Opium; or, How it Became a “Dirty Drug”

By Stephen Basdeo

We live in an era in which, increasingly, governments in many western countries are realising that they are losing the so-called “War on Drugs”. Some countries have completely decriminalised certain substances, while in some states in the USA, you can buy marijuana over the counter for both medicinal and recreational use. Our attitude to illicit substances is increasingly looking not too dissimilar from that held by many people in the early nineteenth century.

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Stephen Carver and Sharon Ruston discussing 19th-Century Opium use.

To find out more about historical attitudes to drug use, in particular opium, I attended Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday 30 June and sat in on a panel entitled “The Opium Eaters”, featuring two experts on the subject: Professor Sharon Ruston and Dr Stephen Carver. Ruston is Professor of Literature at Lancaster University and specialises in Romantic-era literature, and Carver is a former “recovering” academic (self-described) who has spent a lifetime researching many things Victorian and particularly the “underworld”.

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Thomas De Quincey

The format of the discussion was just that: an informal chat about all things to do with nineteenth-century opium use and, importantly, its relationship to literature. During the discussion I learnt a lot from Ruston and Carver and I hope, if you’re reading this, that from the notes I took at the panel you will too!

Opium has been used by people as far back as Neolithic times, but it was a hot commodity in the nineteenth century; the British Empire fought two wars against China for the right to sell the substance in that country. And it was a popular substance with Britons as well: you could smoke it or eat it, or, you could drink laudanum, which is a mixture of strong alcohol and opium. It was an excellent form of pain relief; people took it to cure stomach upsets, toothache, back-aches, and nervous disorders. Its euphoric effects meant that it soon became a popular substance with literary and artistic types in the nineteenth century.

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De Quincey’s Opium Eater book

The writer who was one of the first to chronicle his experiences as an opium “addict” (I use the word carefully here as in this period there was little awareness that one could become addicted to opium) was Thomas De Quincey, who wrote Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821). De Quincey was born in Manchester in 1785 to fairly affluent parents but was a bit of a cad: constantly in debt, went through bouts of homelessness while evading creditors—he even lived with the Wordsworths for a while—and cavorted with 15 year old prostitutes. His book, written after a lifetime of opium eating, sought to give a readers a taste of both the pleasures of opium and the pain of opium.

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Laudanum might be used for a variety of complaints

De Quincey originally began eating opium to relieve toothache but he really enjoyed the “hit” that it gave him; the experience he described as “sublime”, which means beautiful, awe-inspiring, yet unnerving. It certainly made his nights on the town more enjoyable, often taking it before going out to the opera. His opium and alcohol infused nights did not always end well, however, for sometimes he was unable to find his way home. While under the influence, he was often known for starting random conversations with members of the public.

After his book was published, De Quincey came in for a lot of criticism: fans of opium were displeased as well: Dorothy Wordsworth (of all people) objected to De Quincey’s having demonized a drug which, quite frankly, everyone enjoyed.

The medical profession objected to the book’s glorification of a drug which, while not illegal, was certainly harmful and, given that these were nineteenth-century folks, certainly immoral. And the doctors at the time were fond of moralising; they had to break the stereotype of sinister crooks which had gathered around their profession since the Burke and Hare murders of the early 1800s, when a doctor in Scotland had employed the services of two murderers to acquire cadavers for his use.

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

When De Quincey was writing, opium could be purchased over the counter from an apothecary. It was not only the doctors who criticised the use of opium; Frederich Engels in the 1840s complained in The Condition of the Working Class in England that the working classes were being ‘enfeebled’ by ‘soothing syrups’, a by-word for opium.

It was surprising to learn from the discussion the extent to which the influence of and references to opium taking pervade nineteenth-century texts. My own favourite author, Walter Scott, was, I learnt for the first time, not averse to a dose or two of laudanum to calm his stomach. For a stomach complaint, laudanum was the worst thing Scott could have taken because it makes you constipated, and would have made the ageing Scot’s bowel complaints even worse. Apparently Scott wrote The Bride of Lammermore (1819) pretty much in an opium induced haze—having visited Abbotsford recently, I’d never have guessed that Scott’s grand old house was the site of drug taking!

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Scott’s famous home Abbotsford — evidently a site of drug-taking!

When De Quincey met Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), the pair of them recognised fellow users in each other. Coleridge’s life had pretty much followed a pattern similar to De Quincey’s; a fellow creative, the former was likewise heavily in debt and moved around a lot to avoid creditors—Coleridge likely had bipolar disorder, however, and probably used opium to relieve the symptoms. One of the panellists said that often nineteenth-century writers who used opium often had wonderful ideas but sometimes failed to carry them through to completion; this is very evident in the staggering number of unfinished works Coleridge left, many of which were published as ‘fragments’ after he died.

The tide soon turned against opium; the pharmacists were often looked at by the local community as being of equal weight to medical doctors; however, it was the medical profession’s desire to make themselves respectable in the public eye that led to their campaigning for the passage of the Pharmacy Act in 1868, which ruled that, from then on, dangerous drugs like opium had to be prescribed by a medical doctor.

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Buying drugs in the nineteenth century.

Thereafter, opium becomes something, not indulged in by artistic and literary bohemians but a thing that was taken in seedy opium dens, a borderline criminal act. There were actually very few opium dens in Britain in the nineteenth century, even if literary works like Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood (1870) and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray (1890) made it seem like they were on every street corner of London’s East End—a contemporary joke was that more opium dens existed in literature than in real life.

The major change in both the government’s and the public’s attitude can be seen in the passage of Dangerous Drugs Act (1928), a time when the community of opium takers was fairly small compared to numbers of people who took it in the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, as the panellists pointed out, drug taking, particularly hard drugs, continued to be a part of the creative process into the 1960s, in spite of the criminalisation of most major substances. What you could buy over the counter in the 1810s would, by the 1960s, land you with a potential criminal conviction.

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Carver signing copies of his book: The Nineteenth-Century Underworld (2018)

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