Around the World in 80 Days: Week 3 – Victorian Drug Use

-A Victorian drug use

Fix attempts to waylay Fogg by getting Passepartoute not only drunk but drugged with Opium.  This was a good opportunity to do a bit of research into the use of drugs in the 19th century.

Victorian Drug Use

There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new

Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray 1891)

If you can move past the quaintness of Victorian times as portrayed in the picture perfect photos of the time, you might be quite surprised by how debased Victorian society actually was.  Whilst on the surface it may seem that the Victorians were ‘proper and upright’, scratch beneath the veneer and you would be shocked at what can be found.

Obviously, this wasn’t a subject I wanted the children researching independently, so  instead I photocopied some information about opiate drugs for them to read, limiting the extent to just the Victorians:

Victorian Drug Use 2

Victorian Drug Use 1

We did bits of our scrap book as we went along:

Victorian Drug Use 3

Victorian Drug Use 7

Poppies and Opium

Victorian Drug Use 4

Opium comes from the resin of poppy seeds, which are dried and scraped before being processed for smoking.  Opiate preparations could be bought in many forms, included but not limited to:

  • Opium for smoking
  • Laudanum tincture for dysentery and insomnia
  • Powder of chalk and opium
  • Tincture of soap and opium
  • Chlorodyne for coughs and colds
  • Camphorated tincture of opium for asthma
  • Opiate drops for teething babies
  • and after 1840, when the hypodermic needle was invented, heroin and morphine for injection

Victorian Drug Use 5

Addiction and subsequent withdrawals were not widely understood in Victorian times and Opium and its derivatives could be bought from country markets, tobacconists and of course the Victorian Pharmacies.   It was also freely available in the opium dens, bought as easily as alcohol and often cheaper.

By 1868, the Pharmacy Act attempted to control the selling of dangerous drugs, limiting their sale to registered chemists and pharmacists.  By the middle of the 20th century, opium-based drugs had been banned altogether.

I abhor the dull routine of existence, I crave mental stimulation

Sherlock Holmes

Opium use in the 19th century can be loosely divided into opium used for inspiration, opium used as a medicine, and finally the drug used for the sole purpose of nefarious pleasure.  All three uses eventually led to addiction.  Those unfortunates who became addicted hard and fast, would on average meet their death within five years of being introduced to the opiate menace.

Opium Addiction and Withdrawals

There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine

Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886)

Euphoria, drowsiness and sedation are just a few of the desired effects of opium ( along with shortness of breath, and confusion.  Taken in large amounts the user may hallucinate.  The highs of the euphoria would be followed by extreme lows of depression, along with slurred speech and restlessness.

Shaking from head to foot, the man whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together, at length rises, supports his trembling frame upon his arms, and looks around. He is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable court. He lies, dressed, across a large unseemly bed, upon a bedstead that has indeed given way under the weight upon it. Lying, also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing at a kind of pipe, to kindle it

Charles Dickens (The Mystery of Edwin Drood)

Withdrawal symptoms include general aches and pains, cramping, nausea, often with vomiting and diarrhea.  Also the user may experience insomnia, agitation, mood swings and anxiety.

The Victorian Opium Dens

Victorian Drug Use 6

It is a wretched hole….so low that we are unable to stand upright.  Lying pell-mell on a mattress placed on the ground are Chinamen, Lascars, and a few English blackguards who have imbibed a taste for opium

Figaro, describing an opium den in Whitechapel (1868)

Opium dens were well known during the 18th century, as a place to go to use the drug, away from the public.  They were well catered for drug users and, although to me look like utterly scary and desolate places to frequent, I believe they did have their uses.

In addition to giving an opium user a safe place to take their drug of choice, they also pretty much removed those selling drugs away from the streets and thus the general public, taking the violence (often linked to the whole drugs scene) with them.

As Dorian hurried up its three rickety steps, the heavy odour of opium met him. He heaved a deep breath, and his nostrils quivered with pleasure. When he entered, a young man with smooth yellow hair, who was bending over a lamp lighting a long thin pipe, looked up at him and nodded in a hesitating manner. […] Dorian winced and looked round at the grotesque things that lay in such fantastic postures on the ragged mattresses. The twisted limbs, the gaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes, fascinated him. He knew in what strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells were teaching them the secret of some new joy

Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray 1891)

Still, not a place I would ever wish to go to….

Famous Victorians Who Used Opium

I had to giggle as I was researching this.  Did you know that Lewis Carrol was supposedly on drugs when he wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass?  Suddenly it all becomes clear!  I have read those two books countless times over the years in my attempt to be a good mum and cover all the books children should have at least been exposed to.  Not once has either made any sense to me!  I come away from each evening’s reading thinking ‘Eh?!’  Now I know why!  Caroll was (allegedly) hallucinating at the time he wrote them!  And… never occurred to me that those little potions and pills that Alice took were merely opium in its various forms and that Alice was hallucinating her way through the story.  These seemingly innocent books are laced with Victorian chemical influence!  No wonder I never had a clue what was going on 🙂

Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (1829–1862)  British model, poet and artist was addicted to laudanum

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) Poet & painter was addicted to chloral hydrate

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) Poet was a lifelong addict

• Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) Italian poet who suffered raging laudanum-induced hallucinations

John Keats (1795-1821) suffered from cocaine, heroin, alcohol addiction

Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) British writer who, some say, was inspired by his opiate hallucinations to write Alice in Wonderland

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) Novelist, was a laudanium addict for much of his life

 Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) Play write is said to have abused opium and write about it in The Picture of Dorian Gray

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) An American writer who suffered from opium and alcohol addiction

The Opium Trade Between Britain and India/China During Victorian Times

Victorian Drug Use 8

Britain depended upon its export of tea and silk from China.  To ensure the trade lines were kept open the British decided to flood the Chinese with the highly addictive opium, immediately creating a strong demand.  The opium imports were traded for tea, silk or silver.  Chinese silver was used to buy the opium, and as demand was so high the Chinese were constantly in fear of a trade deficit.  Eventually, due to the social and economic problems associated with the use of opium, the Chinese government demanded the British cease opium trade.

By what right do they (British merchants) have to use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people?  I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries

Excerpt from Lin Zexu’s letter to Queen Victoria

The Opium Wars

Victorian Drug Use 9

The British, knowing they were on to a good thing, refused, and thus the opium wars occurred, the first beginning  in 1839 and ending in 1842.  It was concluded by the Treaty of Nanking which ultimately increased the amount of opium being brought into China.  The second opium war was fought between 1856 and 1860, with the British fighting to legalise opium trade.  This again created many ports from which trading could occur, thus increasing once more the amounts of opium brought into China by the British.

This was a really interesting topic for us to study, and led to lots of questions and discussions about drug use today.  Around the World in 80 Days sure is a great book to study a variety of fascinating subjects in depth.


  1. My husband and I were just discussing the Opium Wars a few days ago – from our 2016 point of view it is such a strange time in history.

    And good job for not shying away from the uglier parts of the Victorian Age. It is so easy to look at the “good parts” of history and miss out on the lessons we can learn from the negative aspects. It’s the topics like this that help inoculate kids against experimenting with modern day drugs that might be marketed to them as harmless.

    I am really enjoying following along with your learning in the Victorian Age!

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