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Mitcham, Opium Capital of England

Today it is Afghanistan. A couple of decades ago it was the “golden triangle” in South-East Asia. Before that it was India and Mexico, China and Turkey. Opium and the people who grow it were always the outsiders, the infidels, the Oriental fiends. Even as harassed Victorian mothers lulled their children to sleep with laudanum-laced patent medicines, they shuddered at tales in the popular press of East End opium dens run by Chinamen just off the junk from Shanghai.

So it comes as a shock to discover that Mitcham—a dormitory suburb of south London just off the end of the Underground map—was once the drugs capital of Britain. For through much of the 19th century, the water meadows of Mitcham were alive with white opium poppies. This little corner of Surrey was the largest centre of cultivation of the dreaded plant in Britain. It was the golden triangle of the home counties.

Opium Poppy

The village of Mitcham, in the sleepy headwaters of the River Wandle, was for some 150 years the medicinal plants capital of England. As Surrey squire Sir T. Cato Worsfold recalled at the turn of the last century: “Almost everything in the vegetable kingdom that had a healing virtue in the medical world was produced in the village.” And that included much that was narcotic, as well as much that was fragrant and soothing.

Back then people didn't distinguish between bad and good drugs the way they do today. Opium had been a staple of life in Britain since at least the Middle Ages. In the 17th century it was embraced by Thomas Sydenham, often regarded as Britain's first modern doctor, though more as a sedative than a mind-altering agent. Early in the 19th century, at least half the national intake was consumed in the marsh fens of Cambridge and Lincoln, where it eased the malarial fevers still rife there.

But demand soared throughout the country for much of the rest of the century, as it became an ingredient of hundreds of patent medicines, often in the form of laudanum—a mixture of opium and alcohol. It stopped the runs, cured gout, soothed toothaches and dulled menstruation pains.

Queen Victoria used it, as the records of the local pharmacy in her Scottish Highlands fastness at Balmoral attest. By one estimate, a sixth of all the children in the country were regularly sent to sleep with Godfrey's Cordial—a judicious mixture of opium, treacle, water and spices. In the 1870s, some 100 tonnes of opium was consumed in Britain annually. In its many forms it became the aspirin of its day.

Despite this, Britons have persisted in seeing opium as an alien invader. But although it's true that the opium poppy grows better in hotter climes, it has a long history in Britain. Archaeologists recently found opium poppy seeds in an underwater excavation of a Scottish settlement in Perthshire, some 2500 years old.

Maybe cultivation died out. But its revival was ensured by a campaign run in the 1790s by the Society of Arts in London to encourage the growing of pharmaceutical plants. The society offered cash prizes to successful opium growers. One winner was John Ball, who produced a bumper crop on his land at Williton on the Somerset Levels, selling the harvest to local apothecaries.

It would not have been long before this came to the attention of Mitcham's farmers. Starting around 1750, they built up a huge business supplying London and elsewhere with every kind of pharmaceutical plant and fragrant herb. Major James Moore of Figges Marsh was the big cultivator in the heyday of the first half of the 19th century, along with his neighbour James Arthur of Pound Farm.

“Probably there is not in the whole kingdom a single parish on which the wholesale druggists and distillers of the metropolis draw more largely for their supplies,” said local chronicler Edward Walford in 1884.

They set aside hundreds of acres around the village of Mitcham for what became known as the Mitcham Physic Garden, a cornucopia of the fragrant, the toxic, the hallucinogenic, the anaesthetic and, sometimes no doubt, the fraudulent. They set up stills and mills to process the products. Some famous names began here. The Yardley cosmetics company, for instance. Mitcham Mints became famous sweets. And Moore's family got together with their relatives the Potters, and began pushing lavender fragrances under the Potter & Moore brand.

But not all was fragrance. In among the fields of camomile and liquorice, peppermint and caraway, Major Moore was growing opium poppies and other subsequently banned narcotics such as wormwood. The poppies were harvested both for their opium—the dried juice extracted from the unripe seed capsules—and for morphine, one of opium's most powerful alkaloids. By the 1830s, local records show that Mitcham poppy heads were the major source of “English opium” for London druggists.

Moore grew hemp too in the 1840s. It was a popular antidote to opium withdrawal symptoms, but was also used along with opium to treat for insanity. And he grew the hallucinogenic wormwood which was used in place of hops in local beer.

Benjamin Slater—one of a family of Slaters who mostly left for Australia, where they founded three towns called Mitcham, grew lavender and became the first to commercialise the eucalyptus tree—described the extraordinary variety of pharmaceutical plants growing in the fields of Mitcham (the one in Surrey), in a memoir written in 1911. The poppies “grew 5 to 6 feet tall, with large heads as big as your fist, their stalks thick and strong”, he wrote.

He went on to describe how he had eaten a piece of wormwood in the fields and “shuddered from head to foot” at its bitterness. Saffron too was “a poison”, he said, along with the “pretty little green foliage” of lavender cotton, and the “very deadly” monkshood.

Opium gradually fell out of favour at the end of the 19th century, partly because of growing medical concern about its psychotropic and physical effects, and partly because of late Victorian panics about Chinamen and the like. With the introduction of the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act, it finally became illegal in Britain to possess opium without a doctor's prescription. The drug went underground, re-emerging as heroin.

Soon history was being rewritten. The opium poppies were written out. The local council publishes a book The Story of Lavender, but nothing on the Mitcham poppy. Nonetheless, if public morals had taken a different turn, perhaps Potter & Moore would have become famous in the 20th century for its “English opium” rather than for its lavender-scented toiletries.

From issue 2319 of New Scientist magazine, 01 December 2001, page 46

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