A Look at 18th Century London through the prints of William Hogarth, Gin Lane and Beer Street
By Henry Grubb
Paper given at The Dutch Republic and Britain: The Making of a European World Economy seminar (2007)
Introduction: Walking down Tottenham Court Road, just north of Central London, the street is bustling full of people. Business powerbrokers appear to be on a mission as they hustle past on the sidewalk all decked out in their European style power suits. Pubs seem to be on nearly every corner and franchised fast-food restaurants are everywhere. The ubiquitous Starbucks have sprouted everywhere and this city actually appears to be surging along in a caffeinated frenzy. These streets have at least once before been enveloped in a drug induced euphoria. The drug that ensnared late 17th and early 18th century Londoners was gin. Today it is hard to imagine the trail of social chaos and utter human misery this drink of the juniper berry left in its wake. This paper is the intertwined story of London’s native son, the visual storyteller William Hogarth, the streets of his neighborhood of Saint Giles Parrish and the people who lived there along Tottenham Court Road and the effects of the gin on their lives.
What if you could walk down that same street and cross over to the early 18th Century? We are going to travel back to a London that stands in stark contrast to the bustling London of today. The scenes captured for all time by William Hogarth will convey us back to those bustling London streets of 250 to 300 years ago. The essence of the street life and its peculiar flavor are virtually intact in his drawings. His London is a vibrant cacophony of sights and sounds that exudes the life of the lower classes. One is gut wrenching the other captures the drama and life of the street with a vivid eye for detail. First, we will meet the man who captured the moment on canvas. Then we will look at the time period. What do historians have to say? Were these really mean and dangerous streets engulfed in poverty and deprivation or is that a maudlin view from the modern world? Let’s set the stage for our walk through Gin Lane and down Beer Street