Today it is hard to believe, but in early- and mid-Victorian Britain it was possible to walk into a chemist’s shop and buy without prescription laudanum, cocaine, and even arsenic. Opium preparations were also sold freely in towns on market halls and in the countryside by travelling hawkers.
Until 1868, the sale of drugs was practically unrestricted, and they could be bought like any other commodity. (Mitchell 228) During the Industrial Revolution drug use in England grew rampant, particularly among the working classes. (Meier 138) Drugs were brought to Britain from every corner of the expanding British Empire and the amount of opium sale was particularly staggering. (Parssinen 49) Dangerous drugs were commonly used for making home remedies and less frequently as a recreation for the bored and alienated people. The recreational use of opiates was popular particularly with pre-Victorian and Victorian artists and writers.
There was no moral condemnation of the use of opiates and their use was not regarded as addiction but rather as a habit in the Victorian period. However, when in the 1860s, “Dark England” with its opium dens in London’s East End was described in popular press and books, various individuals and religious organisations began to campaign against unrestricted opium trafficking. In 1868, the Pharmacy Act recognised dangerous drugs and limited their sale to registered chemists and pharmacists, but until the end of the nineteenth century few doctors and scientists warned about the dangers of drug addiction.
The Romantic Legacy
Drugs (mostly opium and its derivatives) were used for both medicinal and recreational purposes by the Romantic era writers, such as Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). De Quincey described minutely the non-medical use of opiates in his book, Confessions of an Opium-Eater (1821). He “ate opium” in the shape of pills or pellets. Coleridge, who suffered from neuralgic and rheumatic pains, tried to relieve them by opium or its derivatives. It is believed that he composed his famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” in a dream induced by laudanum. Coleridge struggled with his drug dependence all his life. His daughter, Sara (1802-1852) confided to a friend that she was unable to sleep without laudanum. Other poets, including Lord Byron, John Keats, and Percy Shelley, took laudanum from a vial for medicinal and recreational uses. Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), a mathematical genius and the first computer programmer, became addicted to laudanum having been prescribed it for asthma.
Opium and Opium Derivatives
The narcotic and painkilling properties of opium have been known since prehistoric times. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, opium was produced in some areas of Egypt, Asia Minor and Bengal. Opium and its various derivatives were marketed as a medicine and also as a recreational drug throughout Asia. “The trade in opium to China was begun by the Portuguese and the Dutch as early as the seventeenth century, but it did not attain major proportions until after the British had taken Bengal in 1757” (Trocki 53). By 1830, the British had become the major drug-traffickers in the world. The British Empire supported opium trafficking to China, which was an enormous market. The Opium Act of 1878 strengthened the role of opium as a cornerstone of the British imperial economic policy in the Far East.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, as a result of the expanding British Empire, opium also became available in Britain and soon it was as popular as alcohol. However, the bulk of opium imports to Britain came not from India but from Turkey. “Turkish opium, noted for its strength and high quality, usually provided between 80 and 90% of Britain’s total import of the drug, only losing some of its preeminence in the late seventies and eighties when the Persian variety was more widely imported.” (Berridge 438) Opium and opium derivatives were widely recognised in Victorian Britain as a ‘cure all’ and the range of opiate preparations on the market was enormous.
Medical texts of the time list opiate electuary, powder of chalk with opium, opiate confection, powder of ipecacuanha and opium (Dover’s Powder), tincture of soap and opium, liquorice troches with opium, wine of opium (Sydenham’s Laudanum), vinegar of opium, extract of opium, opiate clyster, suppositories, opium liniment, plaster of opium, and two of the most noted compounds — tincture of opium, or laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, and the camphorated tincture, known as paregoric elixir. [Berridge 440]
The most popular opium derivative was laudanum, a tincture of opium mixed with wine or water. Laudanum, called the ‘aspirin of the nineteenth century,’ was widely used in Victorian households as a painkiller, recommended for a broad range of ailments including cough, diarrhea, rheumatism, ‘women’s troubles’, cardiac disease and even delirium tremens. Many notable Victorians, who used laudanum as a painkiller, included Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Bram Stoker, Gabriel Dante Rossetti, and his wife Elizabeth Siddal, who died of an overdose of laudanum in 1862. Wilkie Collins used laudanum for the pain of gout and other maladies.
Patent and Proprietary Medicines
Opium derivatives were also used in many patent medicines and sold without a prescription in great quantities in Victorian general stores and apothecaries. The most popular patent medicines which contained opium or its derivatives were Kendal Black Drop, Godfrey’s Cordial, Dover’s Powder, Dalby’s Carminative, McMunn’s Elixir, Batley’s Sedative Solution, and Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup (Hayter 31). Opium and its derivatives were used as cheap homemade mixtures.
Opium most infamous use in Victorian Britain was as infants’ quietener (Parssinen 42). Children were often given Godfrey’s Cordial (also called Mother’s Friend), consisting of opium, water, treacle, to keep them quiet. The potion had pernicious effects and resulted in deaths and severe illnesses of babies and children. It was recommended for colic diarrhea, vomiting, hiccups, pleurisy, rheumatism, catarrhs, and cough. Twenty or twenty-five drops of laudanum could be bought for a penny. Raw opium was often sold in pills or sticks (Berridge 440).
Other opium derivatives included paregoric (camphorated opium tincture), widely used to control diarrhea in adults and children, and Gee’s Linctus (opiate squill linctus) for cough relief. There were also proprietary medicines, remedies whose formula was owned exclusively by the manufacturer and which were marketed usually under a name registered as a trademark. One of the most popular remedies, introduced in 1857, was Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, which according to the advertisement, “assuages pain of every kind, affords a calm, refreshing sleep without headache, and invigorates the nervous system when exhausted” (Hodgson 105).
Opium consumption in the low-lying marshy Fens, covering parts of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Norfolk, attracted a particular attention of doctors and social investigators. Dr. Julian Hunter noted, when reporting to the Privy Council in 1864:
A man in South Lincolnshire complained that his wife had spent £100 on opium since he married. A man may be seen occasionally asleep in a field leaning on his hoe. He starts when approached, and works vigorously for a while. A man who is setting about a hard job takes his pill as preliminary, and many never take their beer without dropping a piece of opium into it. [Berridge 440]
In the Fens opium addiction, which was called “elevation, ” is briefly described in Charles Kingsley‘s Alton Locke (1850). Farmer Porter says to Alton Locke while driving him toward Cambridge that women are frequent purchasers of opium in the Fens.
“Oh! ho! ho! — yow goo into druggist’s shop o’ market-day, into Cambridge, and you’ll see the little boxes, doozens and doozens, a’ ready on the counter; and never a ven-man’s wife goo by, but what calls in for her pennord o’ elevation, to last her out the week. Oh! ho! ho! Well, it keeps women-folk quiet, it do; and it’s mortal good agin ago pains.” “But what is it?” “Opium, bor’ alive, opium!” [116 ]
Women made a substantial part of the addicted Victorian population, and were, as a rule, more medicated than men. A number of patent drugs and proprietary medicines containing opium or its derivatives, were called ‘women’s friends’. Doctors prescribed widely opiates for ‘female troubles’, associated with menstruation and childbirth, or fashionable ‘female maladies’, such as the vapours, which included hysteria, depression, fainting fits, and mood swings.
Cocaine was first extracted from coca leaves in 1860 by the German chemist Albert Niemann, but its commercial production was delayed until the 1880s, when it became popular in the medical community. Cocaine lozenges were recommended as effective remedies for coughs, colds and toothaches in the Victorian era. It was believed in the nineteenth century that cocaine had therapeutic effects and it was often prescribed in the treatment of indigestion, melancholia, neurasthenia. Cocaine was also used as an anesthetic. (Pearce 227).
In 1863, an ingenious Corsican-born French chemist, Angelo Mariani, made a fortune selling a new beverage called Vin Mariani or Elixir Mariani. The tonic, which was made from coca leaves, was regarded as a wonder medicine for a variety of ailments. It was advertised that it fortifies and refreshes body and brain, restores health and vitality. In Britain, the effects of this coca wine were praised, amongst others, by Queen Victoria, Rudyard Kipling, and Edward Elgar (Dormandy 374). Two glasses of Vin Mariani were believed to contain about 50 milligrams of pure cocaine.
Cocaine was also used in a number of patent medicines. From the 1880s to the 1920s coca was even advised by pharmacists for relieving vomiting in pregnancy, and cocaine wool was recommended to relieve toothache.
In the mid- and late-Victorian period doctors and pharmacists’ organisations attempted to formulate a “professional ethic” and called for more stringent control of the sale of opiates and poisons. Constant drug use was regarded as an addiction rather than a moral weakness. Gradually, quinine and chloral replaced opiates as recommended remedies for fever and sleeplessness.
The famous authority on good household management, Mrs. Beeton, included opium in the list of home remedies in her famous book, Mrs Beeton’s Household Management (1861), but she warned against the abuse of this drug. “Selfish and thoughtless nurses, and mothers too, sometimes give cordials and sleeping draughts, whose effects are too well known.” (975)
References to Drug Use in Victorian Literature
Victorian literature contains numerous references to drug use, particularly opium and its derivatives. Authors who wrote about the use of opium were, amongst others, Anne and Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (1837) Sam Weller wittingly remarks: “There’s nothin’ so refreshin’ as sleep, sir, as the servant-girl said afore she drank the egg-cupful of laudanum.” (31). Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) brought infamous London opium dens to public awareness. One of them is described in the opening passage:
Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around. He is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable court. He lies, dressed, across a large unseemly bed, upon a bedstead that has indeed given way under the weight upon it. Lying, also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing at a kind of pipe, to kindle it. 
Opium is also mentioned in Anne Brontë’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) and Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (1853). Branwell Brontë, a compulsive laudanum addict, was most probably Anne’s model for Lord Lowborough in Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (Foxcroft 51)
In William Makepeace Thackeray’s Catherine: A Story (1840), published under the pseudonym of Ikey Solomons, Jr., the heroine buys from several apothecaries small portions of laudanum for a toothache and brews it in punch. In Vanity Fair (1847-48), Becky Sharp keeps a bottle of laudanum in her room, which was a common practice in Victorian England. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848), John Barton intoxicates himself with opium “in response to his anger and depression over extreme poverty and lack of employment prospects.” (Aikens 27)
The dream atmosphere of Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland (1865) evokes the effect of opiates. As Kristina Aikens notes:
the substances Alice consumes in Wonderland are never called drugs specifically, but her encounters with mysterious bottles filled with strange substances, cakes imprinted with injunctions to consume them, hookah-smoking caterpillars, and magical mushrooms — all of which appear to Alice in a dreamspace, and which distort her sense of her body, space, time and logic — have become associated in the popular imagination (today’s at least) with drug consumption. 
Wilkie Collins, who took opium from the early 1860s in the form of laudanum to alleviate the symptoms of gout and rheumatic pain, used the motif of drug addiction in the plot of his famous novel, The Moonstone (1868).
George Eliot mentions opium use in several of her novels. In Silas Marner (1861), the miserable Molly Farren is addicted to opium. In Middlemarch (1871-72), Dr Lydgate finds in opium a brief relief from his problems and Will Ladislaw looks in vain for artistic inspiration in opium, and in Daniel Deronda (1876), Hans Meyrick confides in Daniel that he has been trying opium.
“I’ve been smoking opium. I always meant to do it some time or other, to try how much bliss could be got by it; and having found myself just now rather out of other bliss, I thought it judicious to seize the opportunity. But I pledge you my word I shall never tap a cask of that bliss again. It disagrees with my constitution.” [670-71 ]
Likewise, in Felix Holt, The Radical (1866), Maurice Christian, who suffers from ‘nervous pains’, takes opium frequently.
In Thomas Hardy’s Trumpet Major (1880), Bob Loveday falls unconscious because he drank poppy head tea.
‘I fell in slipping down the topsail halyard — the rope, that is, was too short — and I fell upon my head. And then I went away. When I came back I thought I wouldn’t disturb ye: so I lay down out there, to sleep out the watch; but the pain in my head was so great that I couldn’t get to sleep; so I picked some of the poppy-heads in the border, which I once heard was a good thing for sending folks to sleep when they are in pain. So I munched up all I could find, and dropped off quite nicely.’ [272-273]
It is alleged that cocaine gave inspiration to Robert Louis Stevenson to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). Dr. Jekyll concocted a strange potion which transforms him into the evil Mr. Hyde. Although, the content of Jekyll’s mind altering potion is not revealed, there is little doubt that he was addicted to some psychotropic potion.
There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine. 
There are many references to opium in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). In Chapter 16, the unageing Dorian visits an opium den in the East End.
As Dorian hurried up its three rickety steps, the heavy odour of opium met him. He heaved a deep breath, and his nostrils quivered with pleasure. When he entered, a young man with smooth yellow hair, who was bending over a lamp lighting a long thin pipe, looked up at him and nodded in a hesitating manner. […] Dorian winced and looked round at the grotesque things that lay in such fantastic postures on the ragged mattresses. The twisted limbs, the gaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes, fascinated him. He knew in what strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells were teaching them the secret of some new joy. 
Apart from descriptions of opium use, we can also find in Victorian literature descriptions of morphine and cocaine use. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Dr Jack Seward, the administrator of an insane asylum in Carfax, is a morphine addict. His former teacher, Professor Van Helsing administers blood transfusion and morphine to Lucy Westenra before she turns into a vampire. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the great detective occasionally shoots himself up with cocaine because he believes that it stimulates his brain when he is not on a case.
The widespread use of psychoactive drugs (particularly opium) in Victorian Britain affected all classes of society, but their use was not regarded as a serious social and medical problem until the early twentieth century, when doctors began to warn about the dangers of addiction. Ultimately, the use of drugs was banned in Britain by the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1920.
References and Further Reading
- Abrams, M.H. The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of DeQuincey, Crabbe, Francis Thompson, and Coleridge. New York: Octagon Books, 1971.
- Aikens, Kristina. A Pharmacy of Her Own: Victorian Women and the Figure of the Opiate. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest, 2008.
- Beeton, Isabella Mary. Mrs Beeton’s Household Management. Ware, Hertforshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2006.
- Berridge, Victoria. “Victorian Opium Eating: Responses to Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England,” Victorian Studies, 21(4) 1978, 437-461.
- Berridge, Virginia, and Griffith Edwards. Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England. London: Allen Lane, 1981.
- Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. London: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
- Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London: Chapman and Hall, 1870.
- ____. The Pickwick Papers. Vol. II. New York: W. A. Townsend, 1861.
- Eliot, George. Daniel Deronda. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Foxcroft, Louise. The Making of Addiction: The ‘Use and Abuse’ of Opium in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007.
- Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill, NC.: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
- Grinspoon, Lester, James B. Bakalar. Cocaine: A Drug and Its Social Evolution. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
- Hardy, Thomas. The Trumpet-Major. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
- Hayter, Alethea. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.
- Hodgson, Barbara. In the Arms of Morpheus: The Tragic History of Morphine, Laudanum and Opium and Patent Medicines. Vancouver: Greystone Books Ltd, 2001.
- Kingsley, Charles, Alton Locke. Tailor and Poet. An Autobiography. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1857.
- Inglis, Brian. The Forbidden Game: A Social History of Drugs. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975.
- McCormack, Kathleen. George Eliot and Intoxication: Dangerous Drugs for the Condition of England. New York: Saint Martin’s, 2000.
- Milligan, Barry. Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient in Nineteenth-Century British Culture. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.
- Meier, William M. Property Crime in London, 1850-Present. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.
- Mitchell, Sally, ed. Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia. Abingdon, New York: Routledge, 2012.
- Parssinen, Terry M. Secret Passions, Secret Remedies: Narcotic Drugs in British Society, 1820-1930. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Values, 1983.
- Pearce, D.H. “Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle and Cocaine,” Journal of the History of the Neurosciences: Basic and Clinical Perspectives, 3(4), 1994, 227-232.
- Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2005.
- Trocki, Carl A. Opium and Empire: Chinese Society in Colonial Singapore, 1800-1910. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 1990.
- Tromp, Marlene. Altered States: Sex, Nation, Drugs, and Self-Transformation in Victorian Spiritualism. Albany: State of New York University Press, 2006.
- Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. New Lanark: Geddes & Grosset, 2001.
- Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard Uuniversity Press, 1983.