In Bri­tain, the opium of the peo­ple was not reli­gion, it was sim­ply lau­danum

The Guardian - Cook - - Back To Basics - By Henry Jef­freys Henry Jef­freys is a drinks writer based in Lon­don. His first book, Em­pire of Booze, will be pub­lished by Un­bound in 2016. Twit­ter: @hen­ryg­j­ef­freys

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.

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