Words by: Simon Difford
By the turn of the 19th century, London’s gin craze and the deprivation that went with it had all been forgotten. The early 18oos saw gin enjoy a new respectability. With this gentrification came gin palaces and Old Tom gin.
Seager's Deptford distillery was established in 1805, a date better remembered for The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) where Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies. The buidling that formerly housed the Seager Distillery still stands on the A2 road at Deptford Bridge but is now the Stay City Aparthotel.
One story from the The Napoleonic wars (1800-1815) is often cited in the history of gin. In 1815, Marshal Blücher was marching his Prussian army to support Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo but progress was halted when Blücher was badly thrown from his horse. It is recorded that he was revived by a rub of gin and onions enabling him to go on and help Wellington defeat Napoleon. Hurrah.
Bokma, the Dutch jenever brand was first created by the Bokma family in 1826 in the Frisian capital of Leeuwarden. 'Bok' means a male goat, hence the goat emblem on the crest.
The 1820s saw the establishment of London's first licensed public houses selling beer. Their numbers quickly multiplied and many streets boasted a pub on every corner and several in-between. These early pubs were simply converted homes (hence the term 'public house'), most in a very poor state of repair and this led magistrates to start demanding improvements before issuing licenses.
It became commonplace for landlords to receive money from brewers to renovate their pubs on condition that they signed a sole supply contract with that brewer. These became known as 'tied houses'.
In 1825, the government slashed spirit duties with the dramatic affect that within a year, spirit production more than doubled to hit levels not seen since 1743. The distillers were doing well and sought to compete with the growing number of up-market pubs. They replaced the traditional gin shops with opulently decorated establishments which soon became known as 'Gin Palaces'. Lit by gas lights their interiors were furnished with polished carved mahogany and embellished with brass, engraved glass and mirrors.
Henry B. Fearon is credited with being the pioneer of the gin palace. It is said that he opened the first near St. Andrew's Church at 94 Holborn Hill, London circa 1828 under the name of his wine merchant company 'Thompson and Fearon's. Obviously a forward thinking man he was also one of the founders of London University.
In his 'Sketches by Boz', Charles Dickens famously writes of a Gin Palace, "perfectly dazzling when contrasted with the darkness and dirt we have just left...".
John Buonarotti Papworth (1775-1847) a prolific Victorian architect designed Thompson and Fearon's and many other early Gin Palaces. Their design was based on the style of upmarket shops of the era and would influence that of pubs throughout the rest of the eighteenth century. This period also saw upmarket London department stores opening, such as Harvey Nichols (1831), Harrods (1834) and Liberty (1875).
By the late 1840s there were more than 5,000 gin palaces in the London area alone, and remember in those days this did not include areas such as Kensington and Mayfair which then were still country villages yet to be engulfed by the city. These establishments sold much more than gin and the name 'gin palaces' is now also applied to similarly splendid Victorian pubs, opened by brewers rather than distillers. Sadly, none of London's original gin palaces but the following pubs are well preserved examples of Victorian opulence:
The Argyll Arms, 18 Argyll Street, W1F 7TP
King's Head, 84 Upper Tooting Road, SW17 7PB
Prince Alfred, 5a Formosa Street, W9 1EE
Princess Louise, Holborn, WC1V 7EP
Red Lion (built 1821), St. James's SW1Y 6JP
Red Lion, 48 Parliament Street, SW1 2NH
The Salisbury, 90 St. Martin's Lane, WC2N 4AP
One of the finest surviving examples of a Victorian Gin Palace is Crown Liquor Saloon, Great Victoria Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland. This is now owned by National Trust and a full restoration was completed in 1982.
Simon Rutte established Rutte & Zn distillery and started making jenever when he settled in the Dutch port town of Dordrecht sometime around 1830. In 1872, he moved to the building that still houses the Rutte distillery and shop to this day.
Bols spell genever with a 'g', well at least on their recent releases, while De Kuyper, Rutte and other Dutch distillers spell jenever with a 'j'. Both spellings are correct. Prior to 1830 it was mostly written with a 'g' and subsequently with a 'j'.
Old Tom as it became known was a sweet, heavily botanical style of gin that was overwhelmingly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Prior to the invention of the column still gin was more pungent due to the limited rectification (purification) of the base spirit possible in copper pot stills. The rough tasting fermentation congeners no doubt present in the gin were masked by flavouring (most commonly with lemon or aniseed) and or sweetening with sweet botanicals such as liquorice. The addition of liquid sugar came later as this previously expensive commodity became more affordable.
Old Tom probably started as a general term but it became associated with a particular sweet style of gin. One story has it that a cat fell into a vat of gin at an unnamed distillery, giving the gin a distinctive flavour. However, the creation of this style of gin more likely lies with Thomas Chamberlain, an early gin compounder.
During my research I have found references to one Thomas Norris, otherwise known as 'Young Tom' who was a former apprentice to Thomas Chamberlain, or 'Old Tom', at Hodges' distillery in Church Street, Lambeth. It would appear that Young Tom left the distillery to open a gin palace in Great Russell Street, Covent Garden where he sold gin from casks purchased from his former employers. He labelled the casks of gin according to their flavour or style with one, marked 'Old Tom', apparently concocted by Thomas Chamberlain.
More compelling evidence links the term 'old tom' with Thomas Chamberlain and Boord's of London. The company appear to be the first to bottle a gin with a label illustrated with a tomcat sat on a barrel this went on to become by far the best known brand of this sweetened style of gin.
In 1903, Boord & Son went to court against Huddart & Company to defend their 'Cat Brand' trademark under 'passing-off laws'. They presented evidence to Mr Justice Swinfen Eady that they had introduced the term in 1849 and that the brand was named after "old Thomas Chamberlain of Hodge's distillery" and presented an old bottle label with a picture of "Old Tom" the man on it, and another label with a picture of a young sailor aboard ship named "Young Tom."
In the 1830's it was common for gin distillers to finance the opening of gin palaces as tied houses for the sale of their gin. I'd guess that Thomas Norris was a loyal and trusted employee who the company backed to open his gin palace. Norris would have bought several styles of gin from Boord's including lemon, unsweetened and sweetened. It is not implausible that he named a style perfected by 'old' Thomas, his former boss, 'Old Tom's Gin' and that Captain Dudley Bradstreet's cat is purely coincidental [see 1738].
The origins of Beefeater gin lie in the Chelsea Distillery operated by John Taylor & Son which was built during the 1820's and licensed in 1829. In 1863, James Burrough paid £400 to purchase the distillery and renamed the firm 'James Burrough, Distiller and Importer of Foreign Liqueurs'. Burrough did not create the Beefeater Gin brand until circa 1876.
In 1823, Gabriël Theodorus van 't Wout, (a financier from Rotterdam who had acquired the Bols Company five years earlier) exported the first shipment of liqueurs and jenevers to the United States. He was an astute business man and also became an accomplished distiller. Fortunately, the accountant in him compelled him to make detailed notes and in 1830 he embarked on a seven year undertaking to compile four volumes entitled Distillateurs- en Liqueurbereiders Handboek door een oude patroon van 't Lootsje (Distillers and Liqueur makers Handbook by an old patron of The Little Shed). The beautifully written books detail recipes, the origin and specifications for botanicals and production methods. One of the four volumes is on display at the Bols visitor centre in Amsterdam.
The Tanqueray family were originally silversmiths who left France for England early in the 18th century, where three successive Tanquerays became rectors in Bedfordshire. In 1830 Charles Tanqueray, then aged twenty, broke the mould: rather than become a clergyman, he established his Bloomsbury Distillery in London's Finsbury, then noted for its spa water.
Tanqueray is distilled by the traditional one-shot process in a copper pot still nicknamed 'Old Tom': the No. 4 still which has moved location a number of times in its long career. In fact, like most other 'London Dry gins' Tanqueray is no longer made in London - or even, any longer, England. The distillery in Laindon, Essex, closed in 1998 and the site is now a business estate named Juniper Park: production and Old Tom were both relocated to Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife, Scotland.
History of gin 'part 1' (1100s - mid 1500s) - The origins and spread of distillation...
History of gin 'part 2' (1572 - early 1600s) - The first style of gin...
History of gin 'part 3' (1638 - 1726) - Gin invades England...
History of gin 'part 4' (1728 - 1794) - London's gin craze...
History of gin 'part 5' (1800 - 1830) - Gin's gentrification and Old Tom...
History of gin 'part 6' (1831 - 1953) - The emergence and domination of London dry gin
History of gin 'part 7' (1955 - 1997) - Gin's demise and salvation...
History of gin 'part 8' (2000 - present) - Gin's new age and new age gins...