Tag Archives: gin

Mother’s Ruin

As regular readers will know, I like a drink now and again and again and again. The way I see it, it’s not an addiction if you’re still enjoying yourself. But even I must draw the line somewhere. Today I think I saw where that line was. In Sainsbury’s this evening I came across the disturbing discovery that, in their Basics range, the supermarket does gin.

It’s not that I have anything particularly against gin, you understand. Actually, I quite like it. But I take the view that spirits, below a certain price, are best employed in experiments to determine whether your tractor really will “run on anything.”

Gin enjoys something of an uneasy reputation these days. Scotch suggests manly sophistication, vodka suggests a fashionable cocktail lifestyle, Jack Daniel’s suggests maybe you aren’t quite ready for spirits yet. Gin, it seems, will be forever stuck with the reputation of being a drink for the elderly and terminally alcoholic.

Although it does tend to be historically associated with London, the origins of the present-day spirit lie with the Dutch physician and chemist Franciscus Sylvius at some point in the first half of the seventeenth century (though similar beverages are recorded as far back as the 10th century). It’s made of distilled grain alcohol and traditionally flavoured with juniper berries, and enjoyed great popularity in Holland as a medicine.

In 1688, William of Orange ascended the throne of England and brought with him this exciting new Dutch spirit. There were a number of contributing factors to its success within these shores. Firstly, William increased the taxes on importing booze and deregulated distillation in Britain, making gin cheaper and more readily available than any other form of spirit. Secondly, food had fallen in price recently, meaning there was more money to spend on life’s little luxuries. Thirdly, grain was particularly abundant at that time, and so gin production was an attractive way to get rid of the surplus, especially as the grain used in gin did not have to be particularly high quality. Fourthly, booze was a way of life in those days – in those days before effective sanitation, alcohol was far safer than water. And finally, gin was cheap and could get you ratted more quickly than beer. There’s also another interesting theory that folk took to drink as a result of being unable to adjust to city life, but that’s a minority view that I only mention for the curiosity value.

Anyway, the result was the Gin Craze, as memorably satirised in William Hogarth’s grotesque and blackly humorous Gin Lane, reproduced right. If you’ve ever been though Kingston-upon-Thames on a Saturday night, imagine that, only all the time. Lord Harvey noted at the time that “Drunkenness among the common people was universal; the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from  morning ’til night.” Sick leave rose to an unprecedented degree as a result of people simply being too pished to make it into work, with the corresponding economic effects. Crime, too, rose drastically – it was observed by magistrates that gin was “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people” (though the lack of a police force didn’t help).  And of course there were the direct and indirect physiological effects of such widespread boozing – liver disorders, blindness, syphilis and a rise in juvenile alcoholism as a result of spirit-infused breastmilk. Daniel Defoe feared the creation of “a fine spindle-shanked generation.” There was even a (possibly apocryphal) reported increase in cases of spontaneous combustion.

Not helping matters at all was the poor quality of gin on sale. With the simplicity of production, the aforementioned lack of any police force to speak of, almost anyone could set up a still and go into business. And there were plenty of dubious ways to increase your yields if you were unscrupulous. If the buyer was lucky, their gin would be watered down. If they were unlucky, it might be padded out with turpentine. If they were really unlucky, industrial acid.

In desperation, the government introduced no less than eight Gin Acts to counter this between 1729 and 1751. However, what probably did for gin was one of the contributing factors in its initial ascension – the price of grain, which had begun once again to rise due to poor harvests. Just in time for the Industrial Revolution, in fact.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. Gin had gained such unflattering nicknames as “Mother’s Ruin” and low drinking dives were popularly known as “gin shops,” whether they sold gin or not.

Gin would enjoy a resurgance during the 19th century with the opening of the Victorian “gin palaces,” the finest surviving example of which is the Princess Louise in Holborn. I mention this purely because that’s my favourite boozer. Also contributing to its popularity at this time was the discovery of quinine’s anti-malarial properties. Quinine is quite a bitter substance, and so it was typically diluted to make what we now call tonic water. To make the tonic water more palatable, the colonials of the British empire would add gin, which I would imagine also alleviated the boredom of some of those Imperial outposts. And thus was the gin and tonic forged.

And I suppose this was the final nail in the coffin of gin’s reputation – that imperial association. Granted, it’s not regarded as the abomination it was in the 18th century, not least because the following century would see improvements in distillation and a corresponding increase in quality. But nevertheless, it is perhaps the least cool thing behind a bar south of the liqueur shelf.

Oh well. Here’s my recipe for a gin and tonic. G&T seems to be a matter of personal preference, so my word isn’t even close to the last on the subject. I favour Malawi for the gin – it’s a highly aromatic spirit with strong juniper notes, which is really what you look for in a gin. For the tonic, I go with Schweppes, the diet stuff for the sake of my waistline (the relative sweetness of the Malawi balances this out). And here’s where I get a little bit heretical – I don’t add ice. Rather, I chill the gin and the tonic beforehand. Then mix in a ratio of 2:3. Then drink. Then kill my children in a drunken stupor and spontaneously combust.


Leave a comment

Filed under 17th century, 18th century, 19th century, Booze, Crime, History, London, Medicine, Politics

All About Chalk Farm

I recently spoke to a friend-of-a-friend who had learnt, via our mutual friend, that I’m a collector of useless information on Our Fair City. She asked me if I knew anything interesting about Chalk Farm, and I had to confess, to my own annoyance, that I didn’t. I mean, it’s not that it’s an uninteresting place – it’s an old-ish part of the city, it’s among interesting places – it had just never occurred to me to research the place.

I use the station plenty. It’s way less crowded than Camden Town (and about the same distance from the Stables Market). I enjoy strolling around Primrose Hill, which is where upper-middle class people who have been good go when they die. I like the station itself, which is clean, well-maintained and empty enough that you can actually appreciate the décor – something not often possible on the crowded London Underground.

So, out of curiosity, I delved deep into my library to see what I could find out. First of all, the name. I’d assumed it either referred to a farm with chalky soil (unlikely, London is on clay) or a farm owned by someone called Chalk. Turns out not. Turns out that “Chalk” in this context is derived from “Chaldecot,” the original name of the settlement here, which means “cold cottage” or “cold shelter,” which I suppose makes this place the original Cold Comfort Farm (although there’s no evidence of a farm, which just raises further questions). The suggestion is that it was once a resting point for people coming into the city. Lazy bums, it’s not like it’s that far to walk. Hell, you could probably do it in half an hour if you know the shortcuts.

The area is more-or-less defined by the station. Chalk Farm Road itself, after which the station is directly named, mostly runs through what you and I would think of as Camden. It goes from the bridge over the canal, where may be found the Camden Lock Village market (the one that looks like a souvenir shop exploded and everyone was too lazy to clean it up) and the far superior Camden Lock market, past the Stables market (Yr. Humble Chronicler’s particular favourite), past the Roundhouse and finally ends at the junction at which Chalk Farm station is located.

The station is a fine example of Leslie Green architecture. Leslie Green is the chap who designed all those lovely oxblood-tiled Tube stations – if it’s red, it’s Green (har har). Due to the unusual shape of the junction, Chalk Farm technically has the longest unbroken frontage of any Tube station. From ticket hall to platform level, it is the shallowest of the “deep” stations (i.e. those whose lines were constructed fully underground). Coincidentally, the deepest station on the network, Hampstead, is just two stops up the line.

The station would originally have been called Adelaide Road, but for some reason the name was changed before opening. If I were to hazard a guess, the aim was to encourage people to move there with the promise of a rural idyll, as was common with Tube extensions. Why they didn’t simply go for Primrose Hill, which was a fashionable upmarket area even then, is beyond me. Having said that, Hampstead was nearly named Heath Street and the station smack-bang in the middle of Islington was named Angel, so maybe the planners were just stupendously ill-informed about which suburbs were cool. Or perhaps the builders were worried that it might be confused with the practically-next-door Primrose Hill Station – the idea of an integrated transport network with interchanges clearly indicated was virtually unknown back then. In any event, Primrose Hill Station was closed in 1992. The building is now a shop and may be seen on the left as you cross the railway from Chalk Farm Tube. There is a scheme to reopen this as part of the Overground.

Admittedly it's not exactly easy to tell this is Chalk Farm, but trust me, it is.

Of course, I’ve managed to get quite a long way in without talking about what this area is really famous for. Namely, music. Starting at the station, Madness were photographed here for the cover of their album Absolutely. It’s also been used in the films The Boy Who Turned Yellow and Bad Behaviour, but I couldn’t tell you anything about those.

Then a short, short walk will bring you to the unmistakeable Roundhouse, London’s legendary music venue. The roundness of the house comes from the fact that it originally housed a locomotive shed with a turntable. Engines would be uncoupled from their trains here, turned on the table and then coupled to an outgoing train. The trains themselves were hauled by cable the rest of the way, as it was not considered possible for locomotives of the day to deal with the gradient, and there was also the suspicion that they would frighten the horses (wusses). It was completed in 1846 and closed a mere twenty-one years later, by which time locomotives were too big for the Roundhouse and in any case could totally climb that gradient anyway.

The Roundhouse

Therefore, the place spent the following ninety-nine years being put to worthy use as a gin warehouse by Messrs. W & A Gilbey.  In 1966, the GLC took over and decided, rightly as it turns out, that the Roundhouse would make a fine arts venue. The first memorable gig held there took place in 1966 in honour of the International Times, now defunct. There was also some band playing their first major gig there called Pink Floyd, and I assume they too were forgotten in time. 1968 saw a legendary performance by the Doors which has been filmed for posterity. In 1970, The Who gave their first performance of Tommy. They dedicated the gig to their support act, a flamboyant young pianist named Elton something. Other notables included the Stranglers, the Rolling Stones, Motorhead, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. Sadly, the glory days came to an end in 1983, when the site was given to the Borough of Camden and closed as a venue.

This man ruined my photographs of the Roundhouse. I said to him, "Jump or don't, just get out of the damn frame." He did in the end.

The Roundhouse was also noted for other artistic achievements. Yr. Humble Chronicler recalls seeing an exhibition of abstract sculpture there in, ooh, must have been 2001. The grimy brick corridors beneath the main venue have been used for lots of filming, being a conveniently grim and industrial-looking setting.

However, aside from music, the venue is probably best known for theatre. It has housed the notorious Oh! Calcutta and the legendary Oh! What A Lovely War, as well as shows that don’t have “Oh!” in the title. A non-“Oh!”-featuring show of note was a production of Hamlet in 1968, starring Nicol Williamson as the title character, Anthony Hopkins as Claudius and Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia. Unfortunately, for all her undoubted talents, Ms Faithfull was flaky as all hell. When having a “difficult night,” her role was played by her understudy, an unknown actress named Anjelica Huston.

The venue was refurbished in the early years of this century, and is quite nice I’m told.

To finish this little tour of Chalk Farm, here’s a little ditty collected by Eleanor Farjean in  her 1916 book Nursery Rhymes of London Town.

Some farmers farm in fruit, some farm in grain,

Others farm in dairy stuff, and many farm in vain,

But I know a place for a Sunday morning’s walk

Where the Farmer and his Family only farm in chalk.

The Farmer and his Family before you walk back

Will bid you in to sit awhile and share their mid-day snack –

O they that live in Chalk Farm they live at their ease,

For the Farmer and his Family can’t tell chalk from cheese.

If you can’t tell chalk from cheese, I recommend you head to Swiss Cottage, named after not one but two types of cheese. Har har just my little joke, although you probably can buy cheese there.

An open letter to my readers

As you can see, I was able to find a surprising amount about Chalk Farm, which leads me to wonder what I might find out about other places. Is there a part of London you’re curious about? Drop me a line and let me know and I’ll see what I can dig up.


Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Arts, Buildings and architecture, Camden, Clubbing, Film and TV, Geography, History, London, London Underground, Music, Theatre, Transport