Did the Georgians have a Drink Problem?


One of the aspects of Georgian life that puzzles visitors to the NT property where I am a volunteer guide relates to the vast amount of alcohol consumed by just about everyone in the 18th century. Most visitors, I suspect, believe I exaggerate. Many say the drinks of the time must have had a lower alcohol content. Yet I have found nothing to suggest that is so. The plain fact seems to be that taking in large amounts of alcohol was a daily occurrence in the 1700s.

Until the drinking of tea and coffee had spread downwards through the social classes — something long hindered by punitive taxation — there were few alternatives to some type of alcohol. Milk was not available in sufficient quantities and quickly soured. Water was seen as thin, feeble stuff, likely to cause weakness and a tendency to poor health in those who drank it. We now know, as the Georgians didn’t, that this was because much of the available water was contaminated — a ready source of diseases like Dysentery, Cholera and Typhus.

The ‘upper classes’ drank wine, spirits, punch and sometimes beer or cider. The ‘middling sort’ followed their example — in kind if not always in amount. Artisans and labourers mostly drank either beer or cider, depending on geography. ‘Small beer’ — a weaker or watered brew — was for children and servants. Compared with water, alcohol produced by fermentation contained fewer contaminants; the heating involved usually removed the main sources of infection. Even low-alcohol beer was made safer by the boiling needed in its production[1]. Distilled spirits would be even purer, and were drunk without the addition of today’s mixers.

Social Attitudes to Drinking

Contemporary attitudes to drinking alcohol were more about fashion than principle. Hogarth’s famous illustration ‘Gin Lane’ is often produced as evidence of disapproval of alcohol. Yet it needs to be remembered that gin was a ‘foreign’ drink, brought over by the Dutch soldiers in William of Orange’s army. If you compare the poverty and degradation shown in ‘Gin Lane’ to its companion piece, ‘Beer Street’ (a solid, English drink) Hogarth’s message isn’t so clear. It seems less about alcohol than a typical crusty English aversion towards foreign food and drink. Beer Street is clean and prosperous, everyone looks healthy and happy — and the pawnbroker has gone bankrupt!

It’s fair to say that contemporary attitudes to heavy drinking were class-based — linked to the economic need to keep people productive, especially the ‘working classes’. An example comes from the opening of the Gin Act of 1736. It stated the law was needed because of the prevalence of gin consumption among “the people of lower and inferior rank”. This led to “the destruction of their healths, rendering them unfit for useful labour and business, debauching their morals, and citing them to all manner of vices.” Dammit, they’re there to work, not enjoy themselves as we do!

As an aside, it’s worth noting charges of excess in drinking, like attacks on other ‘moral’ vices, served as convenient ways for the middle classes to attack the social and political elite. Their neglect of godly living and scorn for public morality were useful weapons in the lengthy campaign waged to wrest exclusive control of the government out of their hands. Certainly the aristocracy and gentry — and ‘honorary gentry’ like the clergy — drank heavily as a normal part of life. Drink also played a large part in the typical upper-crust horseplay they indulged in. Here’s Parson Woodforde, in 1761, noting one example at his Oxford College:

Dyer laid Williams 2s 6d that he drank 3 pints of wine in 3 Hours, and that he wrote 5 verses out of the Bible right, but he lost. He did it in the B.C.R. [Bachelor’s Common Room], he drank all the Wine, but could not write right for his Life. He was immensely drunk about 5 Minutes afterwards.

The Inescapable Conclusion

However you explain it, it seems likely that a good part of the population of 18th-century Britain had, in modern terms, a significant drinking problem, greater the higher up you look on the social scale. Gout was everywhere amongst the rich and the gentry, especially in men, who were the heaviest drinkers. Men boasted of their ability to drink huge amounts and remain able to function. To qualify as a rake virtually required you to consume up to three bottles of port a day. During his time as Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger was said to take up to six bottles daily. You have to wonder what effect this had on his decision-making during those years. It certainly shortened his life. Claims of even more gargantuan intakes were made, though most were almost certainly wild exaggerations.

I suspect such constant drinking produced some lessening of the immediate effects of alcohol on mind and body — or at least a greater ability to conceal them. That could account for how most people functioned despite their intake. I have encountered alcoholics who seemed able to function quite normally most of the time, despite the amount they drank. It caught up with them in the end, of course, but usually the social impact came before the physical one.

Did the Georgians find drunkenness acceptable? Amongst the rich, I suspect they did, up to a point, especially if it resulted from a social event. To be drunk at the end of an evening including a dinner party was unlikely to cause much concern. To be drunk every day might have raised a few eyebrows.

Of course, the privileged elite forgave themselves all their vices, while disapproving of them in the classes below. Their disapproval also increased the further down the social scale those vices appeared. The middling sort should not ape their betters in drinking, as in anything else. The poor were expected to work, not waste their money on drink.

What first limited the Nation’s drinking was the spread of evangelical Christianity, especially in the middle class, who had always been more puritanical than those above them. I say limited, because it never went away. The Victorians were better at hiding it, not staying sober. The 19th-century poor drank just as much as those in the eighteenth century, when they could get the booze. The final nails in the coffin of constant alcohol consumption were high taxation and effective licencing laws. Both were put in place from the need to keep people working during two world wars. Moral disapproval never proved effective. It took economic and military needs to truly clamp down.

  1. Boiling the water to make tea or coffee produced the same benefits, of course — not that infection was recognised as a source of disease until late in the period.  ↩

williamsavageWilliam Savage writes historical fiction set in eighteenth-century Norfolk in the years between 1760 and 1800. This was a period of turmoil — constant wars, the revolutions in America and France and finally the titanic, 22-year struggle with Napoleon. The series featuring Dr Adam Bascom, a young gentleman-physician caught up in the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, takes place in a variety of locations near to the North Norfolk coast. The Ashmole Foxe series is located in Norwich. Mr Foxe is something of a dandy, a bookseller and, unknown to most around him, quickly involved in dealing with anything likely to upset the peace or economic security of his beloved city. You can check out both series here.

About William Savage

Author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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4 Responses to Did the Georgians have a Drink Problem?

  1. noelleg44 says:

    Interesting post, William. I discovered that the Pilgrims drank beer pretty exclusively, although children might drink water, if not fouled. That was one of the reasons why they settled where they did – on a site with a brook with clean water. The children also drank small beer, especially on the Mayflower when the water became fouled.
    I wonder that the death rate was from cirrhosis in Georgian England? The rich might have been able to handle their liquor with practice, but their livers wouldn’t!


    • No answer to that, since medical science at the time wouldn’t have known what it was. I suppose people reckoned there were so many things around that would kill you, why worry about one more — especially if it was enjoyable while it did it!


  2. vicky blake says:

    Fascinating post. Just out of interest were the bottles (of port) the same size as today? Six bottles of port must have been pretty paralysing!


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