The colloquial British-English expression mother’s ruin, also mothers’ ruin, denotes gin—i.e., a clear alcoholic spirit distilled from grain or malt and flavoured with juniper berries.
This expression, which alludes to the evils caused by the consumption of gin, first appeared in the early 20th century—a fact that no particular event seems to explain.
Note: The evils caused by the consumption of gin are chiefly associated with the so-called gin craze, i.e., a period in the early 18th century when the consumption of gin increased rapidly in Great Britain, provoking moral indignation and various legislative attempts to control it. The English painter and engraver William Hogarth (1697-1764) famously depicted those evils in Gin Lane (1751):
image: Beer Street and Gin Lane – Wikipedia
The earliest occurrences of the expression mother’s ruin, also mothers’ ruin, that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:
1-: From The Football News (Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, England) of Saturday 30th January 1904:
THE LACE MARKET GIRL.
A FAIR FEATURE OF OUR CITY.
HER LIFE OF WORK AND PLEASURE.
BY OUR SPECIAL COMMISSIONER.
It is a fact, sad but true, that many of the Nottingham warehouse girls are in the habit of frequenting public houses. This is a circumstance which impresses the stranger to the city more than anything else; though the inhabitants of Nottingham have grown so accustomed to the practice that they regard it as nothing more than a deplorable thing, yet one that cannot be helped. There are many towns in England where none but women of the lowest class of all are served with drink, and even in those centres the number of houses which accord this privilege are few and far between, and special attention is given to them by the police. The conditions of life in these towns, of course, are very different; for beyond employment in shops and offices there are no openings for female labour, and you do not find the girl who lives with her parents and is allowed a very limited dress allowance, throwing away any of her money on the
of gin and water—known humorously in Nottingham, I find, as “mother’s ruin”—or gruelly * stout.
* The adjective gruelly means: of the nature of, or resembling, gruel.
2-: From Our London Letter, published in The Uttoxeter Advertiser and Ashbourne Times (Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, England) of Wednesday 19th June 1907:
For the Children.
A draft Bill has been drawn up to restrict the sale of intoxicants to children, and to exclude them from licensed premises, and a great meeting in support of the proposal was held in Queen’s Hall and presided over by Sir Thomas Barlow, the King’s physician. Mr. Will Crooks and Lady Henry Somerset were the chief speakers, and there was considerable enthusiasm. I have often seen terrible sights when “slumming” in London: women drugging their babies with gin—commonly called “mother’s ruin”—and whisky, so that the poor little bairns might sleep whilst the mothers (?) gossipped [sic] and quarrelled and drank. Such a beginning of life is apt to end badly for the person and the State, and unfortunately the sight is all too common.
3-: From the column ‘Mail’ Mustard & Cress, published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 16th August 1921:
A man who admitted to the Ealing magistrates that he had “had a drop too much of Lizzie” was explained to have been drinking gin.—It is interesting to note that gin has been called a variety of names—notably “mother’s ruin” and “white satin.”
4-: From the Hastings & St. Leonards Observer (Hastings, Sussex, England) of Saturday 12th April 1924:
The Hastings Police Court more resembled a display of gifts at a wedding reception than a grim Court of Justice on Tuesday, when Thomas James Dunn, 29, Shepherd-street, St. Leonards, was charged on remand with stealing silver and other articles to the value of £330 from his employer, Colonel Albany Robert Cecil Savile, of 7, Dane-road.
Thomas Henry Vidler, luggage porter, said he had known the prisoner all his life. Last July or August he met the prisoner in the “Yorkshire Grey,” when the prisoner asked him if he could get rid of some stuff for the cook, as she had a lot that was no use to her. “You know she likes a little drop of gin, and she wants a little money to get it,” he added. Magistrates’ Clerk (sotto voce): “Mothers’ ruin again.”
5-: From The Sporting Times (London, England) of Saturday 3rd April 1926:
FANNY ADAMS AND THE TAR.
So the jolly Jack Tar is to be parted from his faithful Fanny Adams! In other words, the ration of salt pork, which some people assert has made the Navy what it is, will be abolished from now on.
“Fanny Adams” was the affectionate soubriquet bestowed by the sailor upon his portion of preserved pig; and it is generally supposed that the name arose from the fact that a real Fanny Adams disappeared in a British port which was being visited by some of the Fleet. What had become of Fanny Adams was the question of the hour in that port, and some wag with a gruesome sense of humour suggested that the missing girl had been salted down as part of the sailors’ rations.
Another name for salt pork was “Harriet Lane.” This cognomen was originally borne by the victim of a particularly cruel murder of the ’seventies. The assassin buried the unfortunate Harriet in his workshop, and strewed a quantity of chloride of lime on the body, hoping to cause it to decompose rapidly. In his ignorance, he did not know that chloride of lime has a preservative effect; and when poor Harriet Lane’s murdered corpse was dug up—as it soon was—there was no difficulty in recognising her.
These peculiar circumstances caused the name to be bestowed on any kind of preserved meat, and soon found its way into the Navy.
It is the nature of man to bestow nicknames on anything he likes very much, and this includes his food. The Cornishman eats large quantities of pilchards; wherefore this succulent fish is known as a Cornish duck. In the same way the Cockney’s affection for the savoury bloater leads him to call it a Whitechapel pheasant. A relation of the bloater, the kipper, is called a two-eyed steak, the application of which is obvious.
There is a little sarcasm in the title of the Scotch woodcock, those who invented it evidently wishing to tilt at the parsimony of the Scot, who tried with egg and anchovy to imitate the more expensive woodcock. A similar hit at the supposed poverty of the Welsh lies in the name Welsh rabbit.
The Real Rabbit.
Away with him who would call this preparation of toast and melted cheese a “Welsh rarebit”! Such ignorance, as the philosopher said, is not natural; it must be acquired. The word is so patently “rabbit,” on the analogy of the duck, pheasant and woodcock already mentioned.
There is typical London humour in the nickname “bag-o’-mystery” for a sausage, and the disguises under which beer and other drinks appear in popular speech would fill several columns.
It is the more popular and inexpensive dishes which bear these pet names. The rich man, swallowing caviare in the white-and-gold restaurant of the Hotel Magnifique, knows it by no affectionate petit nom. To him it is just caviare—poor dull wretch! He calls his food just what the menu calls it, and has no flights of fancy like the poor man.
Stay, though! If he happens to be in a particularly waggish mood he may allude to the champagne which accompanies the meal by the shorter name of “boy”—or even “bubbly.”
The poor man has any amount of pet names for his favourite beverage, and it has not yet been established who was the genius who found the name “pongelo” for beer, the Briton’s staple drink.
Gin is known by many affectionate nicknames. It is “mother’s ruin,” or alternatively known as “auntie’s downfall.” A strikingly descriptive nickname is “washing-day,” and for some obscure reason some people call it “stop-at-all-stations.”
Porter is derisively known as “apron-washings,” and bottled stout as “blacking.” Experts in rhyming-slang order “I’m-so-frisky” or “Jack-the-dandy” when they desire whisky or brandy, and “finger-and-thumb” when their fancy is for rum.