Infant Doping in the Nineteenth Century

Written by guest contributor, Katie Latham

The notion that ‘opium was the aspirin of the time’ in Victorian England indicates that opium was both an everyday commodity and in widespread use, found in most general stores and chemists, and forming a great part of druggists’ trade.(1)  Opium, dried latex derived from the opium poppy, used in this article as a blanket term to refer to its preparations, such as laudanum, rather than its derivatives morphine and heroin, has been used both recreationally and medically for about six thousand years, referred to in the Assyrian medical tablets of the seventh century B.C.(2) By 1840  opium was a part of every physician’s  armentarium and  can  be  tracked  as  a  staple  of  English  medicine  through  its reappearance in  prominent medical  literature throughout the  centuries such as William  Bullein’s Bulwarke of Defence (1579) and Ambroise Parey’s the Workes of Ambrose Parey (1634).(3)  Opium can also be traced through references in popular literature such as Shakespeare’s Othello (c.1603)  and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), indicating that opium was consumed in a recreational as well as medical context.(4) This article is primarily concerned with the medicinal use of opium in the nineteenth century, rather than the recreational, using the domestic narrative of self-medication to treat illnesses ranging from toothache to dysentery. This substantiates the concept that the relation of opium to domestic life was as an essential commodity.

Opium gained prominence for a variety of reasons, namely class tensions and the rise of the middle- class, resulting in  the gradual control of its sale.  As Virigina Berridge has highlighted, middle-class concerns over the working class use of opium made the issue of opium more prominent.(5) Middle-class morality mongering directly concerned with a desire to reshape society to fit the middle -class values of respectability, virtue, and decency, materialised in the temperance movements that targeted infant doping by the disreputable and uneducated working-class mother. These public health movements served to highlight the necessity of controlling the consumption of opium by using the working-class mother and her practice of infant doping as a scapegoat, despite the actuality of the  widespread practice of infant doping that transcended class.

Until 1868, opium was easily affordable for all but the penniless and easy to access; available in small corner shops, pubs, and market stalls.(6)  According to Samuel Flood, a surgeon in Leeds in the 1840s, Saturday night purchases of pills and drops were a regular custom as much as the buying of meat and vegetables: ‘in the public market place, are to be seen, one stall for vegetables, another for meat, and a third for pills!’7 That opium is referenced in such a wide range of literature written and published in Victorian England is indicative of its widespread medicinal and recreational use. The influence and impact of opium on romantic literature such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan (1816) has long been debated by literary historians, who have shown that use of opium for pleasure, or the relief of anxiety and insomnia was widespread throughout society, not least among Coleridge, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Dickins, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.(8)

Available as pills, powders, lozenges, plasters, dissolved in alcohol (laudanum), and children’s syrups, opium was a benign alternative in comparison to the arsenics, mercuries and emetics, and methods of leeching and blistering available  to Victorian  physicians, and gained popularity due to its visible success in treating a multitude of symptoms. Asa cough suppressant, opium was used in the treatment of tuberculosis, bronchitis, and other respiratory ailments, as well as for rheumatism, insomnia and‘female complaints’.(9)   

As  an  anti-diarraheic,  opium  was  particularly  popular  in  the  treatment of diarrhea, cholera and dysentery, especially in the outbreaks of cholera in 1832, 1833 and 1853, due to poor sanitation and a prevailing belief in the miasma theory. Even with the invention of the sewer system in London in the 1860s by Joseph Bazalgette, and the emergence of the germ theory by Robert Koch, public health across England remained poor, and access to professional medical men was limited and often expensive. Opium was a cheap and effective remedy, recommended to people in good health to ‘optimize the internal equilibrium of the human body’.(10)

Since a  vendor did not need a  qualification  to sell  opium, the  varying levels of  illiteracy,  lack  of standardisation and risk of adulteration meant that the sale of opium could, and did, lead to mistakes. Nevertheless, the open sale of opium was unremarkable in the context of the time and did not have an established link to the medical profession in which people would seek medical approval. Due to the expense of medical advice, personal medical care was predominantly self-administered, and, in the age  of  limited  or  non-existent contraception, as  well  as  a  high  infant mortality  rate,  within  the Victorian family, the mother typically took on the role of health-care provider as it was regarded as ‘natural for women to take up the whole duty of motherhood’.(11)

As nineteenth century ideology began to emphasise women’s roles as mother, rather than just as wife, who bore the  responsibility of  rearing  the next generation of  healthy and productive workers, a scientific epistemology emerged to instruct mothers of proper methods of infant care.(12) Symptomatic of a patriarchal suppression of women’s knowledge, the mass of advice books written by male experts aimed at the mother demonstrate that the use of opium in treating children was not confined to the working class. Having sold over half a million copies by 1878,  and releasing one hundred and thirteen editions by 1923, Enquire Within (1856) was one of the most popular household books of the period.(13)

A cornucopia of information, containing chapters on cookery, games and gardening, as well as legal, social, and medical information, Enquire Within was a staple of the Victorian home. The multitude of publications available to the historian is of great benefit. By returning to its first publication and comparing it to  subsequent editions, the progression and  integration of  medical knowledge into society can be used to explore the mother’s use of opium. For instance, that within the 11th  edition (1923)  some of the preparations of opium present in the first and 74th   edition (1886)  were omitted because ‘opium is a  powerful poison when taken in too large  a quantity’ is  suggestive of stricter controls placed on opium in the early twentieth century.(14) Nevertheless, opium, laudanum, morphine and syrup of poppies are suggested as remedies for cough, consumption, inflamed eyes, inflammation of  the bladder, bowels and liver,  looseness of the bowels, painful menstruation and rheumatism, suggesting a widespread reliance on opium up until its illegalisation in 1920.(15)   Nevertheless, advice books such as Enquire Within, although indicative of popular medical opinion at the time, do not reveal whether mothers followed the advice given, or what they thought about it.(16)

Furthermore, Mrs Beeton’s Book of  Household Management (1861),  even more  successful than Enquire Within, selling over 60,000  copies in the first year of publication and nearly two million by 1868, is an important source to understand the relationship between domestic life and drugs. (17)  That opium, ‘powdered, and laudanum’ is listed with those drugs and instruments considered essential to have in the family home in case of accident is indicative of the value nineteenth century society place on it.(18)   Moreover, the recommendation in popular advice  book Mrs Beeton’s Guide to  Household Management that ‘half a teaspoon of Dalby’s Carminative’ should be given to infants in the case of diarrhea is indicative of the rise of voluntary public health movements which used the use of opium- based soothing syrups to criticise the  working class.(19)   Opium-based children’s medicines such as Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Carminative, Street’s Infant Quietness, and Mrs Winlow’s Soothing Syrup, were common purchases available at markets, general stores and chemists, used primarily, as their names suggest, to quiet and soothe babies. In 1834, it was reported to the Factory Commission that ‘many mothers employed in mills are in the habit of giving opiates, such as Godfrey’s Cordial […] to their  infants, that  they may sleep during the  mother’s absence’.(20)  Chemist and Druggist  further maintained that the ‘pernicious practice of the opium-drugging of infants […] goes hand in hand with poverty, dirt, and vice, and is a constant factor of excessive infantine mortality’.(21) Newspaper articles that condemned ‘mothers of families ignorant and sluttish enough to administer that deadly poison’, and magazine  images that placed  working-class children alone  with  a  bottle  of  opium served to villainize  the  working-class mother, leading to  reports in  the House  of  Lords that ‘opium  and its preparations, not only largely used by men and women, but given to infants, with a great destruction of life as the result’.(22)

‘Poor Child’s Nurse’, Punch, 1849, Wellcome Collection

Ignoring the rationale behind their usage, the campaign against infant doping was ‘embroiled with class tensions and interests’, disregarding the dire circumstances in which most working class families lived; focusing on the morality of opium use.(23) Opium was a cheap and effective pain killer that offered a cheap remedy to the health issues that plagued those who lived in areas of poor sanitation, acting as  ‘a  palliative  for  the  gastrointestinal  complaints  that  caused most  infant  illness  and  death’.(24)

Nevertheless, the varying strengths in opium-based products made by chemists and corner shops contributed to the risk of opium-based children’s medicines. As Berridge has shown, in the 1850s, ‘Godfrey’s Cordial bought from one chemist had half a grain of opium per fluid ounce; from another the  proportion was four grains  to an ounce’.(25)  Despite this,  concoctions like  Godfrey’s remained popular, one chemist in Nottingham reported that in 1808 ‘upwards of 200 lbs. of opium, and above 600 pints for Godfrey’s Cordial, are retailed to the poorer class in the year’.(26)

While some mothers would have used these medicines to quiet their children, some used opium in attempt to make their children stronger and healthier; ‘not unfrequently it happens that a credulous mother, deluded by the puffing advertisements of some quack opiate, honestly believes that she is doing good to her child’.(27) The use of ‘preservative’ and ‘cordial’ suggest preventative and curative qualities, symptomatic of both the lack of advertising restrictions and the rise of quackery. Not all mothers wished to use opium, indeed, some may have consciously avoided it, but many opium-based products did not list  opium in  their ingredients  misleading mothers of  all  classes.  Furthermore, previous methods of caring for sick children passed between families and neighbourhoods were a system that ‘the organized medical profession disapproved of and tried to destroy’.(28) Therefore, the move to cities away from rural areas that impacted mothers’ access to medicinal herbs growing near country towns and villages such as juniper, savin and aloes, could be seen as a strike at women’s knowledge and prominence in communities and led to a growing reliance on opium.(29)

According to Berridge, on average between 1863and 1867, 20.5 deaths per million occurred in babies under five; the rate was 7.8 per million in those over 35.(30)   Yet whilst the stark difference between these figures is indicative of a widespread usage of opium for children,  it does not point towards a strictly  working-class use. The  practice  of  infant doping was as much a  middle-class practice  as a working class one, used in  the  nurseries of  the  well-to-do, prescribed by doctors to middle-class children.(31)  An advert for Atkinson and Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative, for example, from 1872, declared that it had been ‘patronized by her most gracious majesty Queen Victoria’ for ‘complaints in the bowels of infants […] for preventing the tooth fever, and for laying the foundation of  a good constitution.(32)  The use of the Royal family, who were the epitome of propriety, respectability and domesticity, would have surely influenced any mother anxious to cure her child to buy this brand of opium-based infant medicine, whether working, middle, or upper- class.

Advertisement for ‘Atkinson and Barker’s Royal Infants’ Preservative’, 1872, in, Lori Anne Loeb, Consuming
Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women, (Oxford, 1994), pp. 92-93

Controls on the availability of opium arose out of class tensions and the expansion of the middle class, that led to emerging separate medical and pharmaceutical organizations.(33) Since addiction was not a concern, the passing of acts restricting the availability of opium can be said to have only really come from the moral campaigns on the part of the middle class.  Measures proposed in the 1857 Poisons Bill,  that limited the sale of opium to ‘a person of full age, in the presence of a witness, and on the production of a certificate from a medical practitioner, clergyman, or justice of the peace’, that failed to become law reflect the concerns that the practicalities of the working-class’s purchasing patterns, who often bought penny-worths of laudanum, would push the sale of opium underground.(34)  Years later, conflicts of interest between these two professions resulted in the 1868 Pharmacy Act that did little to curb the use of opium. Doctors and temperance campaigners wanted the availability of opium to  be  severely restricted, whilst  pharmacists,  concerned with  their commercial  interests, sought limited control.(35) Whilst it was recognised that ‘the sale of poisons was carried on by persons who had not the slightest knowledge of the properties and dangerous quality of these poisons, and who were utterly unfit by education and training to deal with such dangerous materials’ opium was placed in the second schedule  of  the  1868  act,  where  only  labelling  restrictions  were  applicable  and  patent medicines specifically excluded; provided the drug was properly labelled, opium could be sold and bought ‘almost as freely as before’.(36)


1  Virginia Berridge, ‘Opiate Use in England,  1800-1929’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences,  Vol. 398, (1982), 1-11.

2  Virginia Berridge, Opium and the People: Opiate Use  and Drug Control Policy in Nineteenth  and Early Twentieth  Century England, (London, 1998), [2nd Revised Edition], p. xxii.

3  Terry Parssinen, Secret  Passions, Secret  Remedies:  Narcotic  Drugs in British Society,  1820–1930, (Manchester, 1983), p. 23; Berridge, Opium and the People, p. xx.

4  William Bullein, Bulwarke of Defence,  (London, 1579); Ambroise Parey, The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey, (London, 1634); William Shakespeare, Othello, Act 3, Scene 3; Oscar Wilde, The Picture  of Dorian Gray, (London, 1890).

5  Berridge, Opium and the People, chapter nine.

6  Philip Robson, Forbidden Drugs, (Oxford, 1999),p.162; Berridge, Opium and the People, pp. 3, 25.

7 S. Flood, ‘On the Power, Nature and Evil of Popular Medical Superstition’, Lancet, quoted in, Berridge, Opium and the people, p. 28.

8 Barry Milligan,  Pleasures and Pains: Opium and the Orient  in Nineteenth-Century  British Culture,  (Virginia, 1995), p. 4; Robson, Forbidden Drugs, p. 162.

9 Marcus Aurin, ‘Chasing  the Dragon: The Cultural Metamorphosis  of Opium in the United States,  1825 -1935’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly,  Vol. 14, No. 3, (September 2000), 414-441.

10 Robson, Forbidden Drugs, p. 162.

11 Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class: 1780-1850, (London, 1987), p. 335.

12 Dianne Richardson, Women, Mothering and Childrearing, (London, 1993), p. 31.

13 Ruth Goodman,  How to be a Victorian,  (London, 2013), p. 442.

14  Robert Kemp Philp, (ed.), Enquire Within Upon Everything, (London, 1923), [113th edition], p. 302.

15  Philip, Enquire  Within Upon Everything,  [113th edition], pp. 275-294.

16  Richardson, Women, Mothering  and Childrearing,  p. 31.

17  ‘Mrs Beeton (1836 – 1865)’, BBC History , (last accessed, 04/01/2019).

18  Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, (London, 1984), [First Published 1861], p.1001.

19  Beeton, Household Management, p. 1060; Berridge, Opium and the People, p. 98.

20  Berridge, Opium and the People, p. 99.

21  ‘The Unrestricted Trade in Patent medicines’, Chemist  and Druggist,  (May 15, 1879), p. 198.

22  ‘Godfrey’s Cordial’, Lincolnshire Chronicle, (Friday 30th January 1852), pp. 4-5; The Duke of Marlborough, House of Lords Debate, 15 June 1868, Vol. 192, cc1554-6, Hansard, -hansard/lords/1868/jun/15/no -103-commit tee,  (last  accessed, 04/01/19); ‘Poor Child’s Nurse’, Punch, 1849, Wellcome Collection,,  (last accessed, 04/01/2019), appendix figure 1.

23  Berridge, Opium and the People, p. 98

24  Berridge, Demons, p. 23.

25  Berridge, Opium and the People, p. 98.

26  ‘Report from a General Hospital  near Nottingham’,  Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 4, (1808), p. 271.

27  ‘Unrestricted Trade’, Chemist  and Druggist,  p. 198.

28  Ellen Ross, Love and Toil: Motherhood in Outcast London, 1870 – 1918, (New York, 1993), p. 178.

29  Ross, Love and Toil, p. 177.

30  Berridge, Demons, p. 22.

31  Milligan,  Pleasures and Pains, p. 27; Berridge, Opium and the People, p. 103.

32  Advertisement for ‘Atkinson and Barker’s Royal Infants’  Preservative’, 1872, in, Lori Anne Loeb, Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian  Women, (Oxford, 1994), pp. 92-93, appendix, figure 2.

33  Berridge, Opium and the People, p. 114.

34  ‘Sale of Poisons’, The Spectator,  6th June 1857, p. 4; Berridge, Opium and the People, p. 118.

35  Mandy Bentham,  Politics of Drug Control, (London, 1998), pp. 65-67.

36  The Earl of Derby, House of Lords Debate, 04 June 1858, Vol. 150, cc1507-10, Hansard, -hansard/lords/1858/jun/04/sale -of-poisons-c,   (last  accessed, 04/01/19); Virginia Berridge, ‘Victorian Opium Eating:  Responses to Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England’,  Victorian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 4 (Summer, 1978), pp. 437-461, esp. p. 452; Virginia Berridge, ‘Opium and Oral History’, Oral History, Vol. 7, No. 2, (Autumn 1979), 48-58, esp. p. 50.

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