Victorian London’s Drug Culture

Since the dawn of time man has sought to get off his box...

Since the dawn of time man has sought to get off his box, so to speak. Evidence of drug taking before the Victorian era may be scarce, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. The printing press wasn’t invented till the 15th century and photography four centuries later (still a long way off documenting a night out on the iPhone) however drugs did not suddenly appear when the population was able to take a picture. In short, Londoners have been at it for centuries. Consider for example that consuming just two teaspoons of nutmeg can induce a sleep and subsequent grogginess that lasts for up to four days – Malcolm X took this whilst in prison to pass the time when his supply of cannabis ran out. If a household spice like nutmeg can be such a powerful psychoactive, it’s obvious drugs are not a recent discovery.

A plant as mundane as belladonna has very obvious effects on the human body, from dilating pupils to full blown hallucinations. In ancient times dilated pupils could be achieved when a drop of a solution containing atropine, an extract of the belladonna berries, was administered to the eyes. This was particularly desirable at a time when pale skin and thinly plucked eyebrows made up the ideal of female beauty. There are reports dating from the Middle Ages that in high doses it supposedly induces feelings of levitation, which added to the folklore of making it popular amongst witches. Foxglove and hemlock were also known to have powerful effects on the body and mind, and cannabis was most certainly consumed, arriving in the UK around 400 A.C. however none of these drugs would have as great an impact in London as opium during the Victorian era.

Opium had been cultivated in Asia for thousands of years before Christ, but it wasn’t introduced into the UK until the 17th century. In 1794 Thomas Jones stated the economic benefits of growing opium in Enfield, and planted poppies across five acres of his own land; he would go on to receive an award for his research from the Royal Society of Arts. Opium was favoured by the wealthy and the bohemian (whilst the poorer inhabitants drank gin, for it was cheaper than beer at the time) as well as the Chinese immigrants who inhabited the district of Limehouse, which had a far sleazier reputation. It was a common preconception that the opium dens in the docklands were places where intoxicated Chinese men would seduce innocent helpless white women, something dispelled by the tabloids of the day. There is little documentation to prove there were indeed as many opium dens as the papers liked to think, but in any case it was this association that tarnished the reputation of the drug, eventually leading to the substance being banned.

Opium is made from the resin of the poppy seed. Once it has dried it is scraped off the plant and can be processed for smoking. Opium smoking was certainly glamorised by Victorian literary figures, but other ways to consume it were soon discovered. Laudanum was a tincture which contained roughly 10% opium and 90% alcohol. It was often flavoured with cinnamon due to its unpleasant taste, making it very easy to drink and therefore popular. Initially prescribed as a pain reliever, the possibility of addiction and poisoning were later discovered. As with smokeable opium, laudanum was favoured by intellectuals and the rich – the author Thomas de Quincey was addicted to it, and Alice in Wonderland was supposedly dreamt up when Lewis Carroll was suffering one of his substance-assisted hallucinations.

In the 1870s chloral was another popular substance. Chloral, used to treat insomnia, is regarded as the first “hypnotic” drug, in other words, a sedative. Long term use can cause dependency, and stopping usage suddenly results in highly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Barbiturates are also a type of sedative, and the potential for addiction is similar. They have both waned in popularity in favour of benzodiazepines like Valium.

Morphine was first isolated from opium in the early 19th century, and its potency meant it was hailed as a wonder-drug to cure all kinds of ailments and pain relief. After the invention of the syringe in the mid-1800s it would also become a pastime. The British Medical Journal reported in 1902 that ladies’ morphine tea parties (which originated in Paris) were commonplace amongst the upper classes, where the hostess would administer a shot of morphine into the arms of her guests. Enterprising jewellers took advantage of this new trend and started selling gold-plated syringes. Heroin, more potent still, was first synthesised from opium at St. Mary’s Hospital in Paddington in 1874. It was named as such because of the “heroic” feeling users felt after administering it. A few years later it was widely available on the market, sold as a non-addictive substitute for morphine. Inevitably, regular users would also become addicted, however it wouldn’t be banned in the UK until the 1950s. Addicts were usually wealthy enough to be able to afford the drug, therefore not considered a problem by the authorities, in a complete twist of how society at large views heroin addicts today. Belladonna, once the scourge of Medieval witch-hunts, was used as a cure for heroin addicts in the early 20th century.

It is has always been an intrinsic part of human nature to want to experiment with hypnotic and/or heroic feelings, however the expansion of the British Empire, advances in science, and the grim conditions of Victorian London merely made it easier.


[i]Author:[/i] Leila Hawkins

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