25th September 1878. ‘The Noxious Weed’!

The active ingredient of tobacco is nicotine, an alkaloid which is one of naturally occurring compounds containing mostly basic nitrogen atoms.(1)

The first report of smoking in England is of a sailor seen ‘emitting smoke from his nostrils’, in 1556. The term ‘smoking comes from the late 17thc, and previously known as ‘drinking smoke’.

By 1878 the hazards of smoking were outlined in a letter Today, in the London Times, from the Chief Physician to The Metropolitan Free Hospital, Dr Charles R. Drysdale.

As well as reviewing, as understood then, all the medical consequences, he concluded: ‘the use of tobacco is one of the most evident of all retrograde influences of our time, it invades all classes, destroys social life-turning Europe into a cigar divan’.(2)

Late 16thc imports helped to popularize tobacco smoking, resulting in the anonymous tract by King James I (VI of Scotland): ‘A Counterblast to Tobacco’.

However this went against our economic interests as our new colony of Virginia, was now supplying not just Britain but also Holland, thus competing against the Spanish trade.

Then like all hypocrites, James became not averse to acquiring the monopoly of the  Virginian import trade, when he was suffering ‘financial constraints’.

By the end of the 17thc, tobacco originally a luxury, had become so popular, there were 7,000 tobacconists in London, when it was assumed as a ‘cure-all’ for maladies such as VD, migraine and the plague.

Punch Cartoon 5.1.1867

Punch Cartoon 5.1.1867 by George Du Maurier. ‘Beg pardon sir, no smoking on platforms’. ‘Ohm, then I’ll smoke in the carriage’.

By Victorian times we see separate smoking compartments on trains and in public houses (Smoke Rooms): upper class men, in smoking-jackets, retired to their libraries.

In the 20thc Alan Herbert (APH), writing in Punch Magazine, parodied the patronising and negative, medics, reflecting that the first instinct of institutions is repression. ‘Giving up smoking would ruin our nerves and make us incapable of honest toil’, he wrote

Most of the great novels and music might never have been written but for the ‘weed’. Britain could not have resisted invasion but for the symbolic Churchill cigar, and where would the troops have been without a ‘fag break’.

The unsmiling Puritans never take the holistic approach; have they ever considered the millions who need something to get through the day? The biggest problem in society is not nicotine, but something infinitely more dangerous!

On a personal note this Author is wont to get his best ideas through the cool, blue, haze of pipe smoke, whilst sitting in his den outside.

(1) It was a Frenchman Jean Nicot from which ‘nicotine’ is derived. He introduced tobacco to France in 1560 and it was from there, not the New World, that tobacco first reached England.

(2) Drysdale (1829-1907) also wrote, The Life of Thomas Malthus, as well as books on syphilis and the Evils of Prostitution.

Ref: wikipedia.org/charles_drysdale.

Ref: todayinsci.com/drysdale/letter.

Ref: victorianweb.org/periodical/punch/railway/Image of cartoon.


On Columbus’s second voyage, he found American Indians sniffing a strange powder (snuff). They also drank a tobacco-concoction medicinally, thought to be a cure for pox.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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