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Opium, Laudanum And The Other Drugs That Played A Big Part In Victorian Life.

Women on the floor smoking opium and three eunuchs watching them. A still from Georges Rémond’s Dandy-Pacha, 1920.
"There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new."

 Oscar Wilde in his novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ (1891).

The opium den, with its aura of mystery, danger, and intrigue, made frequent appearances in Victorian novels, poems, and contemporary newspapers, captivating and fuelling the public's imagination.

“It is a wretched hole… so low that we are unable to stand upright. Lying pell-mell on a mattress placed on the ground are Chinamen, Lascars, and a few English blackguards who have imbibed a taste for opium.” So reported the French journal ‘Figaro’, describing an opium den in Whitechapel in 1868.

The public likely recoiled at these depictions, envisioning areas like London's docklands and the East End as opium-soaked, exotic, and perilous locales. During the 1800s, a modest Chinese community had taken root in the well-established slum of Limehouse within London's docklands—an enclave characterized by backstreet pubs, brothels, and opium dens. These establishments primarily served seamen who had developed a dependency on the drug during their time overseas.

Despite the lurid accounts of opium dens in the press and fiction, in reality there were few outside of London and the ports, where opium was landed alongside other cargo from all over the British Empire.

The India-China opium trade was very important to the British economy. Britain had fought two wars in the mid 19th century known as the ‘Opium Wars’, ostensibly in support of free trade against Chinese restrictions but in reality because of the immense profits to be made in the trading of opium. Since the British captured Calcutta in 1756, the cultivation of poppies for opium had been actively encouraged by the British and the trade formed an important part of India’s (and the East India Company’s) economy.

Opium and other narcotic drugs played an important part in Victorian life. Shocking though it might be to us in the 21st century, in Victorian times it was possible to walk into a chemist and buy, without prescription, laudanum, cocaine and even arsenic. Opium preparations were sold freely in towns and country markets, indeed the consumption of opium was just as popular in the country as it was in urban areas.

The most popular preparation was laudanum, an alcoholic herbal mixture containing 10% opium. Called the ‘aspirin of the nineteenth century,’ laudanum was a popular painkiller and relaxant, recommended for all sorts of ailments including coughs, rheumatism, ‘women’s troubles’ and also, perhaps most disturbingly, as a soporific for babies and young children. And as twenty or twenty-five drops of laudanum could be bought for just a penny, it was also affordable.

19th century recipe for a cough mixture:

Two tablespoonfuls of vinegar,

Two tablespoonfuls of treacle

60 drops of laudanum.

One teaspoonful to be taken night and morning.

Laudanum addicts would enjoy highs of euphoria followed by deep lows of depression, along with slurred speech and restlessness. Withdrawal symptoms included aches and cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea but even so, it was not until the early 20th century that it was recognised as addictive.

The Awakening, Matignon, 1905

Many notable Victorians are known to have used laudanum as a painkiller. Authors, poets and writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot were users of laudanum. Anne Bronte is thought to have modelled the character of Lord Lowborough in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ on her brother Branwell, a laudanum addict. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley suffered terrible laudanum-induced hallucinations. Robert Clive, ‘Clive of India’, used laudanum to ease gallstone pain and depression.

Over the channel, the French had it much worse…

Paris was a city with a genuine addiction to opium. Nicknamed ‘la fée brune’ (the brown fairy), it had arrived through the return of soldiers from French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) and it wasn’t long before the ‘midnight oil’ became the fashionable drug of choice in the French capital.

Georgies Barbier illustration. 1925

It’s estimated that the city had in excess of 1,200 opium dens. The legendary Moulin Rouge was rumoured to be a hub of opium related activity, and it was even suggested that the notorious elephant’s head section of the building was an opulent, exclusive smoking den.

Infamous opium users included Charles Baudelaire, Picasso, Brassaï and Jean Cocteau, who shared his struggles against opium with the world in writings such as Opium.

I became addicted with caution and under medical supervision. There are doctors capable of pity. I never exceeded ten pipes. I smoked the rate of three in the morning (at nine o’clock), four in the afternoon (at five o’clock), three in the evening (at eleven o’clock). I believed that, in this way, I was reducing the chances of addiction. With opium I suckled cells, which were restored to the world after five months of abstinence, and I suckled them with countless unknown alkaloids, whereas a morphine addict, whose habits frighten me, fills his veins with a single known poison and surrenders himself far less to the unknown.
Of course opium remains unique and the euphoria it induces is superior to that of health. l owe it my perfect hours. It is a pity that instead of perfecting curative techniques, medicine does not try render opium harmless.

– Jean Cocteau, Opium

Back in blighty, many of the opium-based preparations were targeted at women. Marketed as ‘women’s friends’, these were widely prescribed by doctors for problems with menstruation and childbirth, and even for fashionable female maladies of the day such as ‘the vapours’, which included hysteria, depression and fainting fits.

A postcard from the early 1900s.

Children were also given opiates. To keep them quiet, children were often spoon fed Godfrey’s Cordial (also called Mother’s Friend), consisting of opium, water and treacle and recommended for colic, hiccups and coughs. Overuse of this dangerous concoction is known to have resulted in the severe illness or death of many infants and children.

The 1868 Pharmacy Act attempted to control the sale and supply of opium-based preparations by ensuring that they could only be sold by registered chemists. However this was largely ineffective, as there was no limit on the amount the chemist could sell to the public.

The Victorian attitude to opium was complex. The middle and upper classes saw the heavy use of laudanum among the lower classes as ‘misuse’ of the drug; however their own use of opiates was seen as no more than a ‘habit’.

Preparing a “pill” of opium for the pipe

The end of the 19th century saw the introduction of a new pain reliever, aspirin. By this time many doctors were becoming concerned about the indiscriminate use of laudanum and its addictive qualities.

There was now a growing anti-opium movement. The public viewed the smoking of opium for pleasure as a vice practised by Orientals, an attitude fuelled by sensationalist journalism and works of fiction such as Sax Rohmer’s novels. These books featured the evil arch villain Dr Fu Manchu, an Oriental mastermind determined to take over the Western world.

In 1888 Benjamin Broomhall formed the “Christian Union for the Severance of the British Empire with the Opium Traffic”. The anti-opium movement finally won a significant victory in 1910 when after much lobbying, Britain agreed to dismantle the India-China opium trade.


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