Wednesday, 25 April 2012


Opium poppy - from Wikipedia

“Let me have some Laudanum.”
“Certainly, miss. Excuse my asking the question – it is only a matter of form. You are staying at Aldborough, I think?”
“Yes. I am Miss Bygrave of North Shingles.”
The chemist bowed; and, turning to his shelves, filled an ordinary half-ounce bottle with laudanum immediately. In ascertaining his customer’s name and address beforehand, the owner of the shop had taken a precaution which was natural to a careful man, but which was by no means universal, under similar circumstances, in the state of the law at the time.
“Shall I put you up a little cotton wool with the laudanum?” he asked, after he had placed a label on the bottle, and had written a word on it in large letters.
“If you please. What have you just written on the bottle?” She put the question sharply, with something of distrust as well as curiosity in her manner. The chemist answered the question by turning the label toward her. She saw written on it in large letters – POISON.
“I like to be on the safe side, miss,” said the old man, smiling. “Very worthy people in other respects are often sadly careless where poisons are concerned.”
Wilkie Collins - No Name

Wilkie Collins mentions laudanum about 80 times in his writings while Dickens referred to it only 20 times. Not surprising as Collins took laudanum to ease the pain of rheumatic gout and would have been well aware of real life transactions like this. On the whole I think Victorians had a good understanding of drugs such as laudanum and other forms of opium - just as they were familiar with many dangers we are now less aware of.

Tuesday morning, ten o’clock.
Who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart whoever he was. If all the miserable wretches in pain of body and mind, whose comforter he has been, could meet together to sing his praises, what a chorus it would be!
I have had six delicious hours of oblivion; I have woke up with my mind composed; I have written a perfect little letter to Midwinter; I have drunk my nice cup of tea, with a real relish of it; I have dawdled over my morning toilet with an exquisite sense of relief – and all through the modest little bottle of “Drops”, you are a darling! If I love nothing else, I love you.
Wilkie Collins – Armadale

The quote is from Lydia Gwilt – the anti-heroine of the story and a fallen woman in the eyes of society. Again, the dangers of laudanum are presented in a way that his Victorian audience would understand very well.


James Higham said...

Wilkie Collins mentions laudanum about 80 times in his writings while Dickens referred to it only 20 times.

As Python were wont to say: "I don't want you to get the idea that it's just a question of the number of words though." ;-)

Demetrius said...

Once up on a time a bottle of Coke really was a bottle of "coke". After they took it out the US National Bureau of Chemistry tried to legally force them to put it back in.

Anonymous said...

Materia Medica (1932) mentions no fewer than six different opium preparations. Chalk, water, ipecacuana, lead acetate, alcohol and camphor, benzoic acid and anise. Then there is Nepenthe - a weak laudanum, Sydenham's laudanum (saffron) and best of all Black Drop - Acetum Opii Crocatum - three times as strong as laudanum.

They knew how to enjoy themselves....

Weekend Yachtsman said...

In more recent literature, you'll find it mentioned many many times in the Aubrey/Maturin novels, and indeed it plays a significant part in the career of one character.

A K Haart said...

James - in this case I think it is though.

Demetrius - typical of chemists (:

Roger - lead acetate? Did they survive?

RY - thanks - I haven't read any, but I see you can get them on Kindle so I might try one.

Anonymous said...

Otherwise known as 'sugar of lead' and used to adulterate sugar at one time. You would survive OK provided you didn't overdo it. The Romans drank wine from lead vessels and got it for free.

Macheath said...

I had often wondered about the use of laudanum as a migraine treatment (as described by Collins).

Then, some years ago, I fell ill in a country where I couldn't speak the language (or read the writing) and was given what must have been an opiate-derived syrup by a local doctor.

All I can say is, if laudanum was anything like that, it knocks our current prescription migraine treatments into a cocked hat!

(Unfortunately the vial broke in my suitcase on the way home and I wasn't sufficiently desperate to want to extract the liquid from a heap of dirty socks.)

A K Haart said...

Mac - if you think it was an opiate syrup you could follow it up. Worth knowing at least. My impression is that the Victorian version was very powerful.