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Opium and Victorian Britain

Although opium has been imported to Britain for hundreds of years for medicinal purposes it was not until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that its use as a pharmaceutical panacea and exotic recreational drug became epidemic within all strata of British society. Prior to the 1868 Pharmacy Act which restricted the sale of opium to professional pharmacists, anyone could legally trade in opium products: by the middle of the nineteenth century hundreds of opium based potions, pill, and patent medicines were available to the general public. Among the most famous preparations were Dover’s Powders, initially marketed as a cure for gout; Godfey’s Cordial which was sold as a “soother” for crying babies; and laudanum, a tincture of opium in alcohol, which was both easily made and readily available (Berridge, 24).

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The widespread availability of the drug by the mid-nineteenth century was in no small part due to the expansion of the British Empire into India. In the eighteenth century opium had been imported chiefly from Turkey, which was not under British control. With the conquest of India Britain soon realised that the sub-continent could be utilised as a new source for the drug. In 1829 a physician called Dr. Webster exhibited at the Westminster Medical Society a specimen of pure opium which had been sent to him from Calcutta. Webster hoped that his fellow countrymen would see that “if it [opium] could be obtained from one colony, we should have it from thence rather … than we should go to the rascally Turks” (Berridge, 4). In 1830 permission was granted from London to extend the cultivation of the opium poppy in India. By 1832 a report commented that “the monopoly of opium in Bengal su…

…Edwin Drood (1870): its central character, John Jasper, is an opium addict who lives a seedy double life.

The wonder-drug of the early nineteenth century was finally being recognised as a dangerously addictive substance, although the interests of imperial traders kept it legal for another five decades, until the Dangerous Drugs Act was passed in 1920. This Act made it illegal to possess opiates without a doctor’s prescription.

Sources

Berridge, Virginia and Griffith Edwards. Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth Century England. London: Allen Lane, 1981.

Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. London: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. 1868. London: Oxford UP, 1982.

Hayter, Althea. “Wilkie Collins”. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Berkeley: U of California P, 1968.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. 1901. Ware: Wordsworth, 1994.

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