Addiction, prescriptions and deaths, drugs and the Victorians

Drugs, surely not?

Drugs were, in fact, wide spread in Britain during the Victorian period.

Britain had become one of the biggest drug traffickers in the world during the 19th Century, with the British-Empire trafficking opium to China – a massive market. This brought the drug into Britain where it soon became as popular as alcohol with opium dens popping up across the country. Opium, as well as being a powerful narcotic, also worked as a painkiller, due to this it soon became recognised as a 'cure all' and was major ingredient of many medicines.

One of the most popular derivatives of opium was laudanum, a mixture of opium, wine or water, which was often referred to as the 'aspirin of the nineteenth century'. It was widely used as a painkiller for all manner of ailments from coughs to 'women's troubles'. Too much though and it could mean overdose and death.

One quite disturbing fact about the Victorian period is that children were often starting life as, essentially, drug addicts!

The death rate of infants had improved by the Victorian period, and did get even better as the era progressed, but those that did die often did because of malnutrition and starvation. This was, in part, due to a special 'medicine' that the pharmacists sold for babies and toddlers called Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup.

It was a miracle medicine that would make your child calm and happy. Give your baby this and it won't bother you, especially if it's teething.

This amazing syrup did indeed sooth children but was, in fact, a mix of opium, alcohol, heroin and morphine! Mothers up and down the country were giving their children a mixture of several, very powerful drugs. Shocked? You should be.

Too much of this syrup and your child may never wake again. If they weren't killed by an overdose the children were, sadly, open to starvation. Both opium and heroin would suppress the appetite. This meant that those given this syrup wouldn't eat when they should thus never taking in the calories and vitamins they need to survive. This, as you would expect, led to many dying of hunger and malnutrition. A very sad thought indeed.

It wasn't the only suspicious medicine out there though, there were many!

Cocaine Toothache Drops were sold as an 'instantaneous cure' for pain and were created by a certain Lloyd Manufacturing Company. They certainly weren't a cure but they would reduce pain - momentarily.

A French chemist made lots of money in 1863 selling his new tonic - Vin or Elixir Mariani, which was made from coca leaves (from which cocaine is extracted). It became known as a wonder medicine and was used with many ailments. Queen Victoria herself even praised the tonic for it's effects. This tonic however included around 25 milligrams of pure cocaine in every glass! No wonder it had such strong effects.

Another widely sold and utilised drug...well more a poison...was arsenic. Arsenic was used a lot from cosmetic lotions to medicines. It's a scary thought as arsenic is a dangerous poison that could easily kill and was used for many murders at the time.

Drug use was common for all aspects of society from the working class to the upper. It was not seen as something untoward at the time, far from it. It was positively normal! Many of the strong and illegal substances of today were not seen to be harmful or dangerous in the Victorian era. Even if many did die from their use. It wasn't until the twentieth century that these drugs would finally be regulated and banned.

But anyway, enough about such horrid things...

Our next blog will be all about fashion! So do come back for that on November 15th.

Written by Bertram

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