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George Cruikshank's engraving of The Gin Shop (1829)

George Cruikshank's engraving of The Gin Shop (1829)

Death by Gin at Brize Norton

18 May 2021 (Updated 7 September 2021)

Gin was an extremely popular drink in Victorian England, and many abstainers bemoaned the negative effects that this ubiquitous alcohol had on the general population.

However in 1858 in Brize Norton, the gin craze turned deadly.

An unexplained sickness in the Jones household

On 13 March 1858, a Mrs. James became sick, complaining of nausea, diarrhea and a burning sensation in her throat. Her neighbour suggested a drink of gin to ease her discomfort, but the drink only made things worse and she died 11 days later.

Her husband and son had suffered similar symptoms on the day of her death, and the doctor who was summoned from Bampton to treat them also began to violently retch and vomit after accepting a drink of gin from the James's.

Two carpenters who had arrived to deliver a coffin for Mrs. James also accepted a drink of gin and sure enough, also became violently ill.

Mr. James died on 24 March.

A coroner in denial?

By this point, five people had experienced the same violent illness after drinking from the same bottle of gin, but inexplicably, when a coroner was called to ascertain the cause of death of Mr. and Mrs. James, he returned a verdict of natural causes. He suggested Mr. James had died of epilepsy and Mrs. James of bronchitis.

The coroner petitioned the Secretary of State to request permission to send samples of the gin for further testing, but this request was refused. When the inquest into the deaths concluded in April the jury recommended that the gin should be sent for testing, but this would need to have been done privately at the family's own expense.

Apparently, the family was disinclined to stump of the money, and the contents of the gin remained a mystery to this day.


  1. 'A Grim Almanac of Oxforshire' by Nicola Sly (The History Press, 2013, ISBN: 978752465814)