Gin & Gingerbread

Almost as long as the gin of the Gin Craze lubricated the streets of eighteenth-century London, gingerbread was its spicy companion. Its popularity extended long enough that the pairing inspired the subject and title of a 1989 piece of historical fiction titled Gin and Gingerbread by Elizabeth Jeffrey. The protagonist Abigail Chiswell first encounters the combination when she prepares to attend the annual opening of the oyster beds in Colchester, Essex and asks why gin and gingerbread were served at the ceremony.

‘I think it’s some old wives’ tale about gin helping to counteract the ill effects oysters might have on some people.’
‘And the gingerbread?’
…’Goes well with the gin, I suppose. It’s very nice anyway.’

Elizabeth Jeffrey, Gin and Gingerbread (London: Hachette UK, 2018).

The opening of the oyster beds not only in Colchester but in Kent has a long association with the consumption of gin with gingerbread that continues to present day with the Gin and Gingerbread Ceremony. The Lord Mayor reads out the 1189 royal proclamation that originally asserted the town’s fishing rights, raises a toast to Her Majesty, and invites everyone to feast on gin and gingerbread.

Looking further back at its social associations, gin and gingerbread were the refreshments offered at the executions of ‘Maw the Soldier’ and ‘Morat the Black’ at the Shepherd’s Bush hanging tree in West London according to one news item:

There were several Gallons of Gin sold on that Road all Sunday, notionally by Running Distillers with Bottles, but almost every 100 yards was a Stall with Gingerbread and Gin.

Derby Mercury, 10 March 1736

But these items were also sold roadside:

…the poorest retailer, even those who sell gin and ginger-bread in baskets upon the highway, will always find money or credit for two gallons, which amounts to but three shillings…

The Scots Magazine, 1 February 1744

There are some visual clues to the popularity of this pairing. The first comes from William Hogarth, the satirist and artist who campaigned against the consumption of gin in his 1751 engraving Gin Lane. One of Hogarth’s other impactful presentations titled Industry and Idleness, consisted of 12 engravings that related a more story about the rewards of diligence and hard labour as well as the disastrous end that could befall a youth who was lazy. The eleventh plate depicts the idle apprentice at his execution on the Tyburn Tree, situated near in what is now known as Marble Arch.

Source: Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum

Look to the right of the image. There is a baker wearing an apron and selling round balls of gingerbread. Behind him there is a cart from which a woman is selling drams of gin. The pairing caused concern amongst the better sorts because it was associated with the poor and social disorder.

An item in the 24 July 1770 Public Advertiser reported at one hanging ‘drinking booths were erected, and the place had the same appearance of general disorder as a fair day’. And the same publication reported on 30 April 1782 that nearly 40,000 onlookers came to the hanging of murderer William Smith by ‘coaches, chariots, phaeton &c’ as well as on foot to enjoy fried sausages or, for those of less opulent means, gin and gingerbread in a scene of ‘shameful riot and disorder’.

Hangings were not the only social gathering in which gin and gingerbread appeared according to an item in the 10 June 1788 Kentish Gazette. In London’s Hyde Park, ‘Kate the retailer of gin and gingerbread’ sold her wares as she strolled passed chimney sweeps, dukes, and even the Duchess of Gordon, this pairing offered a poor young maid a less nefarious way to make her way in the metropolis.

The refreshment was also a common treat at London’s Frost Fairs which took place from 1650 through 1814. The brutal winters brought on by the Little Ice Age inspired Londoners to gather on the River Thames when it froze over to enjoy entertainments, shopping, and the warm of gin and gingerbread. Neighbouring booths were advertised on a map titled ‘Mrs Mary Malkinton’ that was ‘printed on the ice’ on 2 January 1715. The Gingerbread Stall was situated at location ‘K’ in the legend and the Geneva Booth was only separated from its usual companion by a stall that sold roasted mutton shoulder.

Source: Courtesy of the Museum of London

But what sort of gingerbread recipe was this? Was it one that is familiar to our modern-day palate which used a number of ingredients that were unaffordable to poor bakers let alone to poor consumers. A recipe discovered by Museum of London’s Hazel Forsyth is an example of an aristocratic recipe:

Take a quart of honey, put it into a great skillet on the fire and when it begineth to seeth, put thereto a pint of strong ale, & scum it clear, then put soo much grated bread as will make it like unto dow and put thereto halfe a pound of Liquorish, as much Aniseeds, and a quarter of a pound of ginger being finely searced with two ounces of graines, then take it out of your skillet and worke it on a table as you doo flower to dough to make it stiffe, then make it in cakes, put powder of Liquorish and Aniseeds upon your moulds so it cleave not and so lay them upon a board till they be dry, then lay them up in boxes.

Lady Barbara Fleming’s Manuscript Receipt Book, 1673

A more plausible recipe style for a poor man’s gingerbread was discovered by the National Trust. Even though it is attributed to the Victorian era, the ingredients and method are much more to the fashion of a treat that baker could whip up overnight and hawk at a hanging the next day:

225 gr plain flour
225 gr butter (or other fat), softened
15-30 grams ground ginger, depending on your taste preference
170 gr dark treacle
a splash of milk

  1. Place the butter and flour into a bowl.
  2. Heat the treacle and milk in a small saucepan until it is very hot.
  3. Pour into the flour mixture and stir to combine.
  4. Cover with a tea towel and let stand in a cool place for four hours, preferably overnight.
  5. Take spoonfuls of the mixture and roll into balls the size of a large marble. Place on a baking tray lined with parchment.
  6. Bake in a hot oven (160°C/320°F) for about 10-15 minutes until set.

Thus, gin and gingerbread took on many guises during its long existence from a warming treat for the poor at popular cultural events, a by-employment for young women, a ceremonial tradition, and even the title of a modern-day historical novel. As the inspiration for a few contemporary gin variations, it will be no surprise if research into historical mixed drinks uncovers a few recipes that took their inspiration from this pairing.

—Anistatia Miller