Friday, November 22, 2019

When England banned gin, and Royal Enfield was born

Section of William Hogarth illustration "Gin Lane," 1751.
Debauchery and death stalk Gin Lane in William Hogarth's 1751 illustration.
But what does the craze for gin in 18th Century England have to do with Royal Enfield?
Note that the name of the cellar pub, bottom left, is "Gin Royal."
Royal Enfield motorcycles and an expensive bottle of American gin I got as a birthday present recently have something in common.

That something is the Gin Act of 1751, enacted by Parliament in an effort to sober up a British public besotted in an era the history books refer to as "The Gin Craze."

Gin, then newly introduced to Britain, more profitable to make than beer, and patriotic to drink (compared to French brandy) had become wildly — dangerously — popular. English artist William Hogarth blasted the harm gin did in his 1751 illustration "Gin Lane."

It was captioned, in verse:

"Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught
Makes human Race a Prey
It enters by a deadly Draught
And steals our Life away."

The Gin Act of 1751 would fail. (That is its connection to my expensive bottle of gin, which I will explain below).

The connection to Royal Enfields is what happened when Parliament came up with a better plan: replace gin — with beer.

I encountered this story in the October/November issue of The Gun, the magazine of the Royal Enfield Owners Club UK. It contains the article "How Royal Enfield Began," by Anne Bradford. She writes:

"The government was anxious to get the nation off gin and on to beer, said to be healthier; also, the growing of hops and their brewing was good for the economy. Consequently, the Beerhouse Act of 1830 was passed. It allowed anyone of good character to brew and sell beer either from a public house or their own home..."

One of the people who made money doing this in Redditch, England was George Townsend, the son of a needle maker. He made enough money from his brewing vat to open a little needle factory. After his death, his son, George Townsend II, took over.

Photo of bottle of Barr Hill Tom Cat gin.
Barr Hill Tom Cat gin.
Next comes "a whiff of scandal," Bradford writes, as George Townsend II and Foster Townsend (illegitimate son of George's housekeeper) begin a bicycle business together.

Initially successful, they lost control of the company in bankruptcy and the financiers brought in Robert Walker Smith, "a brilliant engineer," and Albert Eadie, "the best salesman England had ever known."

A job making small parts for Enfield rifles put the company back on its feet and the firm's bicycle was named "The Enfield" to celebrate. Salesman Eadie added "Royal" because it sounded upmarket.

Now what about that costly bottle of gin my daughter Anna bought me for my birthday?

The gin is Barr Hill, Tom Cat Gin, by Caledonia Spirits in Vermont. The bottle carries this entrancing story:

"Tom Cat is the modern day adaptation of 18th Century England's most revered spirit, Old Tom Gin. After gin was outlawed by the Spirits Act of 1750, rebellious pub owners would hang a wooden plaque shaped like a black cat to inform the passerby of their defiance of the ban. Deposit a few pennies through the cat's mouth and a bartender would pour a ration of Old Tom to be sipped through a tube between the cat's paws."

Strictly accurate? Maybe not the recipe, since this American gin is expensive, meant to be savored rather than guzzled, distilled with honey and barreled in oak. It's dark in color whereas most gins are clear or nearly so.

But the part about the penny eating cat may be true. In Hogarth's 1751 illustration of Gin Lane is shown a pub advertising this slogan:

"Drunk for a penny
Dead Drunk for twopence
Clean straw for nothing."

The name of the pub is "Gin Royal." It probably sounded upmarket.

More about the craze for gin, then and now, can be found in this article in the New Yorker magazine.


  1. Amazing coincidence. Looking forward to a sip of that gin before Thanksgiving dinner!


Follow royalenfields on Twitter