Monday, January 5, 2009

Opium Dens and Opium Museums

Via Thomas Crampton’s blog I was alerted to the Opium Museum online – a nice resource. Steven Martin, the author of The Art of Opium Antiques, runs the site which has a lot of good photos and text – Martin’s emphasis is on the attractiveness of the paraphernalia. He also makes some useful brief comments on opium use in Europe.

As I’ve been working on a few things around opium use and image in Europe in late nineteenth century I’m interested to note that Martin writes that, ‘Only in France did opium smoking take hold in Europe, and Brassaï captured images of opium dens in his famous photographic studies of Parisian nightlife (his self portrait in an opium den is left). The existence of opium smoking in London was, and continues to be, highly exaggerated. The complete lack of photographic evidence of opium smoking in London strongly suggests that tales of posh debauchery in London's Limehouse district are nothing more than literary fantasy.’

I think he’s basically right about Limehouse which was more written and gossiped about by the toffs than visited though it is the case that a number of local East Enders did enjoy the drug – up until at least the early 1980s there were a number of old people (mostly old Cockney ladies) who were registered by the NHS to use opium and still smoked it through the traditional pipes.

PS: picture at the topis the cover of Le Petit Journal, 5 July 1903 entitled "A New Vice: Opium Dens in France"


Steven said...


Great post! It would be interesting to know where those old Cockney ladies obtained smoking opium. Did National Health provide it?

Also, I think it would have been quite difficult to obtain pipe-bowls that were suitable for use. The tiny needle hole -- where the "pill" of opium was placed while smoking -- widened with use. Once the needle hole became too large, the pipe-bowl was all but useless, as the vaporization process was hindered and large amounts of the drug were wasted.

I have found that probably less than one in one hundred antique pipe-bowls that I come across are still functional.

I think an opium addict that remained active at such a late date as the early 80s would have been forced to eat the drug, as the amount needed to sustain a habit is much less than if it were smoked in the traditional Chinese manner.

(Opium Museum)

Paul French said...

I know I'm not imaging it as my dad was a public health inspector in Tower Hamlets, an area that covered Limehouse, in the 1970s and 80s. He told me.

There was also a documentary ages ago back when Channel 4 first started in the UK (80s sometime) about the old Chinese community around Pennyfields and Limehouse - in that documentary one old Cockney lady who had married a Chinese guy was shown smoking an opium pipe in her council flat bedroom - she was prescribed the drug by the NHS as to come of it would have probably killed her. There were apparently quite a few of these old girls around.

Never seen photos of London opium dens - the street never had signage though apparently signs such as 'Yunnan Opium Now in' did appear. You're right though it was mainly the invention of writers - that is until cocaine took hold with the flappers after WW1 and a Chinese connection was cited - notably the sensational case of Limehouse's own Brilliant Chang

Steven said...

Thanks for the information, Paul. I need to look for a copy of that Channel 4 doco. It would be very interesting to see what kind of layout that old girl was using!

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