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T'was Pussy What Done It

Gin mania, famine relief and that damned cat

Well. Puss, this is grim...

That bad craziness with gin started in 1688 when the English swapped out a Catholic king for William and Mary, a duel monarchy that was properly Protestant. And Dutch. And it’s wasn’t a bad idea, things just got a bit out of control with the near-collapse of society. And that damned cat…


In an agrarian society with no refrigeration, a bad harvest is a tricky problem everywhere, but even more so in the urban areas. Crop failures relatively rare, but when they do happen, it’s an ugly sort of zaniness that ensues. Farmers, being a practical lot, only grow as much grain as they can eat and sell. To grow a surplus much beyond that not only means unsold inventory, but that the price they can charge will go down. The end result is that there isn’t much surplus when a crop failure happens, and grain prices sky rocket.


The farmer will make his money either way because even if he loses half his crop, he sells it for twice the price. For the urban poor, however, high food prices or scarcity are the sorts of thing that trigger revolution. In general, kings don’t like revolutions and English kings like them even less, as their subjects have always been fairly cavalier about that “divine right” foolishness.


What William III did was promote the drinking of gin – basically vodka flavored with juniper – to prevent famine. He reckoned that if he could stimulate gin production in England, it would expand the market for grain beyond what people ate because the distillers would become a second market for grain (whisky is also made from grain, but William was Dutch, so there we are). Then, so the plan went, in a year with a blight or a crop failure there would be an excess of grain the cover the food shortage. In short, people might go sober, but they wouldn’t go hungry.


The plan would only work, however, only if gin was more popular that beer or wine, or any other spirit. William outlawed brandy and wine from papist France, left the fees and taxes on English brewers, and let the gin industry run amok without any taxes or regulation. And it worked. It just worked a little too well.


Now, I’m a free market guy and generally think that less government pestering of people who actually work for a living the better. Still, there is a practical limit to my libertarianism. You just can’t unleash a powerful new drug on the population and leave it entirely unregulated. Sellers would contract with distillers, and then distill the stuff again - to the point of being 80% ABV, or 160 proof. The problem was that the public hadn’t come up with the ‘rules’ around how it was consumed. The stuff was being served in pint glasses like it was beer – which weighs in at a whopping 5% ABV.


You might think that it killed people and you’d be right. Gin was killing people left and right.


If the poor were going hungry, it was because they were spending what little money they had on gin. Which, from the royal point of view, is not the sort of hungry that triggers revolutions. Although, in retrospect it did but wreak havoc on the social order. Suddenly London was full of uncontrollably rowdy, or comatose, drunks. Worse, many were uncontrollably nude, having sold their clothes for gin. And little naked bastards were showing up all over the place because the hopelessly destitute women were drinking as much as the hopelessly destitute men, but they had one more thing to sell. The whole thing was unseemly.


The English can be a fairly eccentric lot but they are also pretty traditionally minded as well. All the upper classes could see was that the lower classes were on a generational bender, had lost their groveling sense of deference to their social betters, the public nudity was of the entirely wrong sort. It started to make the ruling class feel unsafe.


The Gin Act of 1736 was passed, which required that a seller buy a£50 license, about £12,000 in 2021. The 1736 Act, as well as the license, was duly ignored. Without much of a police force, the government tried to use informers to sniff out scofflaws. That worked about as well as you might imagine: The informers weren’t so much ostracized as beaten to death by the local booze hounds wanting to get “ginny.”

Even in those days, the English were pretty serious about civil liberties, and a witness had to identify both a name and a face to give testimony in court. So a gin seller named Dudley Bradstreet stumbled upon a less dramatic, if much more effective and silly ruse. Dudley rented a house and bought all the gin he could lay his hands on. Near a tightly barred door he installed a fake cat head and an outstretched paw, and spread the word. The walk-by gin fountain came to be known as the Puss & Mew. Soon people were speaking their order into the cat’s mouth, and then dropping in their money, and holding their glass, bottle, bucket or skull under the paw, that held a pipe. The chav got their gin and it was more or less impossible for them to testify who it was selling them the stuff. “T’was the pussy that squirted me gin M’lord.”


Not only was the cat out of the bag, it was handing out quarts of 160 proof gin to a population that didn’t know what had hit it.


The problem just seemed to be getting worse and you might be tempted to call William III a damned fool until the 1750s when the country did suffer a series of crop failures. Over the years, farmers had been growing much more grain that the country ate in order to get it completely legless. The price of gin went up, but the price and supply of bread remained fairly stable.


The government’s domestic policy had actually worked, if only at a huge cost in unintended consequences. For one thing the upper classes were now fully aware of what the lower classes would do when massed and drunk. And let’s be honest, they would really rather they do it someplace else.


To wit, the British Empire...