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Binge drinking and moral panics: historical parallels?

by Peter Borsay

Executive summary

  • Understanding the modern phenomenon of binge drinking can be assisted by exploring the parallels with the 'Gin Crisis' of early-eighteenth-century England.
  • Both are driven by pressure groups and an expanding media industry, focus primarily on the role of women, are urban based, and are underpinned by public perceptions of government complacency and an element of xenophobia.
  • Both could be categorized as a form of 'moral panic', that is, an event constructed in the media that draws its power not primarily from its inherent features but from its capacity to mediate a package of wider social anxieties.
  • But there are important differences. In addressing the problem of modern binge drinking the past should be examined in a nuanced way that avoids crude parallelism and distinguishes carefully between similarities and differences.
  • The contemporary crisis is one of the relatively well-off rather than the poor, reflects the rise of a self-conscious youth culture in which women are now full participants and performers, and is fuelled by a far more complex and dynamic media.
  • Close attention should be paid to the role of the media in constructing perceptions of the problem, and care taken to separate out those elements which are peripheral to it, but nonetheless fuel its intensity, and those which constitute its core, such as the potential damage to the short- and long-term health of young people.
  • In framing a response, a fuller understanding of the nature of youth culture and leisure is important, as is the need to place binge drinking within the context of alcohol and drug consumption throughout society.
  • Quick-fix legislative solutions that simply shunt the negative effects of binge drinking elsewhere should be avoided.

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Binge-drinking is regularly touted as a major threat to the well being of contemporary British society. Can the historian add anything to the high-profile, highly-charged debate that surrounds the subject? The answer is probably not if direct parallels and simple answers are demanded. The past does not repeat itself or offer miracle solutions to today's problems. However, there are parallels of a sort, and similar historical contexts that can be explored to offer insights into the nature of twenty-first-century binge drinking. In this process, using the past to inform the present is as much about identifying the differences as the similarities.

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Hogarth and the 'Gin Crisis' of eighteenth-century England

Let me begin then by drawing a potential parallel with the so-called 'Gin Crisis' or 'Gin Craze' that swept over England - and, in particular, London - in the early eighteenth century. As we shall see, it is a parallel which may have struck many of those who attended the recent Hogarth exhibition at the Tate Gallery. The consumption of gin rose substantially from about the 1690s, in response partly to government policy to stimulate the distilling industry by reducing duties on 'low wines' made from British corn. Whereas in 1690 English distillers paid duty on just over half a million gallons of spirit, by the 1720s around 2.5 million gallons of gin were being produced annually in the capital, when it was claimed that each inhabitant of the city was consuming roughly a pint of the substance a week. Over the next two decades production continued to climb reaching a peak of 7 to 8 million gallons in the 1740s, before a combination of economic factors, changes in drinking fashions and legislation, introduced in 1751, curbed consumption.

The enduring image for us of the 'crisis' - and the culmination of the contemporary campaign to force action on the matter - is Hogarth's print 'Gin Lane'. This was published in early 1751 to coincide with the start of the new parliamentary session and, along with a companion print, the two offered a 'before (Beer Street) and after (Gin Lane)' scenario.

The immediate impact of 'Gin Lane' is one of shock; an apocalyptic vision of chaos, destruction and death. Moreover, the graphic nature of both prints, their unpainterliness, their capturing of detail and recognizable topographic features, make them appear as forms of reportage, as if Hogarth had literally appeared with his sketch pad in a street in the London parish of St Giles and copied what he saw before him. He might have been a forerunner of the modern photo journalist. Careful consideration of the prints, however, suggest that there is more to the images than immediately meets the eye - that what we are looking at is not so much 'reality' as a calculated construction of reality. Certain themes stand out. Men are well represented, particularly and significantly in the pre-lapsarian and prosperous 'Beer Street'; but it is the images of women in 'Gin Lane', and especially of mothers, that are memorable. Not for nothing was gin - known as 'Madam Geneva' and 'Mother Gin' - characterized as a feminine drink.

No images are more shocking than the picture of the mother forcing gin down her offspring's throat; of the woman so drunk that her child is dropping from her arms in a precipitous fall that will culminate in a headfirst crash on the paving stones; or the woman who has drunk herself to death and is about to be buried on the parish with the pathetic profile of her abandoned child weeping beside the coffin. In fact, the focus in all these cases is not so much on the women as women, as on the women as mothers, and on the notion of maternal neglect. Where men are represented in 'Gin Lane' it is in two negative ways. Either as an unemployed man, forced to pawn his work tools, like the carpenter at the pawnbrokers, to pay for more gin, with the inevitable consequences that buildings are falling down and are neglected, and that he can no longer care for his family who will become a burden on the parish. Or as the archetypal drunken man, so inflamed that he has lost all control of himself and is engaged in a display of gratuitous violence that fills the street with disorder.

Two further themes deserve to be highlighted. First, there is the issue of patriotism. Gin was considered a continental and in particular a French drink. Hence one version of 'Beer Street' has a weedy Frenchman being manhandled out of the street by a corpulent English artisan holding a jug brimming with beer. Second, there is the problem of governance. 'Gin Lane' prompts the question, how has this been allowed to happen? Or, to put it bluntly, where is the government? Directly under the pawnbroker's sign is the steeple of St George's Bloomsbury (built 1716-31), with the nonchalant statue of George I on top, attired in Roman dress, presiding over the chaos beneath him. Nothing could be a greater indictment of government complacency.

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A Georgian moral panic

We have then a powerful and widely available contemporary image of an early - perhaps the first - drink-related 'moral panic'. The image, and the crisis that it portrayed, drew their force not just from the growth in gin consumption, but from the way that a change in the pattern of drinking was harnessed to a battery of structural anxieties that pervaded early Georgian society. Principal among these were:

  • a concern about the impact of rapid urbanization, particularly in the case of London, upon law and order and the social fabric;
  • the effect of rising levels of wealth in society as a whole, but in particular the growth of working-class real income, upon patterns of consumption, the will to work, and the fulfilment of domestic responsibilities;
  • a widespread anxiety about the breakdown of the family and in particular maternal neglect of children - 1739 saw the establishment of the Foundling Hospital, of which Hogarth was a governor;
  • a growth in xenophobia, especially in relation to the French, in part a consequence of a series of large-scale European wars in which Britain was involved;
  • a general anxiety about the failure of government to grasp the seriousness of the problems facing society and take effective action to remedy them.

It was the capacity to yoke the rise in gin drinking to the wider concerns of society that transformed a potential social problem into a full blown 'moral panic'. All this was not accidental.

The campaign to curb gin consumption was shaped and directed over three decades by an articulate and resilient group of middling-order Londoners, including artists such as Hogarth, who were deeply concerned about the moral health of society, were highly critical of the dissipated life style of the landed order and their failure to tackle the problems around them, and were engaged in wide ranging project - of which the curbing of gin drinking was only one part - to force through reform. One aspect of their tactics was to exploit the new-found potential of the media. The lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695 had led to a surge in printing and publishing, most particularly the emergence of the first permanent newspaper press. Hogarth's 'Beer Street' and 'Gin Lane' - produced at deliberately low prices to appeal to the middle- and lower-middle-class market - were part of this print revolution, and appearing in 1751 may well have constituted the final straw that broke the camel's back and forced the government to take action. The Gin Craze was thus a media-driven crisis.

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Parallels with the modern binge-drinking 'crisis'

As an historian it is not for me to attempt an in-depth analysis of today's binge-drinking crisis. But, at least superficially, there do seem to be parallels with the Gin Craze of the early-eighteenth century. Firstly, the media play a critical role. The police and health professionals clearly have direct and regular contact with the phenomenon, but most older citizens make their acquaintance with binge-drinking primarily through the media, especially TV and the newspapers. Certainly it is the media who control how we see it; it is they who create the visual and written images and texts that determine perceptions of the phenomenon. Moreover, though we might like to think that the newspaper photographer or TV cameraman just point their lenses in a random way at the goings on, commonsense suggests that there is a good deal of calculation behind the production of the images. Secondly, my impression from these images is that though young men are undoubtedly present it is young women that are the media's focus - scantily clad, sometimes roaming around in groups linked together by arms, other times staggering helplessly on their own, occasionally collapsed in the gutter vomiting. Thirdly, where men are shown it is usually engaged in acts of bravado, damage to property, and inter-personal violence. Fourthly, the setting is invariably urban rather than rural, city centre rather than suburban, and outdoors rather than indoors. Binge drinking is thus portrayed as a public and urban phenomenon. Fifthly, pervading many reports is a sense of governmental inaction and complacency. The world is falling into chaos, but the state is doing little to address the problem. Indeed, where the government does act, it is to introduce measures such as allowing twenty-four hour drinking that, from a commonsense point of view, seem likely to inflame rather than relieve the problem. Sixthly, one of the reasons given to justify the de-regulation of licensing hours is the example of Europe, where it is argued that permitting an all-day drinking culture encourages a more mature and civilized approach to alcohol consumption. However, such a line of argument simply fuels a xenophobic response in the media, where de-regulation is portrayed as yet another example of loss of autonomy and cultural identity as Britain in Europeanized. Finally, though the media may project the crisis, behind it are a series of organizations, professional bodies and pressure groups drip-feeding information and statistics, and pursuing agendas which inevitably reflect their own take on politics and society.

On the face of it the parallels in the way they are portrayed between the Georgian Gin Crisis and the modern binge-drinking crisis do seem striking. This in itself might make us query whether we are dealing with a dramatic new phenomenon that requires immediate action if social collapse is to be avoided, or with an endemic feature of society, that flares up on an occasional basis and that is resistant to quick-fix solutions. Moreover, if the Georgian crisis can be characterized as a 'moral panic' - an event constructed in the media that draws its power primarily not from its inherent features but from its capacity to mediate a package of structural social anxieties, to act, as it were, as a lightning rod for social phobias - then might not the same be argued of the modern binge-drinking crisis?

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However, for a number of reasons, we should be cautious about over-drawing the parallels.

Firstly, as I argued earlier, the eighteenth-century Gin Craze is not the same as the twenty-first-century binge-drinking crisis. The eighteenth-century attack on gin drinking was not one on alcohol consumption per se, or even on heavy drinking as such. As 'Beer Street' makes clear, drinking British brewed beer, and in large quantities, was considered not only acceptable but even beneficial and patriotic. Arguably it was only after a safe water supply was introduced - and when industrialization made work and alcohol incompatible, and a fully-fledged temperance movement emerged in the Victorian period - that there developed a credible critique of alcohol consumption and heavy drinking. Even today it is far from obvious that the campaign against binge drinking is primarily motivated by an anti-alcohol agenda, though it clearly is among some pressure groups. Alcohol consumption remains, as it always has, fundamental to many of the social rituals and recreations of modern society. In this sense binge drinking could be said to operate within rather than outside the boundaries of social norms. It may be that there is some alarm, as with the Gin Crisis, at the form in which alcohol is being consumed. Lager, which binge-drinking males consume in large quantities, has a continental, anti-patriotic feel when compared with traditional British beers. But it is the alcopops which have generated most criticism. There are two reasons for this, which point to two further differences with the earlier crisis.

Alcopops are associated with youth, and are portrayed as insidious means by which the brewing companies seduce young people into the evils of drinking. The previous Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, called for the then Chancellor to raise the taxes specifically on these products to discourage their purchase. During the Gin Craze there seems to have been little emphasis upon youth as such. Young people were certainly there as victims of the craze, but only as products of maternal neglect, not as a force in their own right. In the case of modern binge drinking it is clear that the focus is almost exclusively on the young. Concerns about the behaviour of young people, and about their recourse to alcohol, are not new. The excesses of medieval apprentices are well chronicled, and during the inter-war years, and even in the late-nineteenth century, one can see the emergence of debate about the corrupting impact of commercial forces on youth. But it was probably the growth of a self-consciously constructed, commercialized and anti-establishment youth culture, fuelled by rising levels of wealth among the young, in the 1950s and especially 1960s that elevated concerns about youth to a new level. Binge drinking in this context can be seen as one more of the youth-focused 'moral panics' that appeared from the 1950s onwards, and were identified and categorized by the sociologist Stanley Cohen in his Folk Devils and Moral Panics of 1972.

However, alcopops are not just a young person's drink. Few self-respecting males would normally be seen consuming a vodka and orange mix such as Reef, or the lurid blue liquid that passes under the provocative name WKD. These are marketed as self-evidently feminine drinks. The early moral panics of the post-war decades were essentially about young men behaving badly. Women were present, but essentially as hangers on. Whatever the youth culture of the 50s and 60s achieved, it did little to question gender roles and stereotypes. That challenge came in the latter decades of the twentieth century, and the binge-drinking panic of the early-twenty-first century - with its images of self-assertive, provocative, rude, pleasure-seeking young women - can be seen as a response to that. It may even be that beneath the surface remain the older concerns and questions that fuelled the Gin Crisis: how can these women make good mothers?

Throughout this paper my emphasis has been upon image; upon the way events are represented, particularly through the media, to the public. However, this is not to deny that on occasions many young people do drink heavily, that they become inebriated, that they spill out into the central streets of towns, and there behave in violent and provocative ways that are distressing to onlookers, time-consuming for police and health professionals, and damaging to their own well being. Behind the images there are realities. It is tempting to dismiss all this unfortunate behaviour as simply young and inexperienced people acting under the influence of alcohol. Remove the substance and youth will return to the normality that pervades the majority of their lives. But this ignores the fact that young people are choosing to drink heavily, in all likelihood knowing the consequences of doing so. They are investing a substantial portion of their personal wealth, not just in the drink but also the package of recreational props that accompany it - music, dancing, clothing, etc - because it gives them a tangible and considered return. We need to understand more about the thrill and excitement of the occasion, the frisson generated by engaging in what is essentially carnivalesque behaviour in which the social norms are challenged and inverted. We need to look more at the performative aspects of binge drinking.

In the case of the early Georgian Gin Crisis this line of argument is less convincing; it is less easy to detect the same carnivalesque and performative elements. They may have been there, and the mixture of drink and carnival are certainly part of pre-modern society. But my suspicion is that gin drinking was not binge drinking, that it was more persistent rather than occasional, that it was more a pastime of the poor than the wealthy, and that it was not accompanied by the calculated theatre that fills the streets of our towns on a Friday and Saturday night. One reason may be the fact that the media revolution has gone that much further - that there are digital, phone and television cameras to capture fully and transmit in an instant the goings-on - making the performance that much more worthwhile. In this sense, to use a hackneyed phrase, the media has become the message. Young people are acting before a virtual audience. However, they do so fully in the knowledge that it is only carnival, that during the week they will return to their normal lives. Read in these terms, binge drinking, as pre-modern carnival, simply reaffirms the norms of society by temporarily challenging them.

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Historical analysis can only go so far. There are similarities between the Gin Craze of the eighteenth century and the binge-drinking crisis of the early twenty-first century. Primarily I would point to the notion of a 'moral panic', in which a new pattern of consumption, gin drinking, became the focal point for a wide range of sometimes only marginally-related social anxieties, which helped transform a problem into a crisis. In this process of stimulating and structuring a panic, pressure groups and the media were critical. But binge drinking is not the same as gin drinking. Changing attitudes to alcohol consumption as a whole, and to specific forms of alcoholic drink, higher levels of wealth, uncertainty over and change in gender roles, a far more powerful media industry, and a self conscious, assertive and performative youth culture give a different shape to the 'crisis'. The Gin Crisis of the eighteenth century was tackled by increasing the tax on gin, doubling licensing fees, and restricting retail outlets. By the late 1750s output had dropped to between two and three million gallons. Whether there was a similar fall in the total consumption of alcohol, or a rise in the quality of maternal care, are entirely different matters. Today government and police could no doubt bring an end to binge drinking if concerted action was taken to legislate and enforce. Whether it would lead to an overall decline in alcohol and drug 'abuse', whether it would produce a more disciplined and conformist youth, whether that would be a desirable outcome, and whether it would put an end to moral panics, are all, at the very least, matters of debate.

September 2007

The illustrations are reproduced with the consent of the University of Wales, Lampeter, Research Centre and its Director, Professor Nigel Yates. Some of the material in this paper was also presented in an article in BBC History, July 2005.

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Further reading

  • Peter Borsay, A History of Leisure: the British Experience since 1500 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006).
  • Peter Clark, ' The "Mother Gin" controversy in the early eighteenth century', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 38 (1988).
  • Lee Davison, 'Experiments in the social regulation of industry: gin legislation, 1729-1751', in Lee Davison, Tim Hitchcock, Tim Keirn and Robert B. Shoemaker (eds), Stilling the Grumbling Hive: the Responses to Social and Economic Problems in England, 1689-1750 (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1992).
  • Patrick Dillon, The Much-lamented Death of Madam Geneva: the Eighteenth-century Gin Craze (London: Review, 2002).
  • John Greenway, Drink and British Politics since 1830: a Study in Policy Making (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003).
  • Jessica Warner, Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason (London: Profile Books, 2003).

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About the author

Peter Borsay is Professor of History at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He has published widely on British eighteenth-century urban and cultural history, his most recent book is a history of British leisure (2006), and he is currently engaged in projects on the history of Welsh seaside resorts 1750-1914, and on the 'Discovery of England' c.1860-1949.

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