In eighteenth-century London, illegal gin was sold by cats – or at least from a strange precursor of the vending machine which bore the image of a cat.
The Gin Craze
Londoners have always liked a drink, but in the eighteenth century, gin-drinking had become a real problem among the poor. According to one commentator, “The whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from morning till night.” Gin was cheap and strong and helped people forget their misery for a while. But it also made them forget other things: like obeying laws and taking care of their children. Gin was blamed for all the city’s evils, from crime and prostitution to child abuse and death.
In an attempt to restore order to the rowdy town, the Gin Act of 1736 had made it illegal to sell gin in quantities of less than two gallons. It also encouraged people to inform on anyone who broke that law. The person caught selling illegal gin would have to pay a fine of £10 to the informer or be whipped and spend two months in prison. The jails were full, and people were rioting in the streets looking for their next gin fix.
It was in the middle of this troubled situation that 28-year-old Irishman Dudley Bradstreet blew in to town. He had been a brewer in Ireland but had lost everything due to the great frost of 1739. So, he left his wife in Ireland and set off for London to make his fortune in the Horse Guard. Relatives had promised to help him pay the required joining fees but had changed their minds at the last minute.
Dudley would have to find another way, and it wouldn’t take long, as he was a clever and resourceful young man. As he watched the mobs in the streets searching for illegal gin, he knew there was definitely a demand for it – He just had to figure out how to supply it.
Dudley Finds a Loophole
The young Irishman bought a copy of the Gin Act and studied it. He found a few interesting details: The authorities had no right to break into a house if it was locked, and to inform on someone selling illegal gin, you must know the name of the person renting the house it was being sold from. Dudley would use these two things to his advantage.
He asked an acquaintance to rent a house in Blue Anchor Alley (London EC1). Then the man sublet it to Dudley privately. This way no one would know the name of the renter. He moved in and made sure all the doors and windows had good strong locks on them, then he bought a few pieces of furniture and stocked up with food.
Cats Sell Gin
At a nearby market, Dudley found a wooden sign with a cat on it. In his vivid imagination, it looked like the perfect gin dispenser. He would nail it over a window facing the street and install a lead pipe under the cat’s raised paw. Then from the privacy of his home, without being seen, he could use a funnel to pour the gin into the pipe and the customer would receive it outside at the other end. He would drill a hole in the cat’s mouth where coins could be dropped through, and Dudley would be able to safely sell his illegal gin in complete anonymity.
When his house had been made ready, he asked around to see which distiller had the best gin. Then he went to see the recommended dealer and bought £13 worth of gin. That was all he had but for two shillings kept aside for an emergency. Dudley had made sure his house had discreet access at the back so the gin could be delivered easily.
Open for Business
He was ready for business. He asked someone to spread the word to the thirsty mob that the next morning, the cat on his street would be selling good gin. Dudley was up bright and early waiting for his customers. He waited for three hours but no one came.
He was beginning to despair, when at last he heard a clink. A coin dropped in and a voice said “Puss, give me two pennyworths of gin.” Dudley spoke through the tube and told him it would come out the pipe under the cat’s paw. Then he measured out the gin and poured it through the tube. Then more customers came and he made six shillings that day. The next day he made more than 30 shillings, and soon he was bringing in £3 to £4 per day (around £500/$650 today).
There were so many people outside his window that his neighbors couldn’t get in or out of their houses. The money was rolling in, but he couldn’t leave home. He had to be there to pour the gin and collect his money, and if anyone saw him leave, they might identify him and turn him in. He began to feel lonely.
One evening he ventured out to Covent Garden and met Mary who, after hearing his intriguing tale, was willing to be his companion and help with the cat. He and Mary enjoyed a comfortable life together and they took turns answering the cat calls from the street.
The Enchanted Cat
Dudley’s sign became known as the Enchanted Cat, and it attracted not only those thirsty for gin, but also the curious who came along just to see the gin-dispensing cat in action. The neighbors complained to their various landlords that they couldn’t live in their homes unless the “cat man” was removed. But when asked who the “cat man” was, they couldn’t say – they just knew he was the greatest nuisance ever.
One day, the justices, parish officers, and constables came knocking at Dudley’s front door. Of course, he had no intention of opening it. He asked Mary, who was young and beautiful, to go upstairs and speak to them from a window. In her soft, gracious voice, she charmed them, “Gentlemen, why are you causing such a ruckus in front of my door? If you have the legal authority to break it down, then do it. Otherwise do it at your own risk. I’m not hurting anyone. My cat and I only sell the water of life.” Her beauty and soft words melted away the men’s anger and agitation. They begged her pardon and left.
Dudley and Mary continued their happy existence: staying in, pouring gin, and collecting money. After three months Dudley had saved £84 (about £10,000 or $13,000 in today’s money) and they were living very well. But London was full of copycats and cat signs began popping up all over the city. These illegal gin-sellers became known as Puss and Mew shops. People would go up to the cat and call, “Puss, Puss” and if they heard “Mew, Mew” they knew there was gin available and they would drop in their coins.
However, the competition from all these new shops reduced Dudley’s income and he decided it was time to move on to the next scheme.
So, that’s the story of how cats came to be illegal gin-dispensing vending machines in eighteenth-century London. And it seems that the association of cats and gin still exists as several gin companies have cats on their labels.
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As the saying went “Drunk for one penny, dead drunk for twopence”! The gin was often adulterated with sulphuric acid, turpentine or lime oil and was roughly double what the proof of a modern gin is. And people were drinking a whole tankard of it! Love the colour of the cat’s eyes in your logo !!
It’s true, the gin of those days was really dangerous – with “dead” being the operative word in “dead drunk.” I wonder if that’s what they’ll be saying about our food and drink in a few hundred years!
I really enjoyed reading about all the strange and harmful additives in Victorian food and drink in your article, “It’s a Wonder the Victorians Survived.” https://lisaabsalom.com/its-a-wonder-the-victorians-survived/ I was especially disturbed by the findings in chocolate – Yikes! That’s my favorite food…
So interesting Margo. Gin was poisonous, but water was dangerous – cholera was just one disease one could get from dinking water. Many people drank beer and gin was cheaper than beer, possibly because it could be more easily adulterated as Lisa Absalom points out above. Being poor has always been (and remains) very risky!
It must have been terrible to not have any good drinking choices. And as you said, it was the poor who suffered most. Rich people could buy better quality drinks.
I’m glad tea finally replaced gin as the most popular drink in the UK. 🙂
As always great insight!! Did not know anything about this. Love all the stories. 💝
Thank you, Patricia.
Could this be the origin of the term “copycat”?
Maybe? Who knows? 😊