EMPIRE OF DRINKS
In Britain, the opium of the people was not religion, it was simply laudanum
In my early teens I developed an opium habit. At boarding school near Peterborough, I took great comfort in a big bottle of Gee’s Linctus in the matron’s office, which we were allowed to help ourselves to if we had a cough. I always had a cough. I later learned that Gee’s was one of the few remedies still made with opium. No wonder I kept coming back for more.
Opium has long been big in East Anglia. In 1850, the Morning Chronicle referred to the “opium-eating city of Ely”. When we think of Victorians and opium, we conjure up visions of Dickens’s dank East End, yet you didn’t need to go to the slums to score: opium was available without restriction.
Gee’s Linctus is a weak descendant of medicines used to treat most ailments. Opium was particularly popular among workers. The writer Thomas De Quincey described Lancashire towns “loaded with little laudanum-vials, even to the hundreds, for the accommodation of customers retiring from the workshops on Saturday night”.
Laudanum is a mixture of opium and alcohol. It was often flavoured with spices to disguise the drug’s bitter taste. Thomas Sydenham, the 17th-century doctor, had a recipe that contained “one pint of sherry wine, two ounces of good-quality Indian or Egyptian opium, one of saffron, a cinnamon stick and a clove, both powdered”. Sounds delicious. In others, fruit juice, sugar, spices and opium were fermented into an alcoholic syrup. Mrs Beeton’s Household Management even has recipes for opium-based remedies.
Victorian society was wracked with poverty and inequality. A typical view of urban horror is provided by John Ruskin: “That great foul city of London — rattling, growling, smoking, stinking — ghastly heap of fermenting brickwork, pouring out poison at every pore …” Karl Marx thought that Britain, as the first country to industrialise, would be the first to have a proletariat revolution. Yet, it never happened. The reasons why are much debated, but surely the laudanum must have played a part? In Britain, Marx’s opium of the people wasn’t religion, but simply opium. Which explains why we were allowed to help ourselves to the Gee’s Linctus. Teenagers are probably easier to deal with when stoned.