Reporter 434, 29 March 1999
English drinkers are embarking on one of their biggest ever binges, according to new research in the School of History.
Economic historian John Chartres believes even the gin palaces of Victorian England could soon be placed in sober perspective by our soaring consumption of spirits. "Distilling for beverages rather than medicine dates back to at least sixteenth-century England," said Professor Chartres. "There have only ever been two higher peaks in consumption than at present, once in the 1730s and 1740s and again in the 1870s," he added. During both those periods legislation was introduced making it more difficult to buy and sell spirits.
Professor Chartres is currently researching the history of the eighteenth-century distilling industry, its organisation and the way it was created by people's tastes. "Spirit drinking twice in the past has risen to levels at which it is seen as a major social problem," he said. "Current drinking patterns may find Britain on the edge of its biggest binge yet - it will be interesting to see what happens." On average, British people currently drink the alcoholic equivalent of ten shots of whisky every week.
In the early eighteenth century, a quartern (quarter of a pint) of gin cost about the same as one of beer, and many shops plied their customers with free tots.
Gin arrived in a world in which alcohol was a central part of normal diet. Those doing heavy manual labour received a third of their calories from beer, perhaps four to six pints a day. "But gin-retailing in the streets made it all too easily available," said Professor Chartres. This led to restrictions by law of sales of less than two gallons.
Professor Chartres' research has been aided by the recent discovery of a primary source of information - upstairs in his local wine shop. "I had returned from a research trip to Plymouth and was talking about the project when the owner of the shop went upstairs and returned with a set of two-hundred year old account books of Leeds-based merchant Earnest Cairns.
"Leeds was a very important supplier in the late eighteenth century so the books hold some fascinating information."
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