Fictional smokescreen? The Victorian opium den

In the smog of Victorian England, fact and fiction can be tricky to decipher. Enter the opium den - truth or tale?

By: Suzie,   3 minutes

Opium Den illustration

I am currently researching and writing a novel that’s set in 1897; year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Thus, I find myself seeking inspiration from across the wide Victorian diaspora to feed the process of creating a recognisable historical world.

I have visited Blackpool on numerous occasions to wander and wonder at the Tower Ballroom, the Circus, the Piers and the Winter Gardens. The Local Heritage Centre at the library has given me opportunity to pour over huge old maps, Registers of Licences and the brilliant Barrett’s Directory to find accurate pubs and streets of boarding houses for my tale.

Victorian Literature has given me further possibilities for populating my little world – and here I’ve explored a darker side of the Victorian dream. In the works of Coleridge, Collins, De Quincey, Dickens, Wilde, Conan Doyle et al, I find narratives peppered with social depravation, dastardly deeds and drugs. In the East End of Victorian London, particularly the docklands areas of Limehouse, Shadwell and Stepney are a warren of tiny ginnels and alleyways filled with gambling sailors, criminal lairs, whorehouses… and opium dens.

Opium den

“He is in the meanest and closest of small rooms. Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in… Lying, also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing a kind of pipe, to kindle it.” Charles Dickens – Edwin Drood

Opium dens are painted vividly and vivaciously in the works of some of the greatest writers of the period as homes of vice and iniquity. Sometimes wretched holes and sometimes exotic boutiques designed for gentlemen, they are always filled with wretched creatures hooked on the sweet and fragrant smoke of the scarlet Papaver somniferum; the opium poppy.

Smoke and mirrors?

Surprising then, to dig a little deeper and find that scholars have yet to unearth a single historical photo of opium smokers in London. Granted, photography was a fairly new art form, but this lack of essential primary evidence stands in marked contrast to a number of photos showing dens in the Far East as well as the USA (New York shown below), Canada and various European cities.

There is no doubting that opium was widely used in Imperial Britain but we have only pictorial engravings and drawings to show London’s infamous dens.

Delving still further into the conundrum, I find juicy firsthand tales of dens in what purport to be factual, journalistic accounts of the period, notably Henry Mayhew’s 1861 work London Labour and the London Poor and the firsthand experiences of Ewing Ritchie and Joseph Charles Parkinson. But with no photographic evidence are these sensational journalism or accurate eyewitness accounts? School history debates on the importance of differentiating primary and secondary evidence float into my head.

In 1899 the novelist and historian Walter Besent found his visit to a den disappointing. Following sensational accounts he had expected to find a ‘dreadful place’ and a ‘creeping of the flesh’ but in reality found only a few Chinese men peacefully smoking away and the only horror a discordant musical instrument!

“There were opium dens where one could buy oblivion, dens of horror where the memory of old sins could be destroyed by the madness of sins that were new.” Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorien Gray

Opium dens are so inherent to my previous beliefs about the darker side of the London Victorian experience that I was surprised to learn that there are those who doubt their existence in that great city at all, notably Steven Martin, author of books on opium as well as founder and curator of the online Opium Museum.

Fact vs Fiction – and what lies between.

I have recently made the decision to assist the literary smokescreen and include an opium den scene in my novel. The evidence of actual opium dens in Victorian Britain may be lacking photographic evidence, but their place in literary tradition and most people’s supposition of the period is fixed.Moulin Rouge - Toulouse Lautec

Pepper this with the fact that the Blackpool Tower was built in 1894 after its constructor saw the Eiffel Tower in Paris – and it was not the only French import into the seaside town. Parisian inspired dancing girls and cabaret feature heavily in my novel and it is reported that the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre was entered through a giant elephant, itself an opium den where gentlemen could indulge their habit.

I am writing a work of fiction, not a history and although I want to strive for accuracy it is also important to embellish and to excite. I shall tread the line between fact and fiction with well-considered steps.

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