Drugs in Victorian Britain

An Opium-den in the East End of London. Wellcome Images

An Opium-den in the East End of London. Wellcome Images

My interest in Victorian medicine started at university and peaked with my dissertation on opiates’ metamorphosis from remedy to public enemy. There is something rich and romantic about the Victorians and their drugs. The works of Thomas de Quincey, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens all owe more than a little to potent drugs that were freely available in their time. But the 19th century pharmacopoeia was actually much more mundane: most of the populace were taking these newly-illegal drugs for the common complaints of cold, cough and toothache.

February’s Wellcome Collection symposium, Drugs in Victorian Britain, saw a range of speakers exploring aspects of the many common remedies taken throughout the 19th century, as well as the more exotic experimental drugs. There was the drug as inspiration, the drug as medicine and the drug as a menace.

The symposium opened with an evening of performance by The Magic Lantern, a fantastical show that echoed the psychedelic phantasmagoria, a Victorian pre-cursor to cinema. The creativity and imagination of the show was matched with great technological prowess. It was particularly fitting for the symposium: Thomas De Quincey, in his work Confessions of An Opium Eater, states that a philosopher who takes opium will experience a phantasmagoria of dreams.

The following day, five speakers were introduced by Mike Jay. Jay is the author and cultural historian who co-curated Wellcome Collection’s ‘High Society. He expressed relief that we are now beginning to have a ‘grown-up’ conversation about current illegal drugs, and said that the day would be a chance to look at how some of these drugs came into society. The 19th century was a crucial period of drug-taking development both in terms of potency and plurality. The Victorians took not just alcohol and opium but cannabis, coca, mescal, and with the invention of the hypodermic needle in the 1840s, morphine and heroin. The 19th century was also the origin of drug control, and the medicalisation of addiction to these substances.

The first speaker was Dinah Birch. She offered a look at what these drugs meant in the context of Victorian society. Victorians are often mocked for the prudery and restraint, but they seem to have been venturesome and even wild in their pursuit of altered mind states. What can explain this? Birch supposed that Victorian austerity was part of an inclination to sensation seeking. The high from success and the high of narcotics are partners in pleasure. She quoted Edmund Burke, who said, “under the pressure of the cares and sorrows of our mortal condition men have at all times called in some physical aid to their moral consolations.” Victorians were not unique in their interests but drug-taking was important to their culture, and the promotion of drugs by industry, particularly the still legal tobacco, tea, coffee and alcohol cemented this status in Victorian Britain.

Birch also talked about the development of a serious scientific culture towards the middle of the 19th century that led to self-experimentation with drugs. This topic was picked up by historian Dr Michael Neve. His readings of three separate accounts of drug experimentation by S. Weir Mitchell, Henry Havelock Ellis and Mark William James demonstrated an eagerness to understand more about the mind, the body, and the connection between altered states of the mind and something more spiritual. Experimentation and exploration led to enlightened thinking.

Next, Stuart Anderson, Associate Dean at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, took us on a tour of the Victorian pharmacy. Most Victorians were poor and life was hard: drugs and medicines were vital. Chemists were available for free whereas doctors were not, and most Victorians got their drugs over the counter, without a prescription. The wide range of these drugs was intriguing. The Victorian chemist stocked not only patent and proprietary medicines, ready made, but nostrums made by himself and raw ingredients for home remedies. There was laudanum for dysentery, chlorodyne for coughs and cold, camphorated tincture of opium for asthma. Opium pills were coated in varnish for the working class, silver for the rich, and gold for the very rich. Angelic children frolicked on the bottles of Ayers Cherry Pectoral, a mixture of alcohol and opium that would now be deemed a poison. Coca leaf, from which cocaine is now obtained, was advertised as a nerve and muscle tonic, to “appease hunger and thirst” and to relieve sickness.

Anderson’s presentation was the most entertaining of the day. Delight rippled through the audience when he showed a slide of a small chemist’s shop in Nottingham with the name “J Boot”. Another laugh was raised when he announced that Pope Leo the 13th had awarded the cocaine-laced Mariani Wine a Vatican gold medal.

English lecturer Julian North was next and gave an overview overview of the influence of drugs on Victorian literature. She ranged from the obvious: Princess Puffer in Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes shooting up cocaine, to the more subtle. Although Charlotte Bronte never experimented with drugs, there are apparent influences of her brother’s opium addiction in her writing.

North highlighted an aspect of Victorian society that was touched on by Dinah Birch: division. On the outside, the Victorian is socially respectable, underneath they are bubbling away. This reverberates in their literature. It is most notable in the transformation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. (Allegedly, Stevenson wrote the novel during a six day cocaine binge.) Bronte’s character Lucy Snow is outwardly mousey; inwardly passionate and imaginative. Jasper John from Edwin Drood is a choirmaster who visits opium dens. The unageing Dorian Grey is angelic and beautiful but locked away is his horrifying portrait. Thrill-seeking Sherlock Holmes says, “I abhor the dull routine of existence, I crave metal stimulation.”

It is no accident that drugs in Victorian culture are entwined with the emergence of detective literature. Opium and cocaine, like detection, held the power to trace back and uncover our darkest motives. Sometimes these drugs are portrayed as crimes, accomplices to murder. But they are also portrayed as a liberation, a fight against the boredom of respectability. Victorian writing anticipates our thoughts about what drugs can do to us.

Michael Neve’s exploration of personal drug narratives on mescal, peyote, nitrous oxide produce some wonderful quotes. “It is the most democratic of the plants which lead men to an artificial paradise” wrote Henry Havelock Ellis of mescal. A phrase like this is a far cry from the mundane use of laudanum for toothache. He wrote that under the influence of mescal, the world becomes sublime. And from the sublime to the ridiculous, Neve suggested that Havelock Ellis’s description of eating a biscuit during his experimentation led to the naming of satirical band Half Man Half Biscuit nearly 100 years later.

Historian Louise Foxcroft was the final speaker of the day. She asked, what is addiction? It has been recognized as a medical problem since the middle of the 19th century. But is it a sin, a crime, a vice or a disease?

The medicalisation of addiction came with the growth of the scientific profession and the medial market place. There was a growth of specialism and new terminology. First there was the inebriate, then the addict, later the morphinomaniac, who took his place between the neurotic and the melancholic. Christian evangelists regarded addiction as a sin linked to the story of Adam and Eve. George Beard, an American doctor, argued that addiction was an eminently treatable, heritable disease related to the quality of brain nerve tissue. Addicts were often treated brutally, with scalding baths, mustard plasters, and physical force, all applied with contempt. The addict himself was seen as the source of the problem and treated without looking at his environment.

Foxcroft noted that not a lot has changed on this topic. There is still question of what an addict is. And how do we treat them? Victorian morphine addicts were weaned off their “demon” with heroin. Now the substitute is methadone. Do we need to get away from the Victorian method of looking at the individual, and rather look at society?

The symposium ended with a round table discussion chaired by writer and critic Brian Dillon. Mephedrone reared its head. Michael Neve remarked that we saw a bit of the 19th century in the press treatment of “miaow miaow”, with the focus on individual stories of drug taking and little subjective analysis. We are at least moving away from the Victorian medicine cabinet to manufactured drugs, synthesized specifically for the needs and desires of our current lives.

The bottom line was that there is a very radical drive within human nature to find ways of transcending the mundane. Our current situation with illegal drugs here might seem the result of a very modern society, but our relationship with narcotic substances goes back a long way, to Victoria and beyond.

Louise Crane is a Picture Researcher at the Wellcome Library.