A Date with History

5th February 1805. Opium.


John Jones in his 1700, ‘Mysteries of Opium Revealed’, credited it not to dulling pain, but inducing ‘serenity’,‘promptitude‘,’alacrity‘, ‘euphory’, ‘contentation,’ and ‘equanimity’.

Many families were involved in the opium trade with even the Wordsworth’s investing £20,000 in John’s voyage on the earl of Abergavenny, a large sum for a family still living more or less hand to mouth in a tiny Cumbrian cottage with two bedrooms, stone floors, smoking chimneys and sheets of newspaper pasted on the walls. The convoy sailed for China carrying a cargo of silver dollars and the prospect of gain from opium, standing to gain up to £30,000, £1,000,000 in today’s money.

However disastrously for John Wordsworth his ship went down Today on 5th February 1805 after striking a sandbank off Portland Bill three days after setting sail. Two hundred and sixty passengers and crew drowned.

Opium in the late 18th and 19th centuries was the recreational drug and before the 1868 Pharmacy Act anyone could trade in opium products; The Society for the Suppression of Opium was founded in the same year.

The 19thc was the era of sinister opium dens in London and much cocaine use but 1910 saw the dismantling of the Indian-Chinese opium trade which the East India Company had controlled whereby India had the monopoly in growing and selling of prepared opium which brought a quarter of India’s revenue.

Imports rose six fold here between 1825 and 1850 and by 1870 income from its export accounted for no less than a fifth of tax revenues, mainly at the expense of the Chinese.

‘It keeps womenfolk quiet it do’ says the old Fenlander in Charles Kingsley’s, Alton Locke (1850) and was mothers’ little helper in childcare,  and one effect of the the 1868 Poisons and Pharmacy Act was to reduce infant mortality by opium overdose by two thirds.

Alcohol Opium Tincture and Laudanum freely available in pharmacies and grocers, was used to keep children quiet.

Art and literature flourished under the influence of opium or cocaine, from De Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater‘, to Coleridge, Shelley and Keats, later Charles Dickens where it featured in his unfinished ‘Mystery of Edward Drood’ with the seedy addiction of John Jasper. Kipling’s ‘Kim’ 1901 centred on the wide availability of opium.

Other partakers of the period included Wilberforce, Disraeli and Florence Nightingale, with many taking drugs to ease pain.

The popular novelist and intellectual Mrs Humphrey Ward, who suffered ill-health, recorded: ‘my syringe and my needle, like my toothbrush and prayer book, are sacrosanct. I would not dream of allowing my best friend to share them’.

Novels such as the Moonstone 1868 by Wilkie Collins used opium as a plot-device for both medicinal and exotic deviant association. Collins had an ambivalent attitude towards opiates shown when Francis Blake steals a diamond against his knowledge as he had secretly had his drink laced with laudanum. The publication of the book coincided with 1868 Act.(1).

Refined ladies after enjoying afternoon tea would bare their arms and inject each other to relieve the ennui up until WWI.(2)

Opium the once wonder drug continued to be big business by big imperial trader interests until the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920 which banned cocaine, though amphetamine-based products such as Benzedrine could still be bought over the counter in the Fifties.

(1) Collins used laudanum and injected morphine.

(2) Reported by Sarah Phelps who wrote The Crimson Field for BBC TV broadcast in April 2014, who had read ‘All these Edwardian ladies diaries saying they used to have morphine parties which explains why they joined the VAD to nurse the soldiers.

Ref: talkingdrugs.org/Pic.

Ref: Opium-Realites Dark Dream. Thomas Dormandy, Yale 2012.

Ref: Opium and Empire in Victorian Britain

Ref Wilkie Collins Hutchinson 2013.

Mary Augusta Ward re Humphreys Nb Matthew Arnold.