Monthly Archives: May 2018

Opium Eating in the Fens in the 19th Century

It is said that more opium used to be sold by chemists in the fenland towns of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, than in all the rest of England put together.   The dried residue obtained from the juice of opium poppies was broken into small pieces and taken by mouth to alleviate symptoms of ague and rheumatism.  Even after the fenlands were drained and malarial conditions became less common, the opium habit continued, especially among labouring people and elderly women.   There are even accounts of some fenland pubs – for example at Crowland – adding opium to beer.  

At our meeting on 10th May,  Dr Eric Somerville, a retired GP from Wisbech, will reveal much more about this aspect of 19th century life.

Across the country, patent medicines containing opium were widely available at that time.  The most well-known was Godfrey’s Cordial, advertised as “efficacious in most of the complaints incidental to young children”.  It was recommended for soothing babies to stop them crying, and “if the mother of an infant takes an occasional dose, as prescribed in the directions, she will find it most beneficial both to herself and child”!

The mixture was sometimes referred to as Mother’s Friend or Poor Child’s Nurse, but became notorious for causing the deaths of young babies.  In 1871 an inquest was held in Stamford on a month old baby who had been dosed with a locally-made version of Godfrey’s Cordial, containing treacle, tincture of opium and spirits of wine.   The chemist, George Rees of Red Lion Square,  commented that the cordial was made up by almost every chemist and widely sold, especially to the poor.  With large families living in small cottages, it’s understandable that parents would try to quieten their children to get some sleep.  Unfortunately, overdoses were not uncommon, with some infants dying of malnutrition, because they were too drowsy to feed.


Eventually, laws were passed to remove narcotics from patent medicines and ban the sale of opium.  However, opium poppies (papaver somniferum) are currently being grown commercially in Lincolnshire, for processing by pharmaceutical companies.

The picture shows a poppy field in the Metheringham area.

Eric Somerville gave an excellent talk about quack medicines at our meeting in May last year, and his topic of Opium Eating  is sure to be interesting.  It starts at 7.30pm in the Conference Centre at Deepings School.  Everyone is welcome.  There is a charge of £2 for non-members.

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