Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Unofficial London: Gin Lane

As an avid reader of historical romance novels, one of my favourite authors is Elizabeth Hoyt and her 'Maiden Lane' books. Set in the Georgian period the series is based around an orphanage in the notorious St Giles district of London. This was a district known for its squalor and poverty, a place where criminals thrived and gin-selling flourished. The Georgian artist William Hogarth created 'Gin Lane' as a piece of social comment on the squalor and lawlessness of St Giles, and after reading Ms Hoyt's books, I looked at the etching with fresh eyes.

 The focal point of the picture is the half-naked woman in the foreground. In a drunken stupor she is careless of her baby, who falls from her arms into the cellar of the neighbouring gin shop (note the jug-shaped shop sign - to alert those who couldn't read as to where they could purchase alcohol) The woman is shown with sores on her legs, probably syphilitic ulcers, the implication being that she is a prostitute.

Sadly, this scene is not as outlandish as it might appear. Records exist of a woman, Judith Dufour, who reclaimed her child from the workhouse and then strangled it, in order to sell the child's clothes (for 1s. 4d.) in order to buy more gin.

In Hogarth's painting, languishing in front of the disreputable mother is a skeletal pamphlet-seller. He rests with his eyes closed, glass in hand (from which he drank gin?) whilst a leaflet titled "The Downfall of Mrs Gin," moralising about the evils of alcohol, spills from his basket.


To the left of the picture is Mr Gripe's pawnbrokers shop. He is buying a carpenter's tools and a housewife her cooking pots, supplying them with money to buy their next drink.
If you look carefully, in the top right hand corner of the painting is a barber, who has hung himself because no one has the money for a shave. Apart from gin-sellers and pawnbrokers, the only other business to survive is the undertaker (again, note the coffin-shop sign) kept busy by gin-related deaths.
The Foundling Hospital, as it is today - a museum.
Intriguingly, the artist Hogarth worked with a philanthropist called Thomas Coram who established the Foundling Hospital in London. Going back to Ms Hoyt's 'Maiden Lane' books, these also feature a charitable orphanage and this link made me wonder if original the inspiration behind Ms Hoyt's Maiden Lane series, came from seeing Hogarth's work and reading his support for orphans and foundlings.

Have any of you read the Maiden Lane books? Which is your favourite?


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