The perfect tonic

Those of you who are Gidday regulars will know that I like a walking tour. I got into them in earnest last year, thinking they’re a great way to indulge my passion for history.  We were also doing the Get the World Moving challenge at work and one’s step count, and increasing it, became the currency of water cooler and photocopier conversations for about three months.

Yesterday I joined Museum of London guide Bridget and twenty committed tipplers for a damp and chilly trawl through London’s links with gin. Here’s how things went.

We began outside the Dominion Theatre on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the site of the old Horseshoe Brewery and the great beer flood of 1814.

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Apparently a large vat of porter burst and flooded the area. With many of London’s poor living in nearby tenements and cellars – Bridget quoted 102 people living in 8 rooms – it’s remarkable that only eight people died. That six of them were at a wake brings new meaning to the saying “drowning one’s sorrows”.

Our next stop was Denmark Street – London’s music mecca – Central St Giles (designed by Renzo Piano, the architect behind the Shard) and the church of St-Giles-in-the-field.

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Here the enormity of gin’s impact on London really took shape. Gin, or jenever, came to London from Holland, introduced by William III who had seen its invigorating effects on his troops in the face of battle. Ever heard of the expression Dutch courage?

In any case, gin was easy to make and accessible to the poor and at one stage, every man, woman and child was consuming 500 gallons per year – that’s more than 2,270 litres if you are metric – or 6 litres per day. As such gin became the root of many social ills, some of which were illustrated by William Hogarth in his etchings below.

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Thuggery, thievery, disease, suicide and murder were all part and parcel for the gin drinker (right) while on the left, beer was being positioned as having a less deleterious effect on the health (see the better dressed fishwives at the front of the picture). The ‘powers that were’ agreed – after all, without the poor masses, who would serve them and fight their wars – and passed several Gin Acts in an effort to stem, not always successfully, gin’s rapacious tide.

We continued around the back of the church and down to Seven Dials, originally the nexus for just six streets rather than the seven of today.

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The area was laid out by MP Thomas Neale in the 1690s to maximise the space available for his housing project. He commissioned Edward Pierce to build a sundial to stand in the intersection but this was destroyed in 1773 in an effort to stop the site, which was showing the effects of the residents’ heavy gin consumption, being a meeting place for ne’er-do-wells. In the late 1980s, it was rebuilt in line with the original plans and in keeping with our Dutch association, it was Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands who attended its unveiling as part of the year-long William and Mary celebrations in 1989.

We set off down Earlham and then Neale Streets to find ourselves at Covent Garden.

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We paused by the back entrance to the Royal Opera House to learn about Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. The list was published between 1750 and the mid-1790s and detailed the attributes and services of each ‘lady’ available in Covent Garden alongside her picture – at one point, 8000 copies were in circulation.

Much business was also done under the portico of the church opposite, the site of Tom King’s coffee shop which was a place not only for coffee but for gambling and drinking as well. It was said that gentlemen emerging from their clubs could ask Tom (and later Moll King) for the services of lady from Harris’s list. A messenger would be despatched and the lady brought to the coffee shop to meet said gentleman.

We walked around the block and into Bow Street – I’ve only ever entered the Opera House from Covent Garden so I was delighted to acquaint myself with its front.

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The BAFTAs ceremony for the film awards – said to be an indicator of Oscars success – is held here every year on February 14th so there was a lot of work going on to prepare the ‘red carpet’ for tonight.

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We turned into Broad Court and paused again to hear more about Henry Fielding, his brother John and the Bow Street Magistrates Court where people like CasanovaOscar Wilde, suffragette sisters Emmeline & Christabel Pankhurst and author Jeffrey Archer have appeared.

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Henry Fielding also established England’s first police force, originally a group of just six men nicknamed the Bow Street Runners, in 1749.

The end of Broad Court brought us out onto Drury Lane, where many gin palaces emerged during the 1800s. These ‘palaces’ employed the latest inventions of the 1830s – gas lighting, silvered mirrors and paned glass windows – to create a brighter and more genial environment to enjoy a tipple although without seating, patrons drank until they could no longer stand. Literally.

Taverns (where beer was served) already had seating so watched, learned and called on the same improvements to provide a much more comfortable environment for their patrons. So the public were drawn back into the taverns and away from gin until the first half of the 1900s when in the roaring 20s and then again during World War II – when it was Churchill’s tipple of choice – gin’s public profile rose again.

We’d been going for about an hour and half at this point and with the promise of a glass of gin at the end of the walk looming, I found my attention taken by this view through the window of restaurant Barrafina…

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…but there was still one more stop to make before our promised refreshment.

Bridget led us along Great Queen Street and up Newton Street to admire the Princess Louise…

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…and encouraged us to duck into the side door to have a quick peek at how the taverns of the 1830s (and onwards) might have looked.

While it was just a short peek, it was really beautiful and inspired me to find a reason to come back for a drink with friends.

Just as well that our final stop and gin-watering hole was not far away.

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And so our tour ended at The Ship Tavern, tucked away behind Holborn Underground Station, with a rather lush gin, grapefruit and coconut concoction.

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For those of you wishing to wander this area for yourselves, here’s a map of our route…

Mother's Ruin route

…but these streets really came to life yesterday with guide Bridget’s extraordinary knowledge and skillful storytelling, only a fraction of which I’ve shared with you here.

The museum runs a number of themed walking tours like this so if you are interested, check out the website. The next Mother’s Ruin tour looks like it’s on March 13th so if I were you, I’d get your skates on (another Dutch reference – see Hans Brinker) and book your place.

It’s bound to be the perfect tonic.

5 thoughts on “The perfect tonic

  1. Pingback: A brush with art | Gidday from the UK

  2. Delightful stroll through another facet of an amazing city. Thank you. Mother and I enjoyed imagining what it would have been like to be on the street when the beer gushed all around and I wondered if anyone stopped to have a drink as they swam on by. The architecture is my fascination and of course gas lighting was the go for the better establishments. Yes indeed. We enjoyed our walk. Thanks again love. Cheryl & Lona


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