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A small glass of Old Tom

As you may know Gin or “mothers ruin” was the scourge of the working classes in late 17th century Britain, as depicted in the famous engraving by William Hogarth, Gin Lane.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth (1751)

By the early part of the new century moves were afoot to stamp down on the availability of the demon drink but it wasn’t until 1736 that the Gin act came into force, banning the sale of the spirit from unlicensed premises.

Obviously this threatened the livelihood of all of the unlicensed traders. Some continued to trade openly, but found that the law was being fully enforced on the street with fines and prison sentences handed out in abundance. Some resorted to mobile premises, no more than a hand cart disguised to hide the gin they were carrying and a system of “Look outs” to relay the arrival of the authorities should they try to apprehend the sellers. This seems to have been a necessary requirement, as although Gin was a popular tipple the amount of times records show that unlicensed sellers had been apprehended after information received from informants is quite high. Perhaps these were other unlicensed sellers, or possibly the licensed ones, trying to stamp out the remaining competition.

However there were a small number of unlicensed sellers who were not prepared to take the risks of the previous two methods of illegal sale. One amongst these was Captain Dudley Bradstreet, an Irish adventurer and secret government agent. He devised a complex system to obtain short term rents on empty properties. Using both false names and real people as cut outs, the landlord had no idea who was actually renting. He had up to a dozen properties within the City of London which remained empty under his tenancy.

Bradstreet’s system was to install a carved wooden panel at the front of the house. The only remaining one is of a cat with an outstretched paw containing a metal pipe. The customer would sidle up to the cat, deposit a few coins through a slot in its mouth and then hold their bottle or jug underneath the cats paw from which Gin would trickle. Despite several of these premises being raided, Bradstreet was never caught, and due to his rental scam he could never be linked to the property. The name “Old Tom” and the representation of the cat became synonymous with gin and went on to be used in early branding for the spirit.

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