The thread about the word “Jakey”; how Prohibition-era American slang was imported into an interwar Glasgow suffering an epidemic of meths drinking

I was thinking on the word “Jakey” which the Dictionary of the Scots Language gives as “A down-and-out, a tramp“, from a depression-era Glasgow term for someone who “drinks lots of Jake“. So what is Jake? And where does the term come from? “Jake” was a depression-era drink of methylated spirits mixed with cheap red wine. It was also known in Scotland as “Red Biddy“. There is a 1956 poem in Scots and Glaswegian vernacular on the subject,

There ye gang, ye daft
And doitit dotterel, ye saft
Crazed outland skalrag saul
In your bits and ends o win-nockie duds
Your fyled and fozie-dousome clouts
As fou’s a fish, crackt and craftie-drunk
Wi bleerit reid-rimmed
Ee and slaveran crozie mou
Dwailblan owre the causie like a ship
Storm-tost i the Bay o Biscay-o
At-sea indeed and hauf-seas-owre
Or up til the cross-tress sunk—

(Wha kens? Wha cares?)

Hidderie-hetterie stouteran in a dozie dwuam
O’ ramsh reid-biddie—
The stink
O’ jake ahint him a mephitic
Rouk o miserie, like some unco exotic

The Grace O God and the Meth Drinker” by Sydney Goodsir Smith.

But why “Jake”? Well Jake is a shortening of Jamaica, and was a loan word from the Prohibition-era US where a prescription medicinal tipple that was 70-80% ethanol called “Jamaica Ginger” was re-sold (illegally) as a tasty, refereshing (intoxicating!) bevvy. Even before Prohibition, Jamaica Ginger had long been a legitimate way of acquiring alcohol in “dry” towns and counties in the US.

Jamaica Ginger, or "Jake" for short
Jamaica Ginger, or “Jake” for short

This became known as “Ginger Jake” on the speakeasy scene. It was meant to have a sufficiently high quantity of ginger oils in it to render it unpotable, but this was easily circumvented by replacing it with molasses or castor oil. As demand for it as a beverage went up, so did bootlegging and counterfeiting and quality inevitably went down. One manufacturer, seeking to cut its costs and pass government testing, started adulterating their Ginger Jake with a compound used in paint and lacquer production known as TOCP (tri-orthocresyl phosphate).


The manufacturers imagine that TOCP would be inert, except that one of the side effects of consuming it turned out to be neuropathy leading to paralysis. This quickly caused an epidemic of paralysis in jazz and blues musicians who were particularly heavy users of Ginger Jake. t is estimated 30-50 thousand people were poisoned by TOCP from the contaminated Jake, and the long-term effects caused a severe loss of control in the limbs and the “Jake Walk” or “Jake Dance” was used to describe the characteristic gait of a victim. The sufferers often ended up destitute and begging, and it became common slang for that, as well as for adulterated or counterfeit alcohol in general. It also spawned a number of blues songs such as the Jake Walk Blues.

Back in Scotland, the phenomenon known as Red Biddy arrived on Glaswegian shores in 1926, it also appeared in Northern Ireland at the same time via Belfast. Its appearance was driven by a huge increase in the price of spirits, pushing them beyond the reach of the drinking poor. It was described in news reports as being “very cheap wine which is able to be imported at the lowest duty. The duty is based on the alcoholic strength of the article“. In order to make this low-alcohol wine stronger – typically it was 6% – back street vendors were adulterating it with industrial alcohol, itself tainted with meths (methylated spirits; industrial alcohol tainted with methanol). The name arose from the fact it first came to the attention of the authorities having being drunk by older women, upon whom it had a “maddening effect”. The red referred to this behavioural change, to the complexion of heavy drinkers, and to the colour of the cheap red wine; Biddy was a term for an old woman. Consumers became known as “dynamitards“, a loan word from political extremists who literally used explosives against the state, but more generally described adherents of violent struggle.

Unadulterated Red Biddy was legal to cell on licensed premises, but the authorities were hampered by there being no standards to test wine against. Nevertheless, they acted quickly by having the compound pyridine added to methylated spirits to make it even more unpalatable, and increasing the duty on lower alcohol wines. This probably only served to push it to become an even more extreme product, e.g. swapping out the methylated spirits for rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol, from cheap eau-de-cologne, metal polish, Chlorodyne patent medicine (which contained laudanum, cannabis and chloroform) or even by bubbling coal gas through milk

Red biddy was joined in Scotland by “Yellow Jake” in the 1930s; ginger beer or lemonade (the terms are interchangeable in Glasgow) adulterated with industrial alcohol. When based on Cola it was called “King Fergus“. These terms soon became used for any illicit or bootleg home-brewed or adulterated alcohol. It was a serious problem all across Scotland, but particularly so in the slums of industrial, inter war Glasgow. Despite action by the authorities, its use persisted. There was a spate of poisonings in Glasgow in 1942, and in one particularly dreadful incident, ten people died in the Blackhill housing scheme in Glasgow in 1949 after drinking jake at a Hogmanay party.

The 1949 poisonings hospitalised 24 people and killed 10 in Glasgow. Dundee Evening Telegraph, 6th January 1949
The 1949 poisonings hospitalised 24 people and killed 10 in Glasgow. Dundee Evening Telegraph, 6th January 1949

As late as 1961, the West Lothian Courier was lamenting that there were still an “alarming number” of red biddy drinkers around. I know from a good source that the binmen of Glasgow had a racket going on into the 1980s to recover the excess (ethyl) alcohol from grain whisky distillation at the Port Dundas Distillery from filter waste using a twin tub washing machine as a makeshift centrifuge, which was then sold on the black market.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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