possessions - particularly those of value - curiously unmarked. But funnily enough, this awful fate only seemed to await elderly women with impatient heirs.

Here, perhaps, is the nub of the scare. The sudden arrival in the nation's capital of an alcoholic drink of previously unimagined strength did exact a toll on the health of those who drank it to excess.

Without the social constraints that would prevent us from trying it, some people in the 1730s did drink a quart at one draft and drop down dead. To a society used to nothing stronger than ale, this powerful gut-rot came as a massive shock.

But the real concern of the moral reformers who campaigned for gin to be banned - or at least denied to women - was that in an age where the certainties and social controls of the medieval world had suddenly given way, women young and old were suddenly out of control. They were even socialising with men on an equal footing - at least in the gin houses around Westminster where people of quality could not help but trip over the worst sort of human detritus.

Of course, there was a fiscally attractive reason to adopt the moral cause and take control of the gin trade.

By restricting sales to licensed and controlled establishments, it was possible to tax the trade and feed the coffers of a state as anxious to pay the costs of its wars as to find the next generation of redcoats.

The successive Gin Acts did this from the 1730s onwards.

Chancellor Gordon Brown would surely approve of such prudence - just wait for the legalisation and taxation of cannabis if the axis of evil refuses to cave in quite as quickly as everyone expects.

I came to this book not expecting to like it very much. It is clearly bang in the middle of the historical territory carved out so dextrously by the late Roy Porter, and thereby seemed doomed to fail. Its final chapter, drawing comparisons between the gin craze of the 1730s and the drug epidemic of today, seemed to threaten one smug parallel too far.

Happily, I was wrong. Jessica Warner brings a fresh perspective and she has an easy writing style that enabled me to plough happily through Craze in the course of two - admittedly rather extended - journeys on the London Underground.

Her final chapter also resists the easy points.Warner argues that no matter what harm gin might have done to public health a quarter of a millennium ago, and no matter what damage drugs certainly inflict now, their effect is dwarfed by the toll exacted by the poverty in which people who abuse such substances to deaden their existence are forced to live.

And so to finish, a statistical observation: 'With the exception of the peak years of 1740 to 1751, the amounts of distilled spirits consumed in England were about equal to those consumed on a per capita basis in North America in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The amounts in question were, in other words, high but hardly heroic.'