Simon: “I can see a thousand of me in all the mirrors!”
The Gaffer: “The question is, mate, does the world need a thousand of you?”
A lazy afternoon in one of London’s Victorian gin palaces is like exploring a magnificent museum where everyone is a bit tipsy. Simon has just entered Fleet Street’s Punch Tavern after passing it for decades on his former route as a London lorry driver. He explains to the bar manager, “I always wanted to stop in here, it looked so beautiful,” as he photographs his reflection along the gin palace’s corridor-like passageway; it’s mounted with etched mirrors and ornate tiles—just about the length of the red bus he used to drive. The rosy cheeks of his mild-mannered mien fold into satisfaction as he sips on half a bitter, murmuring to himself, “This is just terrific.”
Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, London lavishes in its Victorian gin palaces: 19th-century gin outlets that speckle the British capital, their birthplace. Chances are, if you’ve ever ambled around Oxford Circus, Covent Garden, or Holborn, you’ve passed one of them, possibly registering the flower-adorned facades as one of the city’s historical pubs. And you wouldn’t, exactly, be wrong. These days they typically pour more pints than tonic, and are oft owned by big brewers like Fuller’s, Greene King, or Sam Smith; but step inside, and you enter a universe of stained glass, heavy mahogany island bars, miraculous mirror work, and, now ornamental, gas lamps—all built in the name of gin.
They arrived in London roughly a century after the start of the city’s gin craze (1720-1760), an era whose records illuminate a troubling addiction to a moonshine-like incarnation of the spirit, then distilled in unlicensed backroom bars and served by the dram (in pints). The British Library estimates during the 1740s an average of over 23 litres of gin was annually consumed per person: today that number is under 10 litres, inclusive of all spirits. The authorities clamped down hard on the gin trade in the mid-18th century, slowly weaning the populace off the harsh grain alcohol.
In their absence, pubs had taken over London’s libation landscape, but during the early 19th-century gin shops re-entered the scene, incentivised by better tax breaks than alehouses, attainable licenses, and serious funding from investors eager to reestablish a profitable gin market. Damp public houses were bought over and outfitted with luxurious atmospheres. Picture expansive skylights, Corinthian pillars, and crowds of tantalising chandeliers, all made possible by the bells and whistles of England’s industrial revolution. Their sparkling interiors drew in all ilk of Londoners like moths to lamplight, the expansive countertops full of busy bar attendants pouring pennyworths of Old Tom and Cream gin served from casks, and later London Dry.
The gin palace was a place to grab a quick pick-me-up that served the richest and the poorest of the capital, hence the multiple entrances for different classes and snob screens—fashioned out of frosted glass and impressive woodwork to separate gowned ladies from tradesmen and child labourers. These enterprising businesses sold gin in a variety of small portions that were often watered down or mixed with a type of cordial or tonic. They even, reportedly, charged customers different prices for the same gin, based on the appearance of their social class.
Sitting areas were either scarce or non-existent, making a visit to a gin palace like a trip to a bedazzled fast food restaurant for the average Londoner. One small glass and then out the door, was the business model. But given every other corner of the city featured a gin palace, the drinkers of London began to flit like bees from flower to flower, adding a buzz to every errand and task of the day. At the gin palaces’ acme, at least 5,000 of them were operating in mid-19th century London. Today, the city hosts less than 4,000 pubs with roughly three-times the population.
Their popularity grew so that beer taxes had to be curtailed to give Victorian-era pubs a fighting chance. Gradually the gin palaces faded as all fads do. The original early 19th century palaces were wiped out, with the help of temperance groups and socio-economic changes, leaving only a handful of mid-to-late 19th-century ones. Charles Dickens, an open critic of the gin palace, wrote in The Evening Chronicle (1835), “until you improve the homes of the poor…gin-shops will increase in number and splendour,” demonstrating that perhaps it is a blessing London no longer houses thousands of such outlets. However, the sui generis remnants reflect a generous riot of Victorian regalia that mark an important chapter in the city of gins.
Within spitting distance of the Oxford Circus tube station, The Argyll Arms dates back to 1868, named after the second Duke of Argyll. Pop in for a quiet G&T fashioned out of Chase Distilerry’s Rhubarb & Bramley Apple Gin as you hide from shoppers in the frosted glass of Victorian snugs, otherwise known as snob screens. They almost look like the confessional cabinets of a Catholic church, and were outlawed in the 1950s and ‘60s as their concealed corners proved useful for myriad illicit activities; The Argyll Arms was one of few institutions to reinstate them.
The late-Victorian watering hole was remodeled as a gin palace in 1893, where its name was changed from The Flying Horse to The Tottenham, only to be changed back to its original name in 2014. The location was also the site of the 15th century St Giles gallows, which the gin palace acknowledges with an iron cage placed in the back, wherein the soon to be executed would spend their last night.
At the time of its remodel, it was a popular stop for theatregoers of the erstwhile Oxford Music Hall. Artist Felix de Jong, who also painted the music hall, adorned the interiors with paintings of fair maidens gamboling through the seasons, along with pastoral friezes featured on the ceiling’s roundels. The architecture of the designers Saville & Martin follows a Flemish Renaissance style, full of florid plasterwork, intricate etched and painted mirrors, detailed mahogany woodwork including de rigueur dados, and a gloriously gaudy stained-glass skylight. The blaring sub-par pop and current sports bar set-up somewhat clash with the historic feel; still, on a lazy, weekday afternoon respite is respected in the back corner booth of the erstwhile gin palace with the company of a Nicholson Original or Hendrick’s Lunar G&T.
This 1899 gin palace resides in North London’s Haringey borough. After walking past an enticing array of kebab shops and the billowing smoke of hookah cafes, the arcuate French Renaissance style brick structure—complete with imposing shaped gables, ogee domed cupolas, and pedimented dormers—simply begs you to wet your whistle among Londoners. Guests are greeted by an arch of painted ironwork, giving way to a long passage where the high ceilings are complemented by a couple of den-like booths that sink into the velvet-hued walls like perfectly arched caves.
The cast iron anchored bar is vast, holding glass cases of pheasants and imitation Greco-Roman busts, and the periphery delineates a dramatic assortment of radius windows spilling in light that bathes a greenhouse’s worth of leafy plants. Pop culture savants will recognise its behemoth bones from the English gangster flick, A Long Good Friday. Live music, quizzes, and cards are popular pastimes here, as is reading the paper over a pint. With a stately past, perhaps best demonstrated by the backroom’s glorious skylight, its legend is also bolstered by rumoured days of bare-knuckle boxing. Moreover, it is an untied pub, which is a rarity for a former gin palace.
At The Princess Louise, bask in the beguiling interiors of unrestrained, fin de siècle Victoriana. The 1872-era pub (redesigned in 1891) regained its frosted and etched glass partitions in 2007, offering tipplers the experience of typically unbeknownst privacy in a drinking establishment. The expansive bar is fixed to the ground by cast iron and the multiple entrances exhibit proper Victorian style—like slender alleyways with elaborate mosaic floors and tiled and mirrored walls. Portland stone Corinthian columns kiss stucco ceilings, and a vintage clock is cloaked in a mahogany arch decked out with finials. Perhaps the most visited elements of the former gin palace are the kingly and historically listed marble urinals in the basement. While the gin selection is decent, most folks here sip on pints of bitter.
Established in 1839 under the name of The Crown and Sugar Loaf (a pub under this name exists next door, and was once a part of the original establishment), the name was later changed to honour the 1841-established Punch Magazine (defunct in 2002). The writers and cartoonists of the magazine’s halcyon days were the toast of the town—their satirical work enjoyed by everyone from Charlotte Bronte to Queen Victoria—and often held their meetings in the gin palace, hence the original Punch and Judy paintings added as decor in 1897. Listen to the bartender talk about how “Hugh Grant sat just there!” as you delight in gin-and-tonic-making on the pink marble bar top under the grinning gaze of Judy, which accents the barrel-vaulted skylight. Punch Tavern has one of the more impressive gin collections of the surviving palaces. Make sure to stop by their neighbours, The City of London Distillery, for some exceptionally crafted gin.
Built between 1869-1874, and eponymously named after the tangentially constructed Holborn Viaduct, the facade of this gin palace is a sweeping Italianate wedge of wonder that curves to the contours of the Newgate roundabout. Its multiple entrances open up to a sizable peninsula-style servery and imposing ceilings featuring swirls of currant-coloured, copper-beaten relief panels accented by cherubic visages. Three paintings of pre-Raphaelite ladies—representing agriculture, commerce, and the arts—are set in a marble arcade-cum-tryptic, painted by Henry Charles Bevan-Petman, during a turn of the century redesign. The rear end of one of the rendered damsels is thought to have been marred in WWI by a sozzled officer’s rifle shot or bayonet.
At the back of the bar, there is a small booth fashioned out of glazed glass and mahogany, where gin tokens were exchanged for payment to ensure all funds were accounted for. The deep cellars can sometimes be shown to polite guests during slow hours, which resemble the cells of the erstwhile Newgate and Giltspur prisons that once sandwiched the gin palace. At the time this made it a popular venue for those interested in watching public executions, for which there were, unfortunately, many takers.
The list of gins available is formidable, and they even have a wonderful selection of small-batch, in-house specials. The menu offers charts to help guests find the exact profiles they are looking for in a tipple. The gin and tonic accouterments, such as dehydrated strawberries and oranges, and a glistening ice block complete with snazzy ice picks, make a drink here a must-have for gin-lovers: not to mention the blind tastings and gin-centric quizzes conducted in a palace that has not forgotten its spirit.
The Old Bell is believed to have hosted Fleet Street’s first-ever printing enterprise in 1501—an area long after associated with publications—in its first avatar as a 16th-century tavern known as the Swan. It was run by Wynkyn de Worde (the first UK-based publisher to use italic type), an Alsatian-born printer who learned his trade at William Caxton’s press (the first mass English printing enterprise), and would go on to publish at least 600 commercial titles at this location. The back alley entrance that borders St. Bride’s church courtyard (a structure rebuilt by stonemasons who were temporarily housed in the tavern after the Great Fire) is perhaps the most original element of this institution that has gradually returned to being more of a pub than gin palace, though the colourful, leaded windows still hold much charm.
This gin palace can be found within the slender facade of a faux-Tudor style structure on Fleet Street. Before becoming a gin palace, the Cock was actually a 1668-built tavern across the street, which was moved to make way for a Bank of England structure in the mid-1880s, hence the throwback architecture which is uncommon for gin palace restorations of taverns. The upstairs ‘gin floor’ has been recently and extensively refurbished with modern accents, which put a damper on the historic gin palace ambiance. However, some of the original 17th-century woodwork that was repurposed in the late 19th-century redesign is worth a gander, including the Grinling Gibbons’ (an Anglo-Dutch sculptor and woodworker of Windsor Castle fame) cock above the front door. The original tavern was a favourite of Samuel Johnson, the creator of the first English dictionary, and was immortalised in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Will Waterproofs Lyrical Monologue with the verse:
“O Plump head waiter at the Cock
To whom I most resort
How goes the time? ‘Tis five o’clock
Go fetch a pint of port.”
The modern gin parlour styled after a Victorian tea room holds over 200 suburb gins, and crafts exciting albeit expensive gin cocktails. It’s vogue currency represents a new generation of gin-loving Londoners, but even then, Victorian styled environs are part of the draw.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.