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Posts Tagged ‘Victorian’

‘And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are  they still in operation?’ 

Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol

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Layout of Bath Workhouse in 1848

 

Workhouses are thought to date back as far as the fourteenth century and the aftermath of the “Black Death.” The plague was merciless in Britain and outbreaks recurred at intervals throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, the working population was decimated and the shortage of labour pushed up wages. To try and halt this, several Acts of Parliament were passed aimed at forcing all able-bodied men to work and to keep wages at their old levels, but their main effect was to create itinerant labourers who travelled around the country looking for areas where they could earn more.

The Poor Law Act of 1388 tried to stop this by introducing regulations restricting the movements of all labourers and itinerant beggars. No one could leave their own parish to seek work elsewhere without the written permission of the local Justice of the Peace, and the poor were prohibited from begging and could only receive help from the Parish in which they were born. Alms houses were built for the destitute but the earliest known reference to the term “Workhouse” dates back to 1631, when the mayor of Abingdon (near Oxford) records:-

“wee haue erected wthn our borough, a workehouse to sett poore people to worke”

A further Poor Law Act in 1597 governed the care of the destitute right up until the 19th Century. This law required the local justices of the peace to appoint, annually, “Overseers of the Poor” to find work for those in need, to apprentice children, and to provide,

“the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind and such other being poor and not able to work”.

This Poor Law required poor rates to be charged as a local tax, replacing voluntary charitable funding. The rate of charge and arrangements for distribution were to be decided by the Overseers. Though most parishes had houses set aside for the old, infirm and destitute these were more like alms-houses than workhouses and most support was given in the form of subsistence payments known as “out relief.”

The real growth in workhouses took place in the nineteenth century, following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Hundreds of thousands of troops returned home to find there was no work for them. Most had been agricultural workers before the war and the new technology in farming had reduced the need for labour. At the same time a series of poor harvests had pushed up food prices and the Importation Act of 1815 had prohibited the importation of cheaper cereals from abroad. For most people, bread was the main part of their diet and yet they could no longer even afford bread.  So many had become destitute and were starving by the early 1830s that the system could not support them. The Government sought a cheaper alternative to “out relief.”

Its response was the Poor Law of 1834 which set up local Poor Law Unions with a view to actively discouraging the provision of relief to anyone who refused to enter a workhouse – and workhouses were intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply. They were often designed, like prisons of that time, in blocks which extended out like the spokes of a wheel from a central core (see illustrations of Bath Workhouse). Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children all sleeping in separate dormitories. During the day they all worked on breaking stones for roads, crushing bones for fertiliser, or picking oakum for packing the joints of timbers in ships. To pick oakum they used a large metal nail known as a “spike,” which may be how the workhouse earned its nickname of “The Spike“.

The City of Bath, though often associated with the wealth and elegance of the Georgian romantic novel, also had a workhouse. Bath Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and the workhouse was  built between 1836 and 1838 (later to become St Martin’s Hospital). By the 1830s the city had a resident population of about 50,000, yet at times the population swelled by up to a further 20,000 itinerant people looking for work. In 1842, “The Report of the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain” cited Bath as an example to illustrate its thesis that a large part of the burden of Poor Relief was caused by the premature deaths of husbands leaving widows and orphans who struggled to survive.

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Aerial photo of Former Bath Workhouse taken in early 20th Century

In practice the Poor Law Unions sometimes came into conflict with local magistrates. Such was the case with Anne Perry in Bath. She was old and increasingly infirm, and a friend, Mary Price, applied for “out-relief” on her behalf, so that she could stay at home. She was offered only admission to the workhouse. On appealing, the Magistrates made an order for “out relief,” but the Commissioner from London supported the Board’s decision. The case rumbled on for 3 months, until Ann Perry was eventually awarded “out relief.” Sadly she died 3 weeks later.

In 1848 an attempt was made to limit those classified as “beggars and tramps” from entering the Bath Workhouse. Many of these so called “tramps” were labourers who had worked on building the railways. The fact that there was no work for them now, and no other form of assistance was largely ignored. Their exclusion from the workhouse prompted a riot and the smashing of windows. The Bath Chronicle responded with an appeal to the public not to give alms to beggars or tramps:-

“The Magistrates and Guardians are still determined to prevent such an abuse of the public funds, attended as it is by no real kindness, but offering a premium to pauperism and vice, and encouraging a highly dangerous set of persons to travel over the country, passing their nights at workhouses and their days in begging, stealing and drunkenness. There is, however, a duty which the inhabitants of Bath have to perform. It is for them to exercise discretion in the disposing of such sums as they devote to the purpose of benevolence. It is for them to remember that so long as such persons receive encouragement the evil will continue, and may again return, in all its force.”

In “A Christmas Carol” the Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children hidden under his robes. Scrooge asks him if they are his children and the Spirit replies that they are the children of Man – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.

Have they no refuge or resource.‘ asks Scrooge.

Are there no prisons.‘ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ‘Are there no workhouses.‘”

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Up until the Victorian era the population of Britain was widely spread throughout the country. Most people lived in rural settlements or small towns and villages. Food was prepared and preserved either by the family themselves or if they were wealthy by their domestic staff. The ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold. Richer households had their own ovens, while poorer people would pay a small sum to use the ovens of the local baker.

Yet as the Industrial Revolution took hold, so the population in towns and cities grew. Britain became more dependent on imported foods. People were also acquiring expensive tastes for tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, and sauces and spices from around the world. To make them more affordable the “adulteration” of food and drink (additives) became increasingly commonplace. This “adulteration” might be to improve appearance or improve taste, but it’s usual aim was to decrease costs and increase profits. It became so common that books on housekeeping routinely carried warnings and tests for detecting added chemicals like plaster of Paris in flour. Mrs Beeton in prefacing a recipe for a popular anchovy paste warned against shop-bought pastes,

 “In six cases out of ten, the only portion of those preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed.”

The wealthier residents of towns and cities could of course afford a “better” diet, but there was no refrigeration at the time and little concept of hygiene.  Meat was killed locally, but then it had to be stored, sold and transported to the home. As late as 1862 the government estimated that one-fifth of butcher’s meat in England and Wales came from animals which had died of disease or were carrying considerable disease – Meat that should never have been allowed to enter the food-chain. And at the start of the nineteenth century butcher’s boys would deliver meat to the wealthier homes, carried on their heads, in baskets or trays, open to the heat and dirt of the day.

If food was dangerous for the wealthy, it was positively deadly for the poor.  They bought mainly from itinerant  “costermongers” selling from barrows, and their reputation depended more on cheapness than it did on quality. Most of the poor lived in rented rooms, often shared and usually without access to cooking facilities. Any hot food they consumed was street-food, like baked potatoes or pies. Most though subsisted on a diet largely consisting of bread. They lived from hand-to-mouth and bought food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.”  Buying in these smaller quantities (enough for the day) meant goods often cost four or five times more than they would have cost had they been bought in regular quantities. Bread itself could be bought as “quarter” or “half” loaves, but even then, bakers used chalk to make the bread whiter, and alum to enable the use of inferior flour, and while alum was not poisonous it inhibited the digestion and decreased the nutritional value of anything else their customers ate.

Producers, importers, merchants and sellers all began adding more and more ingredients to increase bulk or “improve” appearance or reduce costs. Of course none of them knew what had been added by the others in the chain, so they each had a cumulative effect. in the end, by the time products were bought, no one really knew what was in them. Milk was often watered down, sometimes by as much as 50%, and so too was beer. Indeed, the making of beer had more to do with chemistry than the brewing process.  As Dr Richard Wetherby says, in my novel, “Avon Street”:-

 “Have you any idea of how they adulterate the beer in the ale houses around Avon Street? It is full of foxglove, henbane, opium and God knows what other concoctions. They use chemicals so that they can water down the beer, keep its taste and appearance, but make it stronger, and still sell it cheaply.”

Indian Berry, Henbane, Nux Vomica and Opium were used to increase the intoxicating proper­ties of the watered down beer. Foxglove, Jalap and Potash were used to keep the bitter taste and to stop it from turning sour. Most of these ingredients were of course poisonous and carried severe side-effects.

In 1851 “The Lancet,” (medical journal) commissioned a doctor from the London Royal Free Hospital to examine the adulteration of thirty common foods in Britain. The study revealed that:-

Rat and mice droppings, insects and faecal contamination were found in many foods. Tea imported from China contained 45% sand and dirt together with traces of sulphate of iron; lard contained carbonate of soda and caustic lime; coffee included chicory, mangel wurzel, sawdust, and acorns; cocoa and chocolate were coloured with earth and included arrowroot and Venetian lead; sweets (candy) were found to contain chromate of lead, sulphate of mercury and various other noxious flavourings and colourings. Red lead and other chemical colourings were found to be routinely used in foodstuffs such as “Red Leicester Cheese.”

Even after the study by “The Lancet” was published, the merchants, tradespeople and government were slow to respond. Thankfully though, technology and innovation helped in the interim. In 1857 a process for the mass production of ice was patented allowing foods to be better preserved and transported. The availability of canned goods also increased. The army had been supplied with canned foods since 1820, but the cans had to be opened with a chisel or a bayonet, until the can-opener was invented in 1858. As technology improved, mass-produced processed foods like soups, sauces, biscuits, chocolate, pickles and egg-powder became more popular and were prepared to more rigorous standards. Finally, in 1860 that the Adulteration Act was passed, and though it was largely resisted, in 1872 official inspectors were created with the power to test food and impose substantial fines. Quality and safety of food “magically” began to  improve.

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Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci - Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Bath – Guildhall and Entrance to Markets –by M. Gauci – Victoria Art Gallery Collection

Beau Nash made the city of Bath into the most fashionable resort in 18th-century England. In his role as Master of Ceremonies he organised the premier social events in the city and chose who should, and should not be invited. He established a select list of people who he defined as the cream of Society, and more importantly he changed the social conventions of the city.

Nash broke down the old order dominated by the nobility and gentry, and promoted the nouveaux- riches. Whereas in other cities the growing number of wealthy industrialists and tradespeople were still looked down on because of their background, in Bath, Nash welcomed them as elite members of society.

The affluent tourists rented houses and apartments and all the trappings that went with them; crockery and cutlery, silver-ware and ornaments, horses and carriages, servants and attendants. For years the city thrived on the wealth of visitors who stayed for the Season. Prominent architects designed fine buildings and the city grew. Milsom Street became one of the most prestigious shopping areas in the country. The City also had a fine theatre and there were regular costume balls in the Assembly Rooms and the Guildhall. Visitors “took the waters” in the spa baths and the social elite met daily in The Pump Rooms.

By 1801, when Jane Austen moved to Bath, the city was the 9th largest in England, with a population of 33,000. Yet the city’s fortunes had already begun to decline. Bath had changed in character and atmosphere. It was becoming less fashionable and the wealthy were visiting less often, and their stays were becoming shorter. Built in a bowl of seven hills, Bath’s ever-growing population became increasingly crowded into a relatively small area. It’s little wonder that when Jane Austen moved to the city, she wrote to her sister, Cassandra saying,

“The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; … the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Perhaps it is unsurprising that it seemed, “all smoke” when every household depended on coal fires for warmth, that it was “all confusion” when its roads were congested with carts and carriages. And in Georgian cities, once you set foot on the streets there was no escaping the bad drainage and lack of decent sanitation and sewerage systems. As Austen said in another letter to her sister,

“We stopped in Paragon (a prestigious address where her wealthy uncle lived) as we came along, but it was too wet and dirty for us to get out.”

By the time “Persuasion” was published in 1817, the larger part of Bath’s population was working class. Industry was thriving in the city, supplying the shops in Milsom Street and drawing people from the countryside to fill the jobs created. Yet the servants and the people who worked in the factories and sweat-shops, the costermongers and shop-assistants, the building labourers and hotel staff were, for the most part, poorly paid – and the poor did not fit neatly into the City’s image.

The only housing they could afford was overcrowded and poorly maintained, and the slum areas around Avon Street were increasing in size, as quickly as they were deteriorating in quality and appearance. By 1850, the rookery of hovels and cheap boarding-houses in and around Avon Street were home to almost a quarter of the Bath’s population though the City and its visitors did their best to ignore the area.

In “Persuasion” Anne Elliot visits a friend in Westgate Buildings, despite Sir Walter’s warning of its unsuitableness –

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.”

In my novel, “Avon Street,” I set out to explore the two very different aspects of the City of Bath that co-existed uneasilly in the Victorian era. Since Westgate Buildings is on the border of the Avon Street area it seemed only fitting that I set the first chapter of my book in the same location where Austen hinted at the dual nature of the city.

Much of this piece was originally hosted on the Jane Austen’s World Blog on June 10, 2012.

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Workhouse Gate in Ireland in 1846

The Irish Famine began in 1845 and did not end until 1852.  In less than ten years, Ireland lost approximately one quarter of its population. One million people died of malnutrition and disease, and a further one million emigrated. It is hard to imagine the scale of the suffering involved, yet “emigration” seems such an inadequate word to use in relation to those who left their country, family and friends, and journeyed across the world. True they were leaving by choice, but it was for most, a choice between life and death. Like other emigrants they were also in search of a better life, but “better” meant any improvement in the daily battle to stay alive and feed their families. The migrants all had dreams and hopes for the future, but they also had fears, and few can have really known what lay ahead of them.

Exactly where the migrants travelled to and in what numbers is difficult to determine precisely as many made their own arrangements rather than using government channels. It is known that in the three years 1847-49, at least 182,000 people emigrated to Canada, and 550,000 to the United States. Despite the availability of assisted passages fewer went to Australia as prospects appeared more limited and there was a fear of being treated as indentured servants, in the same way as convict labour. The journey by ship to Australia was also much longer and sea-travel was dangerous particularly for passengers in “steerage” class. For many these were “coffin ships.”

The passengers to North America and Canada paid between £5 and £6 for their passage, a huge amount of money for someone who earned on average, around £20 to £30 per year. The payment included a daily ration of bread and water for the journey, which took anything between 6 and 12 weeks. Bedding, cooking utensils, and any other food they had to provide themselves, and few had little more than the set of clothes they wore. Their accommodation was dark, damp, dirty and over-crowded. Already weakened by malnutrition and fleeing from Dublin where Typhus was endemic, many fell prey to disease.  The Quebec “Morning Chronicle” reported on July 24th 1847 that of the 57,000 emigrants that had set off for Canada since May 8th,  7,000 had died of typhus,

2,200 had died at sea,

1,000 after arrival but before landing,

and 3,800 since leaving the ship.

They had brought typhus with them and fever was already raging in some Canadian cities. It’s hardly possible to imagine the “welcome” they must have received.

Many of the migrants though, could not afford the long sea journey to America and the colonies, and settled in England, mainly in the larger cities where there was at least a prospect of finding work. In Manchester, most of the migrants ended up in “Angel Meadows.” These 33 acres close to the city centre housed between 20,000 and 30,000 people in “purpose-built” housing.  The dark streets, passageways and alleys that linked the housing, were dangerous places frequented by gangs known as ‘scuttlers.’  A London journalist, Angus Reach, visited “Angel Meadows” in 1849 and reported:-

“The lowest, most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester is called, singularly enough, ‘Angel-meadow.’ It is full of cellars and inhabited by prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, cadgers, vagrants, tramps and, in the very worst sties of filth and darkness, by those unhappy wretches the ‘low Irish.”

The back-to-back terraces had one room in the cellar, one on the ground floor and one on the first floor. The cellar rooms, accessed via a dark passageway below street level, were the cheapest, the first floor rooms the most expensive. Each room housed an individual, or more likely, a family, or group of people.  Outside privies (toilets) were provided at the rate of 1 per 100 inhabitants. The journalist, Reach, visited one basement room and wrote this:-

“The place was dark, except for the glare of a small fire. You could not stand without stooping in the room which might be about twelve feet by eight. There were at least a dozen men, women and children on stools, or squatted on the stone floor, round the fire, and the heat and smells were oppressive… the inmates slept huddled on the stones, or on masses of rags, shavings and straw which were littered about. There was nothing like a bedstead in the place.”

The Angel Meadows area of Manchester was eventually demolished and paved-over, together with the former burial ground of St Michael’s Church, which contained the mass graves of 40,000 paupers. In fact, most of the rookeries and slum areas that fed the Industrial Revolution in Britain have been demolished and built-over, including the “Avon Street” area of Bath. It’s a good thing. Slums should be demolished. But we should remember the struggle of generation after generation for decent housing, sanitation, health-care, education and democracy.

The people who lived in Angel Meadows andAvon Street deserve to be remembered. If nothing else they are part of what made us who we are. They  help us to understand and empathise with those who are going through the same thing now, no matter which part of the world they live in, or come from. They also show what people are capable of, given the opportunity, and help us value what we have now, thanks to their sacrifices and struggles in the past. It’s easy to think of the Irish migrants as the “lucky” ones, the ones who escaped. After all, the descendants of those who survived are now respected members of their communities. Yet for many, it was no easy escape, but one that often took generations to achieve.

For those who want to read more about Coffin Ships, the “Great Hunger” and Irish Migration to Canada, there is an excellent piece with several good illustrations on J.G. Burdette’s Blog – “Setting Sail : Irish Immigration During the Potato Famine.”

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Like our own era, the Victorian age was a time of great change. For some it was an age of  prosperity, for others it was an age of desperation. This was the first age of consumerism and the Industrial Revolution was in many ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. Mass production and increased international trade made more and more products available and affordable for those who could pay.  And with the growth in industry and trade, the middle classes grew in number and wealth, and wanted to buy as much as possible of what was on offer.

These first lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens are certainly amongst the best openings to a novel ever written. But not only do they set the tone and atmosphere of the book and give a flavour of what is to come, they also capture a taste of the challenges and uncertainties of the Victorian era.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

While the Wealthy and the new Middle Classes prospered in the Victorian era, the Working Class did not.  Work, whether in factories, sweat-shops and mines was invariably dirty and dangerous; hours were long and poorly paid. Children had to work, in order for families to survive, and working conditions were often worse for children than they were for their parents. Towns and cities grew quickly to house the workers, but much of the housing was poor quality and overcrowded. Vast slum areas sprung up, putting pressures on water supplies and the disposal of waste. Coal fires and factories filled the air with smoke and other pollutants. The reaction to living conditions and the gap between the haves and have-nots generated rebellion  in many parts of Europe, as people fought for basic human rights in bloody revolutions. In Britain any signs of revolution were ruthlessly suppressed.

Drunkenness was common amongst the working poor, as alcohol was one of the few affordable escapes from hard lives. It was seen by the better off as a reason for poverty, rather than a symptom. Meanwhile opium and a range of other drugs were used by brewers to strengthen beer while keeping down costs. Drugs were also readily available in Victorian times for the better-off. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes injects cocaine when there are no stimulating cases to occupy his mind, much to the disapproval of Dr Watson. Opium dens also feature in Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Yet the real drugs “problem” in Victorian times was not with the illicit drugs that were largely frowned upon, but the propriety medicines that were consumed in great quantities, but little spoken of. Numerous popular household remedies and tonics contained substantial amounts of opium and yet could be bought over the counter. These included “Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne” a general nerve tonic, “Dover’s Powder” used to treat a wide variety of common complaints and “Godfrey’s Cordial” which was commonly given to children and infants to “help” them sleep – and of course the ever popular, “laudanum.”

Nowhere were these contradictions in Society more obvious than in the Morality of the Victorians. They say the Victorians invented Childhood, treating the child as someone who needed to be protected and nurtured, and yet children as young as five were working in mines and factories, quite legally, during much of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Women too, in the middle-class household were regarded almost as saints, “protected” from anything that might offend or morally corrupt. Yet they were often little more than prisoners in their own homes with few freedoms in terms of what they could own, or how they could behave; while  outside the home, prostitution and pornography were rife.

Great play is made of the philanthropy of the Victorians and the fine public buildings often financed from private fortunes; and indeed there were many genuine philanthropists. Yet this philanthropy also masks in some ways the incredible wealth-divide between the haves and have-nots and the terrible working and living conditions of the vast majority of the population. Yet gradually awareness of the plight of the poor spread. Not least of the factors in this growing awareness was the writing of Charles Dickens. Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces and voices to the poor and proclaiming their humanity. He perhaps more than any other writer changed his world and helped shape the future.

Over the course of Victoria’s reign Britain changed; the right to vote was extended and with greater democracy came improvements in working conditions, housing and education. Yet it leaves me wondering how much of this was down to “Victorian Values” as opposed to the long and sometimes bloody struggle for the basic human rights, that we now sometimes take for granted. We are now in the midst of a Technological Revolution, a new age of consumerism. the world is shrinking again as communication and transport get ever faster. And yet looking around that shrinking world it’s obvious that many millions are going through the worst ravages of the Victorian Industrial Revolution. The opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities” remains as relevant now as it was when it was written.

Much of this post was hosted on the FLY HIGH website on 26th June 2012, but I thought I’d post it here too. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and its similarities to modern life. “Avon Street” takes the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.

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A more horrible or revolting crime than this bombardment of Canton has never been committed in the worst ages of barbaric darkness.”

“The Morning Herald”

The wealthier classes in Victorian England had an almost insatiable demand for tea, silk, porcelain, and manufactured goods. Much of this came from China, but unfortunately the Chinese, a very independent nation, did not need much that the English had to trade. That is until enterprising minds in the East India Company thought of trading opium from India.

The Chinese banned the import of the drug, but the East India Company bribed their way past officials and smuggled it into the country. Quantities increased from 5,000 chests in 1820, to 16,000 chests in 1830, each chest containing about 70 Kilos. It became a major problem in the country as the number of users grew and their consumption increased. The trade increased and though outlawed, went largely unchecked until the Chinese government appointed an official called Lin Tse-hsii to deal with the problem.

Lin got rid of the corrupt officials who were allowing the Opium into the country.  He closed down supply lines and arrested pushers. In 1839 the British Traders found themselves with 20,000 chests of unsold Opium, on their store-ships and warehouses in Canton. Lin seized the opium and destroyed it, described by a Western traveller and writer of the time (H. Wells Williams) as follows:-

“The opium was destroyed in the most thorough manner, by mixing it in parcels of 200 chests, in trenches, with lime and salt water, and then drawing off the contents into adjacent creek at low tide.”

Lin wrote to Queen Victoria asking her to stop the Opium trade. He argued that since the consumption of Opium had been banned in England because of its harmful effects, it should not be exported to other countries. But despite Lin’s pleas the trade continued, and when a fleet of Chinese junks tried to block the English Merchant vessels in November 1839 Britain declared war on China, and so began the first “Opium War“.

British warships sailed up the Yangtse and imposed a blockade on anyone trying to trade with China. They sunk Chinese ships, bombarded forts and ports with artillery and dropped landing parties of troops on the mainland. Better armed and better trained the British army inflicted heavy losses. An Englishman who saw the fighting in Canton said,

 “Field pieces (cannon) loaded with grape(shot)  were planted at the end of long, narrow streets crowded with innocent men, women and children, to mow them down like grass till the gutters flowed with their blood.”

The Times correspondent reported  that in one engagement,

“half an army of 10,000 men were in ten minutes destroyed by the sword or forced into the broad river.”

The war lasted until 1843 when under the Treaty of Nanking, China was forced to pay $6 million dollars for the destroyed Opium, to pay millions more in “reparations,” to open up 5 “treaty ports” for the exclusive use of the British and to hand over Hong Kong as a colony. The war on drugs in China was lost as soon as the Treaty was signed. By 1879 China was importing 6,700 tons per annum, and by 1906, China was producing 85% of the world’s opium.

Back in England, though opium was illegal, it was commonly used throughout much of the 19th century to adulterate cheap beer and was routinely prescribed by doctors for complaints such as sleeplessness, bad stomach, depression and nervousness. It was also the main ingredient of the many popular “tonics” of the time, bought over the counter in any chemist or available from the local patent medicine seller. As Richard, one of the characters (a doctor) in my book  “Avon Street” says:-

Half the city takes “Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne” or some other concoction of opium and cannabis to help them feel better…They feel better because half of the time they are walking around in a dream.

There can be little doubt that Victorian Britain was the most successful drugs cartel in History.

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Satirical Depiction of Anti-Garrotting Outfit - "Punch" Magazine 1856 "OH, Meet me by moonlight alone,

“OH, Meet me by moonlight alone,
And then I will give you the hug,
With my arm round your neck tightly thrown,
I’m as up to the work as a Thug.
Behind you I softly will creep,
And taking you quite unawares,
On my prey like a tiger I’ll leap;
If I happen to choke you, who cares?

So meet me by moonlight alone,
Kind stranger, I beg and entreat,
And I’ll make all your money my own,
And leave you half dead in the street.”

Punch – December 27th 1862

Charles Dickens died in 1870 having completed only six of the planned twelve instalments of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” Most people believe that Edwin Drood, is murdered by his uncle, John Jasper, and  Dickens certainly left many clues in the novel to suggest that Jasper is the murderer. His illustrator, Luke Fildes, also reported at the time that Dickens had told him, when they were discussing an illustration, “I must have the double necktie! It is necessary, for Jasper strangles Edwin Drood with it.”

But is Jasper, too obvious a killer? Was Edwin Drood strangled and would the means of the murder be significant? We will never know if, strangulation was intended as a “red-herring,” an attempt by Dickens to muddy the waters of the mystery. or if it  was it meant to be a valid clue.  Another character, Neville Landless also had a motive for murdering Edwin Drood. Was Jasper trying to “frame” him, or might he have been the murderer? Landless had a violent temper and coming from Ceylon, would have been all too familiar with the cult of the “Thuggee” – as were most of Dickens’ readers.

The Thuggees were assassins and thieves, and the origin of the word, “thug.” Their method was to gain the confidence of their intended victim by feigning friendship. Then using the element of surprise, they garrotted them with a scarf, or tie, or cord around their necks. The ritualistic killings always followed a similar pattern. Victims were usually strangled from behind. Perhaps nowadays, the significance of this “clue” is sometimes overlooked, in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” Readers in dickens’ days would have been all too aware of its significance though – and its supposed origins in the East.

In the late 1860s, a new terror  stalked the streets of Victorian London.  Incidents of “garrottings” filled the newspapers; frequent letters to “The Times” deplored the epidemic of such crimes and demanded that something be done about them. Advertisements for protective collars to prevent strangulation became commonplace. The illustration above from “Punch” magazine was meant as a satire on such devices, but panic regarding the crime was widespread in the streets of London. This was an extract from “Cornhill” magazine in 1863:-

“The long summer nights had scarcely ended, the doors of that most civilizing Exhibition at Brompton were not yet closed, when we were surprised by the most inclement ruffianism that ever disgraced a nineteenth century. Once more the streets of London are unsafe, by day or night. The epidemic has come upon us again, and we are just as unprepared and as helpless as before. ..To fear the plague is to be half dead of it; and by the time a gang of desperadoe have intimidated no whole city they have become to other rogues so glorious that they are sure to be imitated, and imitated by bungling ruffians more dangerous even than the original practitioners. This has been shown already in the rise and progress of the garrotte system of robbery. At first, it was a scientific operation, abundantly cruel, but not absolutely murderous; the intention was neither to kill nor to maim. The audacity of the system, its novelty, and the difficulty of guarding against it, terrified the public; and this terror gave the very best testimony that could be borne to the merits of a practice already too inviting to crime. Rogues with a good heart for such work but no skill, rude unhandy villains, took up the trade, and now it is carried on with a ferocity more than brutal.”

Which begs the question – How important would the method of murder have proved to be, in solving the mystery of Edwin Drood? Was Jasper framing (the mysterious character from the East) Landless, or was Landless  the culprit, or was it just another misleading clue from a master-novelist? Whatever the case, his readers  would have been all too familiar with the fear of strangulation, and Dickens would have used that fear.

(Note – This outbreak of “garrotting” in London in the 1860s is another example of the strange incidents I came across in researching Victorian crime for “Avon Street.”)

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