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.

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