The project did another bit of outreach on 2 April when I led a session on early modern intoxicants for Year 12 students during a University of Sheffield open day. Organised by Discover Arts and Humanities – a new initiative of the Outreach team and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities designed to introduce GCSE and A-Level students to higher education in general and the arts in particular – the action-packed event featured a number of sessions which showcased the University’s research for around thirty lower sixth formers.

Inspired by the day’s overarching rubric – ‘Twenty-First Century’ – our session was themed ‘Drug Scares Past and Present’. After a brief introduction to the project, we started by rehearsing some contemporary anxieties around stimulants, specifically alcohol (from concerns about the ‘neknomination’ drinking game to the recent 40% rise in liver disease as reported by the Parliamentary Hepatology Group). We then looked at historical precedents for large-scale intoxicant-related unease, focusing our energies on the ‘gin craze’ which swept England from c.1720-c.1750, when the widespread availability of the new-fangled spirit led to dramatically increased consumption – especially among the urban poor – and rising dismay among moral reformers.

Getting Into the Spirit: The session started off with some iconography. Photo: Kate Smith.

Taking as our jumping off point ‘Gin Lane’ and ‘Beer Street’ – William Hogarth’s celebrated iconographical response to the controversy – we explored the unique qualities of early modern gin, and the reasons (both supply- and demand-side) for its extraordinary proliferation within towns, especially London, from the 1680s. We went on to disentangle the constituents of the ensuing moral panic, which blended concerns around public health, public order, and the drinking habits of women and the poor. We then looked at the resulting legislative crackdown – namely, the five major Gin Acts passed between 1727 and 1751 – figuring it as a kind of early modern war on drugs. We concluded with a lively general discussion, asking what modern policymakers and public health professionals might learn from England’s eighteenth-century gin experiences, but also highlighting some equally important differences and discontinuities between drug scares then and now.

Mother’s Ruin: Central detail from ‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth (1751). The persistent gendered representation of ‘problem’ drinking was discussed during the session. Wikimedia Commons.

Further Reading