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Drugs in Victorian Britain: A Wellcome Collection Symposium

2011 April 19

“High Society” and “Drugs in Victorian Britain”

by Cheryl Blake Price

Sherlock Holmes took his little bottle from the corner of the mantle-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.  With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle, and rolled back his left shirt-cuff.  For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks.  Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into his velvet-lined arm-chair with a long sigh of satisfaction. (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four).

This opening scene of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of Four, and in particular the image of Sherlock’s strong bare left arm riddled with the history of his cocaine and morphine habit, provides a useful starting point for a discussion of drug use in nineteenth-century Britain.  How “marked” by drug use was the British social body in the Victorian period? Can we uncover a similar history of drug abuse in nineteenth-century culture by simply rolling back the shirt-cuff of Victorian propriety?  Were drugs used only by elite eccentrics, or did the populace at large enjoy these same stimulants?

The Wellcome Collection’s special exhibition “High Society” and its two-day special symposium, “Drugs in Victorian Britain,” set out to provide material that would both raise and explore these questions.  The exhibit, which ran from November 2010 to the end of February 2011, traced the beginnings of British drug use (loosely defined as any form of chemical ingestion) through the present day.  While the collection did not focus exclusively on the Victorian age, many displays were relevant to the period.  The British opium trade, for example, was well covered; the displays focused not only on the personal use of the drug, but also the vast importance of the poppy plant to the British economy and colonial project.  Victorian fears about the use (and abuse) of alcohol were also represented by the many examples of temperance propaganda aimed at the working classes.  The melodramatic and urgent nature of this propaganda reflects that middle-class culture never quite lost its fear that working-class dissent remained right under the surface of society, needing only some intoxicating stimulation to erupt.

Many famous nineteenth-century literary works that reference drugs or drug use, such as Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, were also displayed at the exhibit, but these works were more fully explored in the special educational event, “Drugs in Victorian Britain.”  The prevalence of drugs in nineteenth-century literature was highlighted by two lectures; the first, by Dinah Birch, worked to dispel popular assumptions of the Victorians as “prudes” and investigated the convergence of drugs, the imagination, and individual experience in nineteenth-century popular culture.  The second lecture, by Julian North, explored drug use by Victorian authors and explained how the inclusion of drug use in their works interrogated issues of race and class.  Additional talks focused on the pharmacopeia of the Victorians, the links between recreational drug use and the origins of modern psychology, and the history of addiction.

In addition to the lectures, on first night of the symposium participants were treated to a Victorian “Magic Lantern Show” which used original equipment and employed live music to accompany the visual effects. While not all the slides dealt directly with the theme of drugs, the show did remind the audience how important the imagination and visual experience was to the Victorians.  Indeed, one of the major connective themes of the symposium was the Victorian emphasis on the sensory and imaginative possibilities of drug use.  While the symposium in no way promoted drug use, it everywhere interrogated our contemporary criminalized views of drugs by highlighting how the Victorian embraced (albeit uncomfortably) the artistic and medicinal potential of drugs.  Based on the enthusiastic response to the symposium, and the long weekend queues for the exhibit, it is clear that contemporary culture not only remains fascianted with drugs, but that we are particularly interested in exploring how previous generations–like the Victorians–dealt with both the problems of drugs and their imaginative possibilities.

More information on both the symposium and exhibit can be found through the Wellcome Collection website.  The Collection also has a fine online picture gallery that compliments the exhibition.

Symposium: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/events/drugs-in-victorian-britain.aspx

Exhibit: http://www.wellcomecollection.org/whats-on/exhibitions/high-society.aspx

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