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.

A taste of the Museum Mile

The Museum Mile

The Museum Mile

Wellcome Collection is just one of the newest additions to a part of London crammed with museums both big and small. Natalie Coe set off to find out how many she could visit in a day…

Whilst Henry Wellcome was keen to showcase his dazzling collection of artefacts, the primary purpose of his collection was to aid future scientific research and a comprehensive understanding of man. His original target audience was, therefore, medical experts, scientific researchers and other people ‘of import’, not necessarily the ordinary members of the public that wander into Wellcome Collection today. Nowadays, the latest manifestation of Henry’s ambitions for a ‘museum of man’ is well and truly on the map for tourists and curious locals alike. In fact, its prominent position on London’s Euston Road means that it is even on the ‘Museum Mile’ map – a handy guide to 12 publicly accessible museums within one mile of each other stretching from Euston Road down to the Strand. It is particularly handy for us Visitor Services Assistants on Mondays when Wellcome Collection galleries are closed and we need to appease disappointed visitors with other ideas for their day out! But last week I decided it was about time I made use of the leaflet in the way it was intended and embarked on Museum Mile myself.

12 museums in a day seems somewhat ambitious and potentially overwhelming but local organisation Inmidtown offers a day’s walking tour of all the museums so it must be doable. On reflection, it doesn’t actually dictate that you have to do them all in one go. But is the guide useful for those with a measly couple of hours spare as I had? I figured my time restrictions were fairly representative of a busy Londoners’ life and therefore that it was worth finding out.

The adventure began at the British Library, number 1 on the map. Firstly, I visited their current exhibition ‘Evolving English’. I was not concerned with getting a comprehensive overview or missing out on things as I was conscious of time constraints; instead I headed straight past all the crowds to a fun looking quiz exhibit. Through this I immediately managed to learn some very interesting facts. For example, that the cockney rhyming slang for teeth is Hampstead Heath; that the first dictionary was produced in the 17th century; and that sofa, jar, admiral and algebra are all Arabic words. Language seems a difficult thing to exhibit (in a different way to something provocative like High Society), but the number of texts on display were well dispersed amongst engaging interactive displays. I also had time to turn the pages of a virtual version of William Blake’s notebook in the foyer and stick my head in the ‘Growing knowledge: impact of social media’ room. This was a reminder that the British Library is primarily seen as a place for research, but the sunny courtyard was full of all sorts of people taking lunch breaks from both study and day-tripping alike. The library is an impressive building too, worth contemplating further but time was of the essence and I had already filled my allotted 20 minutes so time for museum number two.

According to the leaflet, the British Museum was next. This was a bit baffling given it was not geographically next on the route but I dutifully made my way to Great Russell Street. In retrospect, the numbers are probably referring to the podcast and I should have followed my common sense to Wellcome Collection or the UCL collections first. But still, I had had my eye on a t-shirt there and that was enough motivation to continue. The walk there was very pleasant, past The Place, which I had always wondered how to get to, and down Woburn Walk, a lovely street I recognised from a Wellcome Collection guided walk. London really is best experienced by foot, especially given its organic structure of windy streets, nooks and crannies. The extent to which Londoners walk, or at least use public transport, also has the ironic benefit of making city-dwellers ‘greener’ than those in the countryside (as discussed in the book accompanying our current Dirt exhibition). Next, I enjoyed sauntering through the green Tavistock square gardens and Russell Square, both seemingly full of students doing film-making projects. I had to try not to stop and people-watch too much in fear of turning a Museum trip into ethnographic fieldwork! I wondered at this point how much Museum Mile was about the museums and how much it was simply a great way to get out and about, rediscover some London streets and be reminded how green the city is for a bustling metropolis. Additionally, I loved wandering about with a notebook in hand as if I was somewhere new and exotic, not just in the backyard of where I work and live.

Unlike me, most of the hundreds of people I could see as I approached the British Museum did appear to be tourists or, more specifically, massive school groups with matching tabards and frantic teachers. Inside, the British Museum was looking as beautifully majestic as always and worth a visit for its domed glass ceiling alone. After marvelling at the architecture, I headed straight to buy the aforementioned t-shirt and see if I could find any Museum Mile leaflets, which I couldn’t. Perhaps somewhere as big as the British Museum doesn’t need to be in a Museum Mile leaflet! Still pressed for time I dived into a small exhibition on Sikh fortress turbans that caught my eye and was impressed by the contemporary audio accounts of Sikh turban wearers.

I was by now feeling the pressure of cramming so much culture in before work and left for the next destination: Brunei Gallery at SOAS. On approaching, however, I had a hunch that my plans to visit might be scuppered. From quite a distance I could see banners hanging from the surrounding university buildings and was reminded of the current occupation in protest at government cuts. As I got closer I sensed an almost party-like atmosphere and my hunch was confirmed as I saw a picket line in front of the doors to the Brunei gallery. I wasn’t expecting my first confrontation with a picket line to be while attempting Museum Mile! Some people were entering the building but it felt a bit inappropriate for me to go in just to tick another museum off the list, so I sat outside for a bit and gazed enviously at the people who had time to join the massive queue for free food from the Hare Krishna stall. I wonder if the Brunei Gallery would have been as interesting as all the commotion outside? The contrast between London’s vibrant hustle and bustle and the quiet sanctuary of its smaller museums is always quite remarkable.

Unfazed, my next stop was the Charles Dickens museum, a museum I hadn’t been to before. I had so far been fine with fleeting trips to museums I already knew (and that were free!) but the thought of rushing a visit to a new one was rather traumatic so I really wanted to make the most of this one. The walk here again took me past a lovely green space: Coram’s Fields – a fantastic community facility and an interesting historic site linked to the Foundling Museum, also on Museum Mile. Before arriving at the Dickens museum, I succumbed to a detour to a nearby cafe called the Espresso Room which I had found using another handy leaflet that recommends the best places for coffee in London. So two ‘box-ticking’ exercises collided; I could now tick off numbers 1–3 of the museums and number 8 on the coffee map! It seems absurd to reduce a day out to a ‘to-do list’ but in this case, I found the structured adventure rather enjoyable; perhaps such box ticking lends itself more to areas that you thought you already knew and need forcing to explore more. Walking around London also seemed to make you more open to conversations with strangers – I ended up spending quite a while chatting over coffee, longer than strict adherence to Museum Mile would allow for! There was, therefore, not enough time for me to do justice to the Dickens museum and unfortunately this is where my small taster of Museum mile ended.

This was a only a brief introduction to Museum Mile but it served to illustrate what a good resource it is for getting you out and about and seeing things you wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, like picket lines! Personally, I find it more appealing for re-visiting museums I’m already familiar with than for facilitating a whistle stop tour of a new museum. But I’m sure the walking tour or hour long downloadable podcast would offer more than enough insight about particular objects to make a visit feel suitably in-depth. Besides, I managed to get more from each museum in the allotted 20 minutes than I had anticipated. Though there is a slight risk of museum fatigue, Museum Mile is an exciting way to experience museums in a new context; in relation to each other, as well as in the context of the local area or community, instead of just as a solitary institution. And while it is potentially stressful or counter-productive to visit museums just for the sake of getting through a list, it does take you off the beaten track and into the smaller museums like the UCL collections or Sir John Soane’s that I can’t wait to go back and visit. Of course, you don’t have to stick to the leaflet religiously anyway. Perhaps it works best if you use it as a starting point, or inspiration for taking advantage of the wealth of culture that these museums offer to the public in a way that Henry Wellcome didn’t consider! So you don’t need to feel bad about spending some time in the shop or having coffee with a stranger en route.

Natalie Coe is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Donate your dust

Watercolour painting of the Great Dust Heap

The Great Dust-Heap. Watercolour painting by E. H. Dixon, 1837. Wellcome Images

Here at Wellcome Collection our appetite for collecting has become insatiable. Last month we wanted your Things… now we’re after your dust. It’s for a special project connected to our forthcoming Dirt exhibition.  The project is called ‘Laid to Rest’, and the artist commissioned to produce it, Serena Korda, would like to tell you more…

I have a slightly odd request for you (but seeing as I’m talking to the incurably curious I’m sure you won’t find this too strange!). I am currently asking people to contribute to my project ‘Laid to Rest‘ by giving me a sample of their dust.  ‘Why?’ I can tell you want to ask.  Well it’s all been inspired by the commercialisation of waste in Victorian London, in particular the dust heap that once existed on Gray’s Inn Rd that was a mile high by a mile wide.  This now surreal monument to the invisible was once a great source of income for many Victorians. Dickens immortalised the heap in ‘Our Mutual Friend‘ with his character Mr. Boffin the ‘Golden Dustman’, and allegedly when London wanted to get rid of the heap it was sold off to Russia (to be used as part of the foundations of St Petersberg) for the incredible sum of £20,000.

The heap was also used in the development of many industries and in particular London brick–making: ash, cinders and rubbish from the heap were mixed with the clay of nearby brick fields to produce the humble brick.

In ‘Laid to Rest’, the dust that you donate will be transformed into a brick and  will become part of a time capsule of 500 commemorative bricks. Your dust sample will be mixed with clay to form a brick which will be imprinted with your initials and a number, cataloguing your dust’s transformation from the barely visible to the palpable.

Your brick will be exhibited as part of’ ‘Dirt’ at Wellcome Collection from 24th March- 31st August. 2011. Over the course of the exhibition you will be invited to a series of events that will ritualise the bricks, elevating them to the status of folk mythology.  Once the exhibition is over the stack of bricks will travel in procession on a horse drawn carriage through the streets of London and be buried in a hole.

Only the first 300 samples will be guaranteed a place in the time capsule, so be one of the first to complete and send in your dust collection envelope.

To be part of this modern-day folk object, all you have to do is pick up a dust collection envelope from the information desk here at Wellcome Collection, fill it up with dust and send it back to

Laid to Rest
♯142, 372 Old Street
Rosden House

Envelopes are also available from UP Projects, please contact donateyourdust@upprojects.com or call 0207 377 9677. Or you can fill in our form, telling us more about your dust and why you’d like us to collect it.

To find out more and follow the progress of the project, visit my blog. Looking forward to receiving your dust!

Find out more about Serena Korda’s work at www.serenakorda.com.