The First Gin Palace

‘The Gin Shop’, a cautionary cartoon by George Cruikshank. This dates from 1829; in just a few years Londoners could drink themselves to ruin in much plusher surroundings.

‘It was near Field Lane that the first London gin palace was built. The polished mahogany counters, the garish bar fittings, the smartly painted vats, inscribed ‘Old Tom’ and ‘Cream of the Valley’, the rows of showy bottles of noyau and other cordials, and above all the immense blaze of gas light within and without these buildings as soon as dusk set in, were all so many novelties and came as a vision of splendour to the besotted denizens of the neighbouring slums. (From Glances Back through Seventy Years by Henry Viztelly. ‘Noyau’ is, I believe, a French liqueur made from brandy, flavoured with almonds and the pits of apricots.)

The gin palace described by Henry Viztelly was an establishment called Thompson and Fearon’s – and whilst it might have been the first of London’s gin palaces, it didn’t last long. Built in the mid-1830s, it was swept away in 1860 to make way for Holborn Viaduct. A drawing made shortly before its destruction shows a tidy establishment, not the flamboyant palace of booze associated with later examples of the species. But it was a prototype for all the others, and its location is significant, as Field Lane – which remains in ghostly form as Shoe Lane – was a remarkably hairy locality and had been so for at least a hundred years before the Victorians remodelled the area. Field Lane abutted the western edge of ‘Fleet Ditch’, the monstrously polluted Fleet River, and was once notorious as the site of an early 18th century gay brothel, Mother Clap’s, whose proprietor died in the pillory. (Mark Ravenhill wrote a play about her. And I’ve already written about a famous local dive, Jonathan Wild’s House.)

Holborn Hill circa 1860, shortly before redevelopment. Thompson and Fearon’s is on the left, with the cute balcony. As reproduced in Mark Girouard’s ‘Victorian Pubs’.

The new drinking establishments fascinated the young Dickens, who noted that the ‘handsomest’ gin palaces were the ones closest to the worst rookeries, but he evinced unqualified approval for the theatrical glamour of the bars themselves:

The filthy and miserable appearance of this part of London can hardly be imagined … You turn the corner. What a change! All is light and brilliancy. The hum of many voices issues from that splendid gin-shop which forms the commencement of the two streets opposite; and the gay building with the fantastically ornamented parapet, the illuminated clock, the plate-glass windows surrounded by stucco rosettes, and its profusion of gas-lights in richly-gilt burners, is perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left. (‘A Gin Palace’, 1835’)

Dickens left an intriguing inventory of the brands of gin on offer, their descriptions a come-on even at a distance of 180 years: ‘The Cream of the Valley,’ ‘The Out and Out,’ ‘The No Mistake,’ ‘The Real Knock- Me-Down’, ‘The Regular Flare-up … I never seen any of these brands in Waitrose, but it’s only a matter of time before some artisan distillery christens their boutique spirit with one of these monickers, slapped with a faux-Victorian label and bottled in hand-blown glass – good value at £46 for 50cl.

There’s a direct connection between the expansion of London and the endless trudges the workforce were compelled to make to and from work (in an era where public transport was non-existent), so that bars located on the main arterial roads offered the working populace an opportunity to break their interminable journey home with a palliative stiff one. If the gin palaces got a bad rep, perhaps it was because a bright pub on a dark street often indicated the only available pleasure in a pitiless urban existence: a source of warmth and light, company and laughter, oblivion and escape. And, as Mark Girouard succinctly puts it in his admirable book Victorian Pubs, Their customers tended to get drunk because semi-starving people get drunk very easily’.

A fun evening in Thompson and Fearon’s (allegedly). Another illustration from ‘London Pubs’.

Dickens was writing Oliver Twist at the same time as he wrote his piece on gin palaces, and he chose to locate Fagin’s hideout in Field Lane, at that time the centre of the ‘snot-haul’ trade. (A pickpocket was a ‘snotter hauler’, although Dickens uses the politer term ‘fogle-hauler’.) Silk handkerchiefs stolen all over London were brought here to be traded on, displayed in lines on poles above the street.

The rear of Wren’s church of St. Andrew abuts Shoe Lane, and the church is name- checked in Oliver Twist, as Bill Sikes leads Oliver away to Hyde Park Corner he makes sure to check the time by its clock. (A few years after Oliver Twist, Dickens used this vicinity again for his historical novel Barnaby Rudge, based on the Gordon Riots of 1780.) The arse end of St.Andrews remains monumentally imposing today, its stony bulk offering no comfort to the lost, vanished souls of Field Lane – or, for that matter, to anyone who walks down Shoe Lane today. When I was researching this post, back in February this year, it seemed to me that Shoe Lane was as desolate and dead a street as it was possible to find in 21st century London. But, post-lockdown, all of London looks like a bit like Shoe Lane now. However, at time of writing there are fragile grounds for hope; pubs are, ever so tentatively, opening again. On Saturday I walked through a deserted Clerkenwell and discovered a small oasis in the hot, empty streets: by St. John’s Gate a bar was open for business, serving a handful of customers sitting in the sunshine. It was indescribably beautiful.

Charles Booth visits Shelton Street

‘… In little rooms no more than eight feet square would be found living father, mother and several children. … as to not a few it is a mystery how they live. Drunkenness and dirt prevailed … violence was common, reaching at times even to murder. … Not a room would be free from vermin, and in many life at night was unbearable. Several occupants have said that in hot weather they don’t go to bed, but sit in their clothes in the least infested part of the room.’

From the introduction to the profile of Shelton Street in Life and Labour of the People in London Volume II , Charles Booth, 1891.

Charles Booth was a Victorian businessman and social scientist; we might say ‘sociologist’ in today’s terminology, although his work examining the lives of London’s poor in the 1880s and 90s doesn’t have the academic detachment of today’s practitioners. His initial motivation seems to have been indignation at assertions made by The Social Democratic Federation that more than a million people in London lived in great poverty. Funding his own researches, he set out to disprove such ‘incendiary’ allegations; but he eventually concluded that the reality was much worse.

His 17-volume survey Life and Labour of the People in London was a more forensic study of the capital’s poverty than the great Henry Mayhew survey of forty years earlier. He defined the ‘poverty line’ separating those who were just about managing to make ends meet from those who were in dire straits. Street by street, Booth’s team visited every house and interviewed – or tried to interview – the inhabitants. Booth’s callers included missionaries who had known some of the residents for years.

Booth’s map.


One of Booth’s great contributions was his colour-coded mapping of London according the quality of life found on each street, the ones coloured black being the worst. Inevitably, there is a gulf between the well-meaning proto-sociologist and the desperate lives of the subjects of his inquiry. Booth’s admirably laconic accounts tend to slapstick whenever he or his researchers encounter resistance.

Shelton Street in Seven Dials was one of Booth’s blackest streets. Here’s an excerpt from Booth’s profile of the residents of number 8:

‘The mother is a notorious drunkard, very violent in her cups, often in trouble with the police, and struck the protestant missionary in the face in defence of her holy mother of God, backing this up with oaths and foul language. The third floor was occupied by more Irish, and one of these, a powerful woman took an active part in the attack on the missionary, driving him downstairs into the shelter of Mrs McConnell’s shop. … In the parlour at no. 8 a man one day told the visitor that, although a Catholic, he did not believe in anything but beer.’

Gustave Dore again: a generic London slum of the 1860s.

The reader grasps at these moments of light relief because the overall picture is so bleak. Drink and desperation feed each other in an unremitting cycle. The man who lived ‘only for beer’ is next described attempting to sell his pocket knife to buy booze and, unable to find a buyer, taking out his frustration by shoving it into someone’s heart.

‘In the adjoining room on the third floor lived a man of fifty with a woman of about the same age. He was a market porter and drank the larger part of his earnings. Most of what came home to the woman went also immediately to the public house. The man was never to be seen sober, but came rolling and roaring upstairs into his room. This couple lived like demons one with another, and made of their room a little hell on earth.’

At number 11 a wedding ‘led to a row which lasted several days, the friends of the bride and bridegroom having come to blows, while the police interfered in vain.’

‘At number 25 lived a big man who was employed at one of the music halls. … This man’s house and family have been all along the ideal of the drunkard’s home. On the second floor lived a well-known character, one Welsh who sold shellfish in the neighbouring streets and drank all he made. This man’s house was even worse than that of the music hall servant.’

The Organ in the Court. Dore’s illustrations are theatrical and unreliable in purely documentary terms, but his contribution to posterity’s image of Victorian London is immense.

On the second floor of number 18 Shelton St., he records the situation of Mr. and Mrs Parks and family. Mr. Parks ‘… served in India as a soldier, and was discharged in ill-health suffering from pains in his head and loss of memory due to fracture of the skull and sunstroke. His drinking habits also stand in his way. He does house painting when he can get it, which is rare. The mother works hard for her children …’ He concludes with a sinister observation: ‘These people have seven children but eight years ago two of them, aged nine and eleven, going to school in the morning, have never been heard of since’

At number 24, the first floor was the story ‘of utmost horror’ concerning a drunk who beat his wife to death. On the third floor of number 28 lived a market porter and his family, a man who ‘became a great drunkard’ and whose wife said she had lost all heart: ‘The panels of the door told their story of drunken violence. The man belonged to an association in Clare Market called ‘The Guzzler’s Club’ …’ As for number 33, ‘the missionary remembers well. An Irishman tried to throw him downstairs …’

Shelton Street today is absorbed within Covent Garden’s retail zone. Under normal circumstances (remember normal?), I would conclude with a neat and no doubt predictable comparison between late Victorian poverty and contemporary consumerism. But in our present locked-down state, it is the couple Booth profiled at no.8 who haunt me the most. Below my front door is a mat, a gift from a loved one, emblazoned with Sartre’s line ‘Hell is other people’. This once-amusing item has now acquired a darker implication, something much nearer Sartre’s original intention. ‘This couple lived like demons one with another, and made of their room a little hell on earth.’

Decadents at The Crown, 43 Charing Cross Road

A London pub, circa 1893.

‘Do not think it was an ordinary saloon bar. One entered and the narrow space opened out and disclosed a bar-parlour. … My friends were of the intelligentzia; [sic] they talked learnedly about the ballet and Walter Sickert and the latest art movement in France …There were settees round the wall and we sat on them and drank hot gin and water. Certain celebrities you were quite sure of finding … These last you could expect to turn up within a few minutes of the closing of the Empire and the Alhambra. Ernest Dowson would, as likely as not, be the first to arrive. … The visit to the Crown was not a dissipation, it was the end of the day’s work, a chance of meeting and talking with congenial friends, of exchanging ideas. It was far better, if less comfortable, than the Café Royal that succeeded it, for its limited space made it necessary that much of the conversation should be general.’ Grant Richards, Memories of a Mis-spent Youth, Heinemann, 1932.

One of the many casualties of our current locked-down life is the shuttering of art galleries; one major exhibition that has been rendered unavailable is Tate Britain’s survey of Aubrey Beardsley’s career. As a total sucker for the 1890s in general and the London ‘decadents’ in particular, I had been greatly looking forward to this; sadly, I will have to settle for the Tate’s video of the show (in the link above). But this does at least give me a cue to offer a snapshot of ‘aesthetic’ pub-going, circa 1890.

Decadent‘ London is defined for us by Beardsley and Oscar Wilde: creators of ornate, precious and sinister works of art, whose respective genius was laid waste by disease, the hypocrisy of society and ill-advised liaisons at the Savoy Hotel. But the languid image of the local decadent scene is misleading, as its members were, on the whole, very determined pleasure seekers, fully characteristic men-about-town of the era. Also, there was a split in the movement between the gay or sexually ambiguous ‘green carnation’ axis – Wilde, Alfred Douglas, Robbie Ross, etc. – and the louche, energetically heterosexual tendencies of a number of heavy drinking poets and artists, notably Ernest Dowson, Charles Conder and Arthur Symons.

Ernest Dowson by Charles Conder, presumably well into an evening’s drinking. Dowson is credited with the quip ‘Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.’

In the early 1890s, the centre of operations for the Decadent/Bohemian movement was The Crown in the Charing Cross Rd. This pub was convenient for West End theatres and within easy walking distance of the Decadents’ digs; and as it stayed open until 12.30 a.m. on weekdays, its saloon became their salon. Although not a regular at the Crown, Wilde would sometimes hold court there after performances of Lady Windermere’s Fan, which played The St. James’s Theatre in 1892. (Wilde’s more serious party-going went on elsewhere.) After The Crown closed for the night, Dowson might invite interested parties back to his digs in Fitzroy Street. These night drinkers called themselves ‘The Bingers’, and the company might include actresses or dancers they’d picked up at the Crown. If Wilde and Douglas were fond of stable boys, Dowson was fond of waitresses, prostitutes and distressed girls in general. There is a touching story concerning Dowson and his circle coming to the aid of a girl in their midst, the lover of an actor who had picked her up on a theatrical tour of Scotland. She quickly became a cherished ornament to the Crown set but ran into trouble when she got pregnant. She attempted to abort the pregnancy with a quack medicine and nearly killed herself in the process. As her boyfriend, one Lennox Pawle, was still appearing on stage, it was mostly left to Dowson and another actor friend to look after Marie and get her on a train home. When they heard that the girl had arrived safely, Dowson, Pawle and company went to celebrate at the Crown. Their celebrations are bound to have been partly motivated by the sheer relief at the thought that they would not be party to a girl’s death from a botched abortion; the collateral damage of the ‘naughty nineties’ is glimpsed in the margins of such memoirs. But it also sounds like Dowson was a bit in love with Marie, which would be fully characteristic of him.

Lennox Pawle circa 1900.

In a letter, Dowson described the rest of that weekend:

‘Yesterday Pawle went off to join his company at Derby. Goodie and I met in the evening. He had a charming man with him, a twenty-ton opium eater, who had run away with his cousin and is now about to marry her. We met at seven and consumed four absinthes apiece in the Cock till nine. We then went and ate some kidneys – after which two absinthes apiece at the Crown. After which, one absinthe apiece a Goodie’s club. Total seven absinthes. These had seriously affected us – but made little impression on the opium eater. … This morning Goodheart and I were twitching visibly. I feel rather indisposed: and in fact we decided that our grief is now sufficiently drowned, and we must spend a few days on nothing stronger than lemonade and strychnine.’

(The Cock was another Decadent hangout, located on Shaftesbury Avenue. Like The Crown, that has also gone, but it will get its own entry here in due course.)

Lennox Paule as the ‘pixilated’ Mr. Dick in David Copperfield, MGM, 1935.