Suspect #2: John Collins
In his Reminiscences and Recollections, dandy and unsuccessful parliamentarian Captain Rees Howell Gronow designated Limmer’s Hotel at Hanover Square to be “the most dirty hotel in London” – no small achievement from the man deemed the second most fashionable (aside from Beau Brummell) and the second best pistol shot (aside from Captain Ross) in London. But not all was bad about Limmer's. According to Gronow, the hotel may have been “comfortless,” “crowded,” and “gloomy,” but it still prepared a good “plain English dinner” and “some famous gin-punch.”
Praised for its booze cups, Limmer’s probably played host to some major parties during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Loose restrictions on gin production and heavy duties on imported spirits made gin the cheapest and easiest to distill, which in turn made it the cheapest and easiest to procure. In fact, throughout the eighteenth century, gin became a catchall term for any grain liquor. The ready availability of gin and its overconsumption was known as the “Gin Craze," which was articulated as a problem rooted in class differences and geopolitics, as author Daniel Defoe asserted:
“the Distillers have found a way to hit the palate of the poor by their new fashion’d compound Waters called Geneva, so that the common People seem not to value the French-brandy as usual, and even not desire it.”
One of the fears fueled by gin drinking was that it would irreparably tear apart the fabric of English society, not simply on the level of the individual but on that of the family. Even though it was dubbed "Mother Gin," the stiff spirit was anything but domestic and wholesome. A mid-eighteenth-century cartoon titled "The Home" visualizes the quiet harm that gin poses to the family unit: in the modest living quarters of a five-person family (husband, wife, two daughters, and a son), a father sits disheveled and dissolute with his back turned away from the rest of the family. The mother and the oldest daughter are consulting some linens while the son occupies the youngest daughter, dandling her on his lap. The room looks as though it is generally good shape, except for some errant objects on the floor and a cat licking a breakfast plate atop the table. The delicate disorder of this image (as opposed to Hogarth's Gin Lane) suggests that gin consumption has the potential to slowly eat away at the moral heart of British society. The caption confirms this, as it gives us backstory on the unlucky father and his family: "He is discharged from his employment for drunkenness. They pawn their clothes to supply the bottle."
Although it was convenient to blame Gin Mania on the imbibing underclass, the wealthier (of course) were not guilt free. In 1776, biographer of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell confessed to his diary, “I drank rather too much gin punch. It was a new liquor to me, and I liked it much.” For the underclass, gin drinking possibly took place in the streets, if we are to take seriously William Hogarth’s Gin Lane, or in one of the many gin shops or “gin palaces,” which remained popular haunts well into the nineteenth century. Although they possessed a fancy title and outward glamour, gin palaces were usually associated with urban grime, violence, and poverty. In his 1836 collection Sketches by Boz, Charles Dickens explains this contradiction:
Gin-shops are “invariably numerous and splendid in precise proportion to the dirt and poverty of the surrounding neighbourhood. The gin-shops in and near Drury-Lane, Holborn, St. Giles’s, Covent-garden, and
Clare-market, are the handsomest in London. There is more of filth and squalid misery near those great
thorough-fares than in any part of this mighty city.
The ornate rococo-modern décor of the gin palaces (glowing clocks! Stucco rosettes! Gilded parapets!) offsets its eclectic clientele who span gender and class divides: old washerwomen, arrogant young men who flirt with haughty barmaids, brawling Irish laborers, a woman in “faded feathers,” and by night’s end, “cold, wretched-looking creatures, in the last state of emaciation and disease.”
illustrations by George Cruikshank
While gin-shops were democratizing drinking and fostering cross-class, cross-gender, and cross-age connections, upper class men, sporting men, military men, and the occasional gambling man (no women allowed in Limmer’s) were tucking into their gin cups within posh hotels, like Limmer’s, the Conduit Street hotel known for its punch bowls. The heyday of Limmer’s spanned the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, but still did quite a respectable business throughout the nineteenth century. Well, respectable may not be quite the right word considering throughout its tenure, Limmer's was home to countless barroom scuffles, a naked bagpiper, and the Marquis of Waterford who enjoyed practicing his pistol shots on the bar’s clock. Other than men behaving badly, one of the reasons Limmer’s remained such a touchstone of nineteenth-century British drinking culture was because of its headwaiter, John Collins, who was celebrated in an 1892 ditty by Charles and Frank Sheridan who were Limmer’s regulars:
My name is John Collins, headwaiter at Limmer's,
It wasn’t just that Collins could fill a brimmer with the best of them, it was also what he was filling those brimmers with: his proprietary punch. The Brothers Sheridan published a number of paeans to Collins with a variety of different fifth lines. One version of the line specifies: “Mr. Frank always drinks my gin punch when he smokes.” After earning a hearty recommendation from Lord Byron who finished the last cantos of Don Juan with the help of Limmer’s gin punch, the beverage became a standard. Garrick’s Punch was the original, but Collins’s provided a sweeter twist that would serve as a precedent of the modern Collins. Unfortunately, an exact recipe no longer exists, but its core ingredients read somewhat familiarly: lemon juice, water, and capillaire, or a simple syrup with orange-flower water. What resulted was a lightly citric and floral punch that made Garrick’s seem bulky in comparison. While the recipe is fairly straightforward, it is still mired in mystery, in particular the choice of gin. What became colloquially known as the “John Collins” probably used jenever, a Dutch spirit derived from juniper berries, which is described as a “predecessor to London dry gin” (think: Bombay or Tanquerey.) The popularity of Collins the person and Collins the drink notwithstanding, in 1876 Limmer’s Hotel sought to give itself a more respectable makeover by auctioning off all of the goods associated with its wild days, including the pistol-ridden clock and the cocktail shakers. It reopened itself as a light, breezy family establishment before shuttering for good in the early 1900’s. But just as Limmer’s was fading from the limelight, John and his Collins were gaining international fame thanks to the bustling periodical cultures of the 1800s. In 1865, papers in Canada and Australia mentioned, with delight, a “John Collins,” which was a simple “Gin Punch.” The target demographic? British military men who would have been familiar with the Limmer’s punch. As the John Collins, either as a cocktail or punch, began to earn a global reputation, it remained a token of Britishness. But just as the Collins started enjoying transatlantic popularity, it also started to experience the perils of international renown… thanks to a trash-talking swell named Tom.
Suspect #3: Tom
c19 scholar interested in all things freakish