John Mitchinson on the warm haze of opioid bliss – for good and for ill – experienced by the Victorians.

If there ever was a golden age for hard drug use, it was the Victorian era. 

The widespread use of laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) had first been encouraged by the greatest English doctor of the 17th Century, Thomas Sydenham. He prescribed it for the relief of pain, anxiety, diarrhoea, coughs, insomnia – in fact, pretty much anything.

Its name derives from laudare, the Latin for ‘praise’ (like calling MDMA ‘ecstasy’), and praise it received from all corners of the land.

By the 1860s, in England, children under five were seven times more likely to die of opium poisoning than an adult over 35.

The roll call of famous laudanum users stretches way beyond the Romantic poets.

Dr Johnson took it originally to soothe ‘a troublesome cough’; Clive of India took it ‘for his bowels’; William Wilberforce ‘for his stomach complaints’; George III and George IV to ‘curb the irritation caused by drinking to excess’; Sir Walter Scott for stomach cramps; Elizabeth Barrett Browning for general ‘frailty’; Florence Nightingale to calm her nerves after the Crimea; Sarah Bernhardt to combat exhaustion. Even Jane Austen’s mum took it to ease ‘the exercise and fatigue of travelling’. 

Not all of them became addicted, but many of them did. A grain was 25 drops and the recommended medical dose for pain relief was no more than two grains every six hours. By 1815, De Quincey, who first used laudanum for rheumatic pain, was taking 320 grains/8,000 drops a day and Coleridge wasn’t far behind.

It wasn’t only the middle classes who turned to the new wonder drug.

In 1844, in his The Condition of the English Working Class, Freidrich Engels railed against the dependence of English workers and their children on laudanum-based concoctions such as Atkinson’s Infants’ Preservative, Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and Street’s Infant Quietness, which were used indiscriminately both as medicine and cheap alternatives to gin or beer, and had led to a “general enfeeblement in the frame of the working-class”. The net result was that, by the 1860s, in England, children under five were seven times more likely to die of opium poisoning than an adult over 35. 

If laudanum was the drug of choice for all sections of society in 19th Century England, there is one area of the UK that deserves special mention. Every country shop in the Fens stocked laudanum and itinerant salesmen sold it from farm to farm. Wherever people gathered in the Fens, opium was sold and no local beer was complete until a few drops had been added. Ely and Wisbech were the ‘Sodom & Gomorrah’ of the English opium trade: in 1867, Norfolk and Lincolnshire consumed half the opium imported into the country (30,000 lbs or 13,600 kg). 

Its name derives from laudare, the Latin for ‘praise’ (like calling MDMA ‘ecstasy’).

Despite the rising rates of addiction, and its largely unrecorded toll on the health of working people, laudanum remained easily available until the passing of the Dangerous Drugs Act in 1920.

So, when ‘Victorian values’ are next mentioned, it’s worth bearing in mind that many of the greatest achievements of that remarkable era were performed by people working in the warm haze of opioid bliss. 

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.


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