British Museum guidebook, £3.50
Height: 385.000 mm
Width: 320.000 mm
Prints and Drawings
William Hogarth, Gin Lane, etching and engraving
1 February 1751
The scene is set in the poverty-stricken area to the north of Covent Garden, identifiable by the tower of St George's, Bloomsbury in the background. Gin was the plague of London in the first half of the eighteenth century. Controls on consumption were lifted at the turn of the century and stills proliferated with the result that by 1750 more than one in six houses in this part of London sold gin. Gin was said to be responsible for a lowering of the birth rate and an increase in infant mortality and despite immigration to London the population began to fall. Acts of 1736 and 1743 were ineffective, but the campaign launched in 1750 - of which this print was a part - led to the Gin Act of 1751 which introduced licensing of retail premises and finally reduced consumption.
A half-naked drunken woman fails to notice that her child is falling to certain death. In the foreground a skeletal ballad singer recalls the medieval figure of Death. Beyond, a craftsman pawns his tools and a woman her cooking pots, a boy sleeps while a snail crawls on to his shoulder, another shares a bone with a dog, a baby is impaled, the lame and the blind fight each other and everyone drinks gin, from babies to young charity girls (identifiable by their uniform caps and aprons and the badges on their sleeves) to an old woman confined to a wheelbarrow.
Gin Lane is a pair to Beer Street, in which healthy working people are shown consuming flagons of the national brew in contrast to the emaciated drinkers of liquor of foreign origin that has reduced the population to frenzied drunks.