A good radio series has been running on BBC Radio 4 this week called Britain on the Bottle: Alcohol and the State. Five 15 minute episodes are available on iPlayer and there are more next week. This week, the exploration of drinking in Britain and the establishment’s control over it runs from James I’s campaign against alcohol in the early 17th century through to the views of 19th-century philosophers on drink.
The programmes discuss in depth the stories and facts behind more famous images such as Hogarth’s Gin Lane of 1751 and I found it fascinating to discover how profoundly economic conditions could increase and decrease the alcoholism of the public and how intense were people’s addiction to certain beverages like gin in the past. I had till now taken the aggressive social commentary from those such as Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Hogarth as more of a middle-class condescending crusade, not realising how powerful a force alcohol has been in Britain’s history.
Legistation on alcohol moved from close to prohibition levels with the problem on gin in the 18th century, towards free trade inspired laws on beer in the 19th century. The programmes explore how thought on alcohol has changed as different social concerns arose and different methods of control were attempted. The series continues next week and I assume it will move into the 20th century which will be even more interesting to consider.