Wine vs. Gin Article Summary

The Late Georgian or Regency period was a momentous period in British history. Running from the mid-1790s through to the death of King William IV in 1837, the era was characterised by war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France down to 1815 and then Britain’s consolidation of its position as the world’s pre-eminent superpower as its empire began to span the globe and the Royal Navy began imposing a worldwide ban on the slave trade.

Patterns of wine consumption fluctuated hugely during these decades. On the one hand high society had gained a taste for wine over beer prior to the start of the Late Georgian era, but nearly a quarter of a century of war with France, the main source of wine for the British market, reduced the quantity and quality of wine reaching English ports. Moreover, the rising popularity of new alcoholic beverages such as gin in the eighteenth century provided intense market competition.

In response to all of this the wine market shifted. Massive smuggling of wine and brandy from France into Britain during wartime occurred, but inevitably new markets overseas were also tapped. Hence the flow of wine continued, with some considerable restrictions, and it featured widely in the work of the Romantic poets.

Introduction: The Story of Wine vs. Gin in Early 1800s Britain

The Late Georgian period was an immensely important series of decades in British history, running roughly from 1795 to 1837. This was an era in which Britain led the struggle of Europe’s great powers against the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte’s French empire down to his fall from power in 1815. This paved the way for Britain’s ascent to become the world’s foremost superpower in the nineteenth century.

Such a tumultuous period also witnessed major changes in terms of consumption in Britain as new markets opened up and war temporarily restricted older markets. Wine consumption and culture in Late Georgian Britain was impacted in tandem.

The Late Georgian Period in Britain

The Late Georgian period occurred at the end of the era in which Britain was ruled by the House of Hanover, a branch of the royal line in England which came circuitously from Hanover in Germany. The head of the House of Hanover in the early eighteenth century, George, Elector of Hanover, became King George I of Britain in 1714 on the death of his cousin, Queen Anne, who passed without any surviving children, bringing to an end the direct line of the House of Stuart.

Four kings named George all followed in a row. King George I ruled from 1714 to 1727. He was then succeeded by his son as King George II, who reigned down to 1760, before his grandson ascended as King George III. The third George’s reign was very lengthy, continuing for sixty years down to 1820. Thereafter his son ruled as George IV. William IV, another son of George III, who ruled from 1830 to 1837, is typically considered the last king of the Georgian era.
Quick hitter – The Georgian era was followed by the Victorian era, which commenced in 1837 with the accession of seventeen-year old Queen Victoria, who would reign until 1901.

The Late Georgian period is identified as being from around 1795 to 1837. Clearly it’s book-ended at the end by the death of William IV and the accession of Victoria, but the start point in 1795 merits some explanation. While this was in the middle of George III’s reign, it was also about the time that his psychological state began to decline precipitously, eventually leaving him virtually catatonic throughout the 1810s. As such, he was an increasingly marginalized figure from the mid-1790s and the future George IV acted as regent for large stretches of time. Therefor the Late Georgian period is often called the Regency Era as well.[1]

This was an age with a distinct set of political cultural and social circumstances. Politically it was dominated in the early decades by the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars which went on from 1792 to 1815, while in the latter stages between 1815 and 1837 Britain’s empire began expanding rapidly, with the acquisition of colonies like Singapore and the exponential growth in the British presence in India, Australia, New Zealand and southern Africa. The Royal Navy’s dominance of the world’s seas also ensured that Britain was able to begin prohibiting the slave trade globally.[2]

Finally, in terms of the culture of the Regency period, England was beginning to emerge as a major rival to France, which had been considered the most cultured part of Europe since claiming that mantle from Italy in the seventeenth century as the Renaissance came to an end. Britain’s new confidence was best expressed in the rise of the Romantic poets such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats and William Blake. All of these political and cultural factors impacted on the wine trade and patterns of wine consumption in Late Georgian Britain.[3]

Wine and Changing Drinking Habits in Late Georgian Britain

Wine and Changing Drinking Habits in Late Georgian Britain

Drinking habits were changing in Late Georgian Britain. While the seventeenth century had seen a major rise in the amount of wine being consumed in England and elsewhere as French culture was imitated across Europe, old and new competitors emerged in the eighteenth. Beer, ale and, to a declining extent, mead remained the staples of the poor, while the middle classes, when they did drink wine, typically favored fortified wines such as port from Portugal and sherry from southern Spain.

Spirits were also becoming more popular, notably rum as the boom in sugar cane production in the Caribbean saturated the market with sugar-high products in the eighteenth century. But, the main new competitor was gin. This is surely the most divisive of spirits, entering periods when it is perceived as something which should only be used in a medical setting to years in which it is extremely fashionable. The eighteenth century falls into the latter category as imports and sales of gin sky-rocketed across Britain.

The gin craze was a striking social phenomenon. Consumption of the cheap liquor ballooned during the eighteenth century especially within working class areas of London and other cities. As it did a moral panic set in not unlike what one would have perceived at the time of the crack epidemic in the United States in the 1980s. In time legislation was even introduced to curb importation of it, excessive consumption and public drunkenness.[4]

As much as new types of liquor were on the rise in eighteenth-century Britain, though, wine remained a cornerstone of the wider alcohol market, particularly amongst the upper and middle classes. No aristocratic soiree was complete in Georgian London without expensive Claret to hand. While those of a lower social station couldn’t afford such varietals in any large quantities, lesser wines were being consumed in ever greater quantities as the growing middle class or bourgeoisie of merchants, lawyers and businessmen emerged across England as it made its ascent to both empire and industrialization.[5]

While the gin craze was dying down by the Late Georgian period, this is not to suggest that people weren’t often indisposed owing to the effects of wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks. In the late eighteenth century the leading statesman of the age, William Pitt the Younger, had infamously taken to the floor of the House of Commons to inform one of his leading political opponents that he could not answer his question because he was ‘so much oppressed by indisposition’. It was also a not entirely irregular site to visit the theatres of Covent Garden in London and find actors who couldn’t remember their lines.[6]

The Romantic Poets

In searching for the cultural imprint of wine during the Regency era one need look no further than the leading literary movement of the time: Romantic poetry. The Romantic poets are household names, chief amongst them William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake. Romantic culture, though, had further offshoots in the art and architecture of the age in Britain, much of it inspired by the sense of dawning optimism as European culture made enormous strides in terms of moral conduct, technological innovation and ideas about political representation which in effect constituted the arrival of the modern world.[7]

Wine was regularly central to the work of the Romantics. Take Lord Byron. In his magnum opus, Don Juan, written in the last half a decade of his life before his death in 1824, he regularly intoned the merits of wine: ‘Man, being reasonable, must get drunk; The best of life is but intoxication’, while elsewhere he stated that ‘few things surpass old wine’.[8]

A man of such immense productivity as Byron was (he died fighting in the Greek War of Independence against Ottoman rule there) could hardly have been expected to deal with regular hangovers. A cure he did have. When one awoke with a terrible headache, he opined, the best cure was a breakfast of hock and soda in bed, a cure for the previous evening’s consumption of three bottles of port.[9]

Others were admittedly less hedonistic. Blake was a clear example. He was a remarkable figure, one whose poetry probably puts most of his esteemed contemporaries in the shade and who also innovated enormously in the field of print illustration, creating artwork in the Late Georgian period which looks like it was transported backwards in time from the twentieth century. So idiosyncratic were his views that many people believed him to be mad. Wordsworth famously stated after Blake’s death in 1827 that ‘There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott’.[10]

Blake regularly used motifs surrounding wine, wine cups and the vine in his poetry. One sonnet of his began ‘But in the Wine-presses the human grapes sing not nor dance’, while other poems bore names like The Wine-Press of Los. In his Marriage of Heaven and Hell he remarked that ‘The best wine is the oldest, the best water the newest’.[11]

Much of this was fairly esoteric, but in searching for the meaning of Blake’s repeated reference to things like the ‘wine of cruelty’ and the ‘wine of life’ in his poems it is important to remember that Blake was a deeply felt Christian, one who pined for Britain to become a sort of new Jerusalem. As such, in stark contrast to the libertine discussion of wine in the works of Byron, in Blake wine is always associated with the sacrament and Eucharist.[12]
William Blake used mortifs around wine regularly in his poetry and his illustrations

William Blake used mortifs around wine regularly in his poetry and his illustrations. | Source

Coleridge’s Remains

Perhaps the Romantic poet who is most keenly associated with wine today, both in life and death, was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge is best known for his lengthy poems, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, but he produced an immense body of work which included significant literary criticism and also efforts to incorporate elements of continental philosophy and metaphysics into English poetry and prose at the dawn of the nineteenth century.

As accomplished as Coleridge was (and some would consider him the genius of the Romantic movement), his life was also turbulent. Early in it he developed an addiction to laudanum, while he was also a heavy drinker, habits which were exacerbated by the fact that he suffered from extreme anxiety and periodic bouts of depression. His tipple was brandy, in which he generally dissolved the opiates, having moved straight to the source and away from the bitter tasting laudanum after a while.
Quick hitter – Laudanum was an opium tonic which was widely prescribed for rather minor ailments in Late Georgian times. It was an age in which Britain was producing massive amounts of opium in British India and it would soon launch the Opium Wars against China to force the country to buy the drug in huge quantities

Coleridge died in 1834 in Highgate in what were then then outskirts of London. He had spent much time here over the years receiving medical treatment from a physician by the name of James Gillman for his addiction issues. When he died he was buried in Highgate in what eventually became St Michael’s Church.

In 2018, in perhaps a somewhat fitting discovery given his lifestyle choices, it was discovered that Coleridge’s lead coffin was not actually lying under the flagstones in the main church where his memorial plaque was located at all, but rather was found in a wine cellar well underground below St Michael’s. The provenance of the cellar lay before Coleridge’s time, most likely having been built when Ashurst House stood on the site. This had been the residence of the Lord Mayor of London in 1693, Sir William Ashurst. St Michael’s Church had only been built on the site two years before Coleridge died.[13]

Samuel T. Coleridge’s memorial plaque at St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London. It was learned in 2018 that his coffin is much further underground in an early modern wine cellar.

Samuel T. Coleridge’s memorial plaque at St Michael’s Church, Highgate, London. It was learned in 2018 that his coffin is much further underground in an early modern wine cellar. | Source

Napoleon and the Continental System

One vital factor when considering patterns of wine consumption and culture in Late Georgian Britain was the impact of the French Revolutionary Wars (1792–1802) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) that followed down to 1815. Throughout these Britain and France were almost perpetually at war for a period of 23 years, the only respite being a year or so of peace after the Peace of Amiens was agreed in 1802. As Britain got most of its wine from France this necessarily impacted on the wine market in Britain.

To some extent Britain adapted to find new sources of wine to feed the British market in response to the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s and early 1800s. However, in 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte, who had been crowned as Emperor of the French in 1804, went even further, introducing a new trade embargo against the British which he called ‘the continental system’.

The continental system was created as part of the Treaty of Tilsit, which Napoleon agreed with Russia and Prussia in 1807. Through the system Napoleon aimed to stop all trade between Britain and continental Europe, his belief being that if Britain’s trade was undermined it would crush the country economically and lead to French victory in the never-ending wars between the two nations.[14]

Although the continental system was only applied with various degrees of success (Tsar Alexander I of Russia never fully imposed it and this led to Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812), it nevertheless created new impediments to the importation of wine into Britain in the late 1800s and early 1810s.[15]

Side notes: The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars  

The French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars were a near continuous series of conflicts which ran from 1792 to 1815. The French Revolutionary Wars began in 1792 as countries likes Britain and Austria went to war with France in response to the French Revolution in 1789. These lasted down to 1802 when France and Britain finally made peace, leading to a year in which Europe was briefly tranquil.

The Napoleonic Wars then began a year later when Britain and France resumed the fight, with near continuous conflict down to 1814 before Napoleon Bonaparte, the Emperor of the French since 1804, was defeated and abdicated his throne. He briefly seized power again for a period of just under four months in the spring and summer of 1815, but was comprehensively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on the 18th of June.

What all of this meant was that trade networks and commerce across the continent was massively interrupted for half of the Late Georgian period. This led to supply problems when it came to a wide array of goods, but wine in particular, as France was the main supplier of wine into Britain, along with Spain and Portugal which were also impacted by the wars.[16]

The Restricted Wine Market

The British responded in numerous different ways to get around the impediments which existed to the importation of wine into Britain for a period of over twenty years while they were at war with the French between 1792 and 1815 and the massive trade blockade which came about through the continental system from 1807 onwards.

One easy solution was to simply seek out alternative markets. In the British case this involved a further expansion in the already sizeable import trade of fortified wines from Spain, Portugal and places like Madeira and the Canary Islands. This market fluctuated over time. Just as he was imposing the continental system, Napoleon also tried to directly occupy the Iberian Peninsula, which interrupted the wine industry in general here as a guerrilla war began immediately, aided by a British expeditionary force which arrived to Portugal in 1808.

Another solution was to develop an indigenous wine industry in Britain itself. This was the period when the world was emerging from the Little Ice Age of the period from 1300 to 1750 and there was a growing belief that with warmer temperatures southern England could become a place where vineyards could thrive once again as they had to some extent during the High Middle Ages (1000–1300). Experiments were undertaken, yet these couldn’t really make up in any way for the loss of supply from France.

The solution then, above all others, was smuggling. Smuggling was evidently rife between France and Western Europe to England. On the 14th of July 1810, for instance, The Times newspaper in London reported that approximately 200 half-ankers of brandy and some wine had arrived to the port of Dover in southern England on a smuggler’s boat. The discovery of smuggled cargo like this would have been a common occurrence.[17]

Saving you a google search – A half-anker was five gallons, so the 200 half-ankers in this instances amounted to upwards of a thousand gallons of distilled wine

Other methods were more ingenious still. The entire system of European trade routes was re-orientated in the late 1800s so that merchants sent goods from France to ports elsewhere in Europe, before then sending them from these secondary ports to Britain away from the prying eyes of French customs inspectors.

Much of this activity focused on the Baltic Sea where Sweden had remained one of the few powers that lay largely outside Napoleon’s sphere of control. The British launched a naval campaign into the Baltic in the late 1800s under Vice-Admiral James Saumarez and he eventually managed to carve out a number of bases on ports around the Baltic through which trade from the continent to Britain passed to bypass the continental system.

The upshot of all of this was that wine was being sent from France to places like Eastern Europe to allegedly serve the market there, but in reality much of it was then transported north to ports like Danzig and Riga or further still to the Swedish coast and islands. Then it was often switched over to new ships which carried it back towards where it had come from originally in Western Europe, yet ultimately delivering it to British ports rather than back to France.

Saving you a google search – Danzig was the medieval and early modern name for the modern-day port of Gdansk in northern Poland

Through such measures wine continued to flow in Britain during the Late Georgian period, though there is no doubt that it became more expensive owing to the circuitous route it often had to take to get to England in the first place.[18]

Conclusions on Wine in Georgian England

Overall the Late Georgian era was one of considerable fluctuation in the fortunes of the British wine market. War and peace determined the price and quality of the product on offer, while new sources were also sought and in many ways the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars might be said to constitute the first period of internationalization of the wine market. Yet it remained a growing feature of British life, as symbolized in the prevalence of it in the Romantic poetry of the period.

Further Reading:

Rémy Duthille, ‘Drinking and toasting in Georgian Britain: Group identities and individual agency’, HAL Open Access,Conference Paper: Pies in the Sky, September 2018, Bordeaux, France.

Maev Kennedy, ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s remains rediscovered in wine cellar’, The Guardian, 12 April 2018.

Pamela van Schaik, ‘Some thoughts on the vine, wine and wine cups in William Blake and his illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts’, in South African Journal of Folklore Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1998), pp. 1–5.

Joshua Wilner, ‘Drinking Rules! Byron and Baudelaire’, in Diacritics, Vol. 27, No. 3: Addictions (Autumn, 1997), pp. 34–48.

On this Day 

7 July 1807 – On this day in 1807 the Treaty of Tilsit was agreed between France and the Russian Empire led by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander I. One of the terms of the treaty was the establishment of the continental system, a system which Napoleon had concocted to weaken France’s great enemy in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Britain, by banning trade between the continent of Europe and Britain, thus hoping to cripple Britain financially in the process.

One consequence of this was that it became much more difficult to acquire good wine at a reasonable rate in Late Georgian Britain, leading to many changes in the wine trade and consumption patterns. British merchants began importing a much greater amount of wine from places like Portugal and Madeira, while smuggling was also rife. There were even efforts at cultivating vineyards in southern England and producing wine domestically. Inevitably, though, most people either had to make do without for several years or to pay higher prices for the wine that did find its way to England.[19]

25 July 1834 – On in this day in 1834 the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge died at Highgate near London. Coleridge is generally famed for his esteemed body of poetry which included The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, although his literary criticism, which is often ignored, was also of an exceptional quality. Although generally noted for his near life-long addiction to opium, in recent years he has become more synonymous with wine, though even during his lifetime he was also a heavy drinker.

While it was long known that Coleridge’s remains were located in St Michael’s Church in Highgate on the outskirts of London, it was only discovered in 2018 that his lead coffin was not under the flagstones where his memorial plaque was located in the main church, but instead was located in a wine cellar well underground below St Michael’s. The wine cellar was most likely built when Ashurst House stood at the site, the residence of Sir William Ashurst who served as Lord Mayor of London in 1693.[20]

References

[1] James Hobson, Dark Days of Georgian Britain: Rethinking the Regency (Barnsley, 2017).  

[2] Anthony Sullivan, Britain’s War Against the Slave Trade: The Operations of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron, 1807–1867 (London, 2020).

[3] https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-romantics [accessed 12/10/23].

[4] Lydia Figes, ‘The gin craze: How William Hogarth captured the spirit of Georgian Britain’, Art UK, 9 November 2020; https://www.diffordsguide.com/g/1108/gin/history-of-gin-1728-1794 [accessed 13/10/23].

[5] Rémy Duthille, ‘Drinking and toasting in Georgian Britain: Group identities and individual agency’, HAL Open Access, Conference Paper: Pies in the Sky, September 2018, Bordeaux, France.

[6] Stuart Walton, ‘Wine in history: Heavy drinking in Late Georgian England’, The World of Fine Wine, 8 September 2021.

[7] https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-romantics [accessed 12/10/23].

[8] Joshua Wilner, ‘Drinking Rules! Byron and Baudelaire’, in Diacritics, Vol. 27, No. 3: Addictions (Autumn, 1997), pp. 34–48.

[9] Stuart Walton, ‘Wine in history: Heavy drinking in Late Georgian England’, The World of Fine Wine, 8 September 2021.

[10] Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake (London, 2017).

[11] https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/wine-press-los [accessed 13/10/23]; https://poets.org/poem/proverbs-hell [accessed 13/10/23].

[12] Tobias Churton, Jerusalem: The Real Life of William Blake (London, 2020); Pamela van Schaik, ‘Some thoughts on the vine, wine and wine cups in William Blake and his illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts’, in South African Journal of Folklore Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1998), pp. 1–5.

[13] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London, 1989); Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections (London, 1998); Molly Lefebure, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Bondage of Opium (London, 1977); Maev Kennedy, ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s remains rediscovered in wine cellar’, The Guardian, 12 April 2018; Jason Daley, ‘Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Casket Rediscovered in Former Wine Cellar’, The Smithsonian Magazine, 17 April 2018; https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol17/pt1/pp54-62 [accessed 12/10/23].

[14] Elmo E. Roach, ‘Anglo-Russian Relations from Austerlitz to Tilsit’, in The International History Review, Vol. 5, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 181–200.

[15] William Sloane, ‘The Continental System of Napoleon’, in Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1898), pp. 213–231.

[16] Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787–1799: From the storming of the Bastille to Napoleon (New York, 1975); David Chandler, Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars (Hertfordshire, 1999); Jeremy Black, The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars: Strategies for a World War (London, 2022).  

[17] ‘Tuesday a smuggling boat was sent into Dover, with upwards of 200 half-ankers of brandy, and a small quantity of wine’, The Times, 14 July 1810, p. 3.

[18] Eli F. Heckscher, The Continental System: An Economic Interpretation (Oxford, 1922), esp. chapter 5 ‘The Continental System in Europe’.

[19] Elmo E. Roach, ‘Anglo-Russian Relations from Austerlitz to Tilsit’, in The International History Review, Vol. 5, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 181–200.

[20] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London, 1989); Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections (London, 1998); Molly Lefebure, Samuel Taylor Coleridge: A Bondage of Opium (London, 1977); Maev Kennedy, ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s remains rediscovered in wine cellar’, The Guardian, 12 April 2018; Jason Daley, ‘Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Casket Rediscovered in Former Wine Cellar’, The Smithsonian Magazine, 17 April 2018; https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol17/pt1/pp54-62 [accessed 12/10/23].

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: February 29, 2024Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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