The Impact of Opium Use in Nineteenth-Century England

The Impact of Opium Use in Nineteenth-Century England

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The Impact of Opium Use in Nineteenth-Century England

Evidence from contemporary newspapers and other sources suggest that by the mid nineteenth-century England was beginning to realize the depth of its opium problem. Opium had been introduced by the Arabs around the sixteenth-century, England began to seriously trade it around the late seventeenth- century. English citizens, by this time, through its exploits, were using the drug for medical reasons. However, most of these new cures all used opium in some form. No matter in which, form it was used, opium had only one effect. It gave a feeling of euphoria. From the opium pill to the plaster or its alkaloids it was a highly addictive drug, a new drug free from government constrains and open to public sale. In the early years opium was merely another piece of cargo to be traded.
The Beginnings of The Problem
Opium had first arrived in London as a new medicinal trade product. It was new, compact, easily transported, and non-perishable. Trade with China proved very profitable and flourished for more than twenty years uninterrupted, until in 1835 China passed its first laws prohibiting the importation of opium (1). In the years following this prohibition, England responded simply by shifting the drop off points to other ports in China. China resisted these efforts, by England, to continue trade and began attacking their ships. These acts were seen as aggressive in the eyes of the English and the first opium war resulted. The war ended with the treaty of Nanking, which ceded China to Britain. The second opium war between 1856 and 1858 ended with the treaty of Tientsin (2). These two wars were prime examples of commercial imperialism, not only through the opening of treaty ports but through British control of Chinese customs which the 1842 treaty established, and continuing opium trade without restraint (3). All these acts on the part of British and the Chinese prove that there was real awareness of the depth of the opium problem.
Medicinal Uses
During the years between and after both opium wars, England was developing more uses for opium. There were opium plasters, pills, cough drops, lozenges, troches, and scores of other the applications. Opium could be bought alongside food and spirits. Usually the opium was originally bought for some kind of ailment, and consequently the addiction would begin. One physician noted that he prescribed an opium plaster to a young girl, and discovered that three weeks later she was still using it (4).

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In Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton Gaskell writes how Esther was sick from the "spitting of blood." Chances are she would have been treated with some form of opium, and subsequently she became addicted. Esther's addiction is not plainly written in the novel. Upon meeting Jem, Esther says, "If I go without food, and without shelter, I must have my dram-Oh you don't know the awful nights I have had in prison for want of's so cold sleeping in entries, and on door steps, and I want a dram more that ever" (5). This little scene can be overlooked, but the word dram signals something with opium. According to a Liverpool druggist, writing in 1857, laudanum was very much abused by the lower-classes and that laudanum was sold as a stimulant, to adults, and taken as a dram (6). These are cases in which opium was taken under the guise of medicine, or at least so the addict thought.
Since the science of pharmacology was being developed, at this moment in history, it posed steep competition to the local physician. Noting that medicine is a business first and a heeling profession last, it stands to reason that the medical community must make money. Since druggists were concocting new cures for existing ailments, it made the provincial physician less needed, and he therefore made less money. With a physician the average person needed to be checked for symptoms before being treated. However, with a druggist/chemist the local person need only show up with a shilling and buy a cure. In Gaskell's Mary Barton Mary comes home after paying the rent with a halfcrown and gives her father the change, a shilling, to buy opium. In this scene opium is shown to be plentiful as well as cheap.
Moreover, other users of opium were clearly out to abuse its seductive qualities. Manchester, for instance, notorious for its crime, was just notorious for its abuse of opium. One druggist from Manchester, in Salford mill area related how, on market days, his customers come in and buy the pure drug for themselves, and Godfrey's Cordial or quietness" (7). The novel Mary Barton, about life in Manchester, several times makes reference to John Barton's opium addiction. As Barton looks for the opium Gaskell writes, "for what was the use of getting up...He had hesitated between the purchase of meal or opium, and chosen the latter, for its use had become a necessity with him...He wanted it to relieve him from the terrible depression its absence occasioned...A large lump seemed only to bring him into natural state, or what had been his natural state formerly" (8). In Dickens' Oliver Twist the Artful Dodger and gang clearly are out to abuse opium, "seated round the table were four or five boys...smoking long clay pipes" (9). Contemporary documents, newspapers ads from the time suggests that these pipes contained tobacco and opium, because opium would not burn alone (10). These two instances, in Victorian literature, illustrate the total ignorance of strength of opium.
Children in the nineteenth-century were also subjected to the opium problem. Parents with teething children, mostly poor parents, used opium-based cures for the pain. According to the parliamentary papers, item 38, reports that deaths by poison, between the years 1836-1839 numbered more than 30 (11). These are the deaths that are directly related to the ingestion of opium, as opposed to some children's prolonged use and subsequent death by starvation due to lack of food.
Some deaths were due to the lack of a qualified druggist, and the consequent inconsistency of actual doses. One coroner's report indicates the coroner was convinced that children are dying due to neglect in dispensing opium, "I have no doubt whatever that many are yearly destroyed by it...but who dying off gradually, never come under my notice as coroner" (12). Another coroner's report directly blames the druggist. In investigating the death of a female child, one year and eleven months, the coroner reports, "In this case there appeared very great negligence on the part of the person who sold the laudanum; he had not been brought up as a druggist, but had latterly taken to the business, and employed two young girls to attend his shop and sell drugs in his absence...I ascertained personally at the shop that one of them sold twice as much for a penny as the other" (13). This first-hand report reinforces the fact that children were indeed dying, and some without notice. Paregoric, a favorite to soothe teething pain, often was administered with no regard for dosing. One coroner's remarks after an inquest writes, "The deceased was very cross and restless cutting her teeth and her mother sent to a neighbor for laudanum...she sent a teaspoonful and gave it to the deceased not knowing its poisonous effects...Sarah Percival died about two hours later" (14). Again Gaskell's novel Mary Barton illustrates how children were purposely given opium to keep them quiet. Gaskell's narrator says "Many a penny that would have gone little way enough in oatmeal or potatoes, bought opium to still little ones, and make them forget their uneasiness in heavy troubled sleep" (15). Dosing regulations were severely lacking, resulting in an abundance of opium deaths. From the druggist, to his staff, to the mother, dosing irregularities and death were more frequent than correct usage.
The Beginnings Of Regulations
From the start of the nineteenth-century to the Pharmacy Act of 1868, opium regulations were virtually non-existent. In this period the Apothecary’s Act of 1852 was designed to limit the sale of opium to registered pharmacists. This act, however, was never enforced (16). The Pharmacy Act of 1868 only took the sale of opium or poisons out of hands of unlicensed pharmacists. This act mainly served physicians and pharmacists by putting more money back in their hands. However, what this act fatally overlooked was the fact that there was still no regulation on who could buy it or sell opiates. It is not until the twentieth-century that prescriptions for such drugs were required, including precise dosages. Ultimately, the only effect of Pharmacy Act of 1868 was to put rural druggist out of business. But even this obviously did not work. A local Scarborough druggist, for instance, has billed his mixtures after the Pharmacy Act. The Scarborough druggist's 1870 recipe reads as follows:
Coff Drops
* 2 oz Loddanum
* 1 oz Parreygorrick
* 2 oz Elixed Vitral
* 6 oz of Honney
* 2 oz of Sweat Niten
Micksit al upp toogather
a Tiasponfull winthe coff is bad. (17)
Obviously, this druggist is still practicing after the 1868 Pharmacy Act. This recipe illustrates two important things, the druggist was apparently illiterate, and that he had no fundamental knowledge of pharmacology. Ultimately, it proves that the Pharmacy Act was universally enforced.
Society’s Awareness of a Problem
With the development of the hypodermic needle more people subsequently began to die, due mostly to home use. Most of these deaths were kept out of the local papers because they happened to the gentry. They were the only people rich enough to buy this product.
Contemporary newspapers and journals alike carried special reports of the use of and sale of opium. The local papers and novels of the period reflected a growing consciousness of the opium problem. In the local paper one could get conflicting views of the opium problem. According to one London Times article on the rising use of opium, "From the annual accounts relating trade and appears that the quantity of opium entered for home consumption in 1850 amounted to 42,3241b., and during the past year it has increased to 50,3681b., being an increased of 8,0441b. over that of the previous year, and a considerable increase over that of preceding years...It would, therefore, appear that there is some truth in the report that, as dram drinking decreases, opium eating increases" (18). The word dram in this context means something with alcohol, but the word obviously took on more liberal meaning. In a previous article from the Times, in 1839, also confirms the public's awareness of opium consumption, "...Mr. Downing elucidated the action of opium in all those countries in which it is habitually consumed, and fully proved that all the arguments produced against the use of spirits applied with tenfold force against the use of opium...Dr. J. Johnson said from his own personal knowledge, he was able to state that opium-eating had increased in this country to such an extent as to have become nearly equal in its proportion with teetotalism" (19). The article continues with remarks by the insurance companies, "Indeed the subject had called forth the particular attention of the different insurance companies, who were about to hold a meeting, in consequence of their having discovered that they had sustained considerable loss from ...the enormous increase in the consumption of opium" (20). These reports clearly show a rising concern of an opium problem. This concern seems to exist only at a corporate level.
The public's awareness of the growing use of opium was noticed by the alarming rate with which the working classes were using it. Most of the published accounts of increasing opium consumption were the gentry's alarm at the pace at which the poor were using these substances. A Times article reports, "There is not another county where narcotics are so much use as that of Lincoln …the magnitude of this growing evil for many years, that in the south of Lincolnshire (the fens) every second customer who enters the a purchase of opium, laudanum, Godfrey's mixture...The use of opium and laudanum is much on the increase, but not as stated in the newspaper press, in proportion to the spread of teetotalism; on the contrary it will be found that all opium or laudanum takers are beer and gin drinkers, while teetotalers are bound by the principles of abstinence societies to abstain from every intoxicating agent...The practice of opium-taking is not confined to the aged and infirm" (21). Here the Times gives the impression that the working classes are to blame for the abuse of opium. The article all but says that they do not know how to abstain from the vices of opium. In Gaskell's Mary Barton Gaskell also illustrates the example of the working classes abuse of opium, "Grimed, unshaven, and gaunt, after day's fasting over the fire" (22). In writing this, Gaskell undoubtedly knows that her audience will recognize the implication of Barton's opium binge over the fire all night. Gaskell and Dickens both, however, miss the fact that they only implicate the working classes in opium use. With opium as free and open as it was, it hard to believe that none of the rich classes were not abusing it too.
One famed household authority, Mrs. Beeton wrote books for the rich people, on what every house should have. In one of her books she suggests what every well stocked medicine-cabinet should have; among the list were several opium based remedies, "Ammoniated Tincture of Quinine; Quinine: Anodyne Lotion" (23). As Mrs. Beeton was the foremost authority on things concerning good household management, her books were well respected. Thus her listings would suggests cures containing opium were commonplace in people of all classes. However, even Mrs. Beeton recognized the abuse of opium. Her item on teething makes the point, "Selfish and thoughtless nurses and mothers too, sometimes give cordials and sleepingdraughts the effects are too well known" 24). Although Mrs. Beeton recognized the vices of using opium on children, she does not mention this free use with adults.
Victorian attitudes toward health seemed to rely heavily on cures based in opium. According to Mrs. Beeton's book Household Management, who was not a registered pharmacist's, laudanum was recommended for quite a few ailments, "Lumbago, Consumption, Colds" and scores of other ailments. Most noteworthy is that Mrs. Beeton merely consulted other physicians for the remedies she cites in her book. These books were not written for the working classes. Therefore, when Mrs. Beeton talks of teething remedies she has a decidedly biased point of view. The teething baby of the poor was not relegated to the care of a nurse, whereas the rich mother could leave the crying baby.
Opium use, was not regarded as a problem, until it became apparent that the working-classes were clearly abusing the substance. Newspaper editorials and testimonials attested to the fact of an opium problem but never addressed the problem started with the effects of opium trade. Through trade Britain became subject to a thorough saturation of opium. No regulations of opium for the first seventy years of the nineteenth-century only served to condone societies use of the drug. Books like Mrs. Beeton's Household Management reinforced the medicinal use of the drug, but her book totally excluded all those who could not afford it or read it; thus the exclusion of the working classes. The recognition and subsequent regulation of opium only profited the pharmacists and physicians. The masses, whether rich or poor, remained still free to buy and use freely opium and its products. Thus Gaskell and Dickens were simply reporting the stories and concerns of their times In actuality the opium problem ran deeper than the published reports ever recounted and the novelist could write.
1- Berridge, Virginia and Griffith, Edwards, Opium and the People, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1981 p.7
2- Ibid. p.174
3- Ibid. 174
4- Day, Horace Opium Habit, 1868 p.ll3
5- Gaskell, Elizabeth Mary Barton, 1848 p.213-14
6- Berridge, p.107
7- Ibid. p.106
8- Gaskell p.168
9- Dickens, Charles Oliver Twist 1961 p.87
10- Day, p.l0
11- Parliamentary Papers no.38 article 11
12- Ibid.
13- Ibid.
14- Ibid. A3
15- Gaskell, p.96
16- Parliamentary Papers 1852
17- Berridge, p.26
18- London Times, March 8, 1852 p.2
19- Ibid. 1842 p.3
20- Ibid.
21- Lincoln Gazette published in the London Times, 1840 p.3
22- Gaskell, p.159
23- Beeton, p.l542
24- Ibid. p.1612
Parliamentary Papers
1825 xxi
1835 xxxvii
1839 xxxviii
1851 v
1852 iv
1852 xiii
1868 v
1871 iv
1874 i
1875 iv
London Times
25 October, 1834 p.2
17 October, 1839 p.3
1 November, " p.5
23 December," p.l0
17 January, 1840 p.3
16 December, 1842 p.3
16 December, 1842 p.7
6 December, " p.l0
8 March, 1852 p.2
6 January, 1854 p.5


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