This post has been prompted by Stonch's recent item about the legal drinking age. Are binge-drinking teenagers a modern phenomenon? Is pub violence of recent origin? Take a look at these descriptions of an 1850's London gin palace (taken from "Gaslight and Daylight: With Some London Scenes They Shine Upon" by George Augustus Sala,1859, pages 71 and 73).
"The area before the bar, you will observe, is very spacious. At this present second hour of the afternoon, there are, perhaps, fifty people in it; and it would hold, I dare say, full twenty more, and allow space, into the bargain, for a neat stand-up fight. One seems very likely to take place now between the costermonger, who has brought rather an inconvenient number of ' kea-rots' and ' turmuts' into the bar with him, and a peripatetic vendor of fish - the quality of whose wares he has (with some show of justice, perhaps) impugned. So imminent does the danger appear, that the blind match-seller - who was anon importuning the belligerents - hastily scuttles off; and an imp of a boy, in a man's fustian jacket, and with a dirty red silk 'kerchief twisted round his bull neck, has mounted the big tub, on which he sits astride, pipe in hand - a very St. Giles's Bacchus - declaring that he will see 'fair play.' Let us edge away a little towards the bar - for the crowd towards the door is somewhat too promiscuous to be agreeable; and it is not improbable that in the melee, some red-'kerchiefed citizen, of larger growth, whose extensor and flexor muscles are somewhat more powerfully developed, may make a savage assault on you, for his own private gratification, and the mere pleasure of hitting somebody."Thugs looking for a fight just for the pleasure of thumping someone. Sound familiar?
"One word about the customers, and we will rejoin our chariot, which must surely be extricated by this time. Thieves, beggars, costermongers, hoary-headed old men, stunted, ragged, shock-haired children, blowzy, slatternly women, hulking bricklayers, gaunt, sickly hobbedehoys, with long greasy hair. A thrice-told tale. Is it not the same everywhere! The same pipes, dirt, howling, maundering, fighting, staggering gin fever. Like plates multiplied by the electro-process - like the printer's 'stereo ' - like the reporter's 'manifold' - you will find duplicates, triplicates of these forlorn beings everywhere. The same woman giving her baby gin; the same haggard, dishevelled woman, trying to coax her drunken husband home; the same mild girl, too timid even to importune her ruffian partner to leave off drinking the week's earnings, who sits meekly in a corner, with two discoloured eyes, one freshly blacked - one of a week's standing. The same weary little man, who comes in early, crouches in a corner, and takes standing naps during the day, waking up periodically for 'fresh drops.' The same red-nosed, ragged object who disgusts you at one moment by the force and fluency of his Billingsgate, and surprises you the next by bursting out in Greek and Latin quotations. The same thin, spectral man who has no money, and with his hands piteously laid one over the other, stands for hours gazing with fishy eyes at the beloved liquor - smelling, thinking of, hopelessly desiring it. And lastly, the same miserable girl, sixteen in years, and a hundred in misery; with foul, matted hair, and death in her face; with a tattered plaid shawl, and ragged boots, a gin-and-fog voice, and a hopeless eye."Of course, at that time the 16 year old girl could legally knock back her gin in the pub. There was no legal minimum age for pub drinking until the 1880's. Even then it was just 12. Though I suppose most 12 year olds were already working then. It doesn't seem quite so unreasonable that they should have been allowed a pint or two on their way to work.
What we need is a return to Victorian values. Let's drop the drinking age back down to 12.