The Gin Craze | Madam Geneva

The spirit once known as Madam Geneva is an integral part of Clerkenwell’s history, from 18th century inebriation to the sophisticated flavour of London Dry Gin. Jane Young takes you on a tour of the gin lanes of EC1.

The drunken debauchery that William Hogarth depicted in Gin Lane, his 1751 etching, may have been set in the St Giles district in central London, but it could just as easily have been Clerkenwell, which was notorious for drunkenness and violent crime.

During the Gin Craze of the first half of the 18th century, Clerkenwell was rife with illicit gin shops, which sold spirits distilled in pots using sawdust sweepings from taverns and butchers’ shops. Unlike the original juniper-tinged Dutch gin, it was flavoured with turpentine and produced in grubby kitchens from inferior grain at low cost with a high alcoholic potency – hence its popularity with the London poor.

Popularly known as ‘Madam Geneva’ (from jeneva, the Dutch juniper spirit), it was sold from wheelbarrows in the streets as well as gin shops. A slogan of these establishments was: “Drunk for 1d, dead drunk for 2d, clean straw for nothing”. Laws were passed that effectively introduced prohibition through taxation, but gin sellers went underground and their concoctions were more likely to result in poisoning.

Even after the Gin Act of 1751, some illicit production did continue. In 1765 the London Gazette reported on a distillery in a house on Clerkenwell Green, which had gone unnoticed until a carpenter went to repair a well and found it being utilized by the unlicensed distiller to dispose of waste with a drain running from the house.

One of the earliest purpose-built distilleries was Langdale’s on Holborn Hill (near Farringdon Road), established in 1745. Langdale’s gin was widely considered the best in London, although it was often diluted by bootleg sellers. The distillery was destroyed on the sixth day of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780, during which rioters died after drinking spirits unfit for human consumption. “As yet there are more persons killed from drinking than by ball or bayonet, wrote politician and man of letters Horace Walpole”. The conflagration was visible for miles and, several decades later, Charles Dickens depicted the scene in Barnaby Rudge (1841).

It was also in the 19th century that the expression ‘Mother’s Ruin’ caught on, though this was an era when distilling was transformed with new production methods and warehouses whose architectural legacy endures in Clerkenwell today. It was here that the lighter London Dry Gin was developed from the 1830s using new column still production, which enabled a continuous process of distillation.

Cowcross Street and Turnmill Street were associated with gin distillers Booth’s for more than 200 years. In 1903, a new distillery incorporated a series of figurative panels illustrating the distilling process. When the building was demolished in 1976, the façade was moved from Turnmill Street to Britton Street, where the five-panel frieze carved in Portland stone can still be seen today. The Booth’s brand is owned by Diageo, but UK production ceased in 2006.

Brothers John and William Nicholson established J & W Nicholson & Co. Distillery in Woodbridge Street around 1809. It moved to St. John Street in 1828 and had expanded to occupy 187-205 St. John Street by the 1890s, but gin production ceased during World War II. The building was eventually converted into apartments in 1999 and still retains the impressive street frontage.

Possibly the most well-known brand of gin distilled in Clerkenwell was Gordon’s, founded by Alexander Gordon in Southwark in 1769. The company relocated to premises on Goswell Road in 1786 where it remained until 1984, although the original building was destroyed during the Blitz in 1941. One 200-year-old copper still was salvaged prior to rebuilding; the name of that still was Old Tom, also the term for a sweeter style of gin popular before the prevalence of London Dry Gin. Old Tom used to be sold under the sign of a black cat and it was a common sight in Clerkenwell during the original Gin Craze.

Jane Young is an illustrator, historian and local tour guide with a focus on Clerkenwell and artisan life. Her latest project is a collaboration on the history of gin with, a traveling botanical cocktail bar.