When you read about the extent of substance abuse in Victorian Britain, you could be forgiven for wondering how the British Empire ever became a going-concern in the first place. Those people who did not spend their days in a drunken stupor busied themselves instead with smoking, drinking, inhaling, ingesting or injecting themselves with just about any narcotic concoction that became available to them.
Take Queen Victoria herself as an example – it is on record that she used chloroform during the birth of her eighth child, Prince Leopold, in 1853, and it was so ‘delightful beyond measure’ that it was also used at the birth of her next, and last, child, Princess Beatrice, in 1857. The use of analgesics during childbirth was unusual at the time – good Christian women were expected to suffer during delivery (hadn’t God, after all, said to Eve,
“In pain thou shalt bring forth children”[Genesis 3:16])
- and Victoria’s decision to use the new anaesthetic was an unexpected move. Her favourite tipple was single malt Royal Lochnagar whisky mixed with fine claret, a combination that even the most seasoned of topers would think twice about tackling on a regular basis.
|White and Black Poppies|
We know that she suffered from menstrual cramps and in A System of Medicine, edited by her personal physician, Sir John Russell Reynolds, the remedies given are ether, lavender, henbane and cannabis indica, together with morphia suppositories, and there is every chance that he would have prescribed some permutation of these options for her Majesty’s monthlies, and like any other Victorian, she also would have used laudanum for pain relief, as was the norm back then. That is an important point. There were not the same restrictions on these substances that are in place today, and a Victorian would think no more of resorting to laudanum or morphine, as we would think of turning to paracetamol or ibuprofen to ease that persistent ache that bothers us.
|Dr Collis Browne's Chlorodyne|
Laudanum was an ingredient of many patent medicines that were easily available, one such being Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne, a mixture of laudanum, chloroform and tincture of cannabis, sold as a pain-killer, sedative and remedy for cholera, dysentery and diarrhoea (amongst other complaints). It was highly addictive and responsible for many accidental and deliberate deaths.
Other manufacturers produced their own chlorodynes, such as Freeman’s, Teasdale’s and Towle’s, competition was strong and local chemists would also mix their own, generic versions from recipes in the pharmacopoeias. Furthermore, as a medicine, there was no excise duty on laudanum, unlike alcohol, making it an attractive choice for recreational use.
|Dr Collis Browne's Chlorodyne|
In The Sign of Four, Sherlock Holmes takes his hypodermic from its neat morocco case, rolls back his left shirt-cuff, looks ‘thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks’ before he injects a seven per cent solution of cocaine into a vein.
So, not a infrequent user then, and Dr Watson disapproves, he is a doctor after all, but he is not shocked or surprised, his reaction is more that of your local general practitioner to one of today’s habitual smokers. It’s art, of a slight sort, reflecting life.
|Charles Dickens - Dictionary of London - 1882|
And in life itself, you had writers like Charles Dickens whose Dictionary of London, an early sort of tourist guide, helpfully pointed out where you might find ‘Johnny the Chinaman’ and his opium den if you found yourself adrift in the capital, (just off the Radcliffe Highway, down the narrow alley hard by Quashie’s Music Hall, if you’re interested, although I suspect it no longer receives clients. Limehouse, in particular, was also notorious for its opium dens). Punch, naturally, had a take on the situation.
|Punch - July 11 1912|
A cartoon of 1912 shows a slight young thing conversing with a monocled man-about-town, whilst in the background, judgemental ton ladies discuss her habit – they sniff,
“If it were only chloral, or even morphia, but laudanum, my dear, - laudanum is so frightfully middle-class."
The use of intoxicants was so widespread that some modern historians have called the period between 1870 and 1914 ‘The Great Binge’. When the Great War broke out, Harrods offered handy boxes containing cocaine, morphine, heroin and all the assorted paraphernalia, all packed and ready for shipment to our boys on the frontlines. Drugs were very cheap, easily available, totally unrestricted and were positively encouraged by the medical men – why suffer when the marvels of modern science could alleviate your many discomforts?
|Thomas Healde - The London Pharmacopoeia - 1796|
It’s Progress with a capital P, we’re not living in the Dark Ages any more, we can make all it go away and life can be free from all unnecessary suffering. Others yet went at it like a bull at a gate – they saw the squalor, the inequality, the hopelessness, the cruelty, the whole sorry mess that one tiny section of humanity was industriously inflicting on the rest of humanity and they sought any thankful oblivion from the nightmare that was on offer, with an admirable fin de siècle and millenarianistic zeal.
|In an opium den|
The figures are interesting in themselves; in 1850, opium imports into London amounted to 103,718 lbs, in the following year they increased to 118, 915 lbs, and in 1852, imports jumped to 250,790 lbs. Opium imports were one thing, but opium exports were quite another.