Opium – “Mother’s Friend.”

Glass Pharmacy Bottles with old  Labels

A number of poisons are referenced in Vote for Murder, as one might expect in a murder mystery.  Mary Cage, despite her poverty, was an opium eater.  This use of drugs, among the poorest in Victorian society, might seem unlikely but opium was, in fact, readily available and extremely cheap.  To put it in context, it was possible to purchase a quarter of an ounce of opium for the same price as a pint of beer.  In East Anglia, opium was widely sold in pills and penny sticks.  In other parts of the country it was dispensed as “poppy tea.”

Opiates or laudanum, caused episodes of euphoria, but these highs were followed by bouts of depression, slurred speech, restlessness and poor concentration.  Long term use of laudanum caused addiction but there were other short term symptoms including muscular aches, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Perhaps the most concerning use of opiates, was as a ‘quietener’ for children.  Mary Cage used opium pills to subdue her children in Vote for Murder:

“…two nights with no sleep has a remembering effect and I crushed the pills down and the children lay torpid and quiet about me, as Mary Ann and James had done those many years before.”

The use of opiates to subdue children was common place in working class households. Proprietary medicines were manufactured for the express purpose of calming children.  Godfrey’s cordial, a preparation of opium, water and treacle, was known as “mother’s friend.”

With the sale of drugs unrestricted and little or no direction on how to use opiates, deaths of children were inevitable.  The article below, from the Nottingham Evening Post 22 June 1907, recounts the sad demise of Aubrey Samuel Barnes:

Nottingham Child’s Death

An inquest was held at Leen-side this afternoon touching the death of Aubrey Samuel Barnes aged ten months, whose parents live at 144, Portland Road, Nottingham.

Kate Elizabeth Frances Barnes, the mother of the child and the wife of Frederick William Barnes, lace manufacturer, said deceased had suffered from bronchitis and constipation and had been under Dr. Roberts’ treatment.  She had also given it a cordial which she obtained some time before for herself.  On the label of the bottle was inscribed, “Infants’ Cordial. Poison.”  She obtained it from Mr. J.G. Wildgoose, chemist, of Alfreton Road.  There were no directions on the bottle.  She gave the child a dose at midnight on Wednesday.  On the following day she sent for Dr. Smith, who paid frequent visits, but death took place in the evening.

Dr. Smith stated that when he saw the child on Thursday morning it was in a state of collapse from narcotic poisoning.  It was a puny infant, and had evidently suffered from bronchitis.  Witness ascribed death to bronchitis, accelerated by narcotic poisoning.  The cordial referred to contained opium. Opium was very detrimental to children under twelve months, although it was a common thing for parents to give it.  In some parts of Nottingham, the common use of laudanum amounted to an abuse.

John Wildgoose, chemist, of Alfreton Road, said that the cordial which he sold contained a preparation of opium.  A spoonful of the cordial would have about a sixth of a grain of opium.

The Coroner suggested to witness that he ought to put the prescribed dose on the label, especially as the cordial was taken by both adults and infants.

The jury found that death was due to misadventure, and expressed the opinion that the chemist should state in future on the label the amount of the dose that should be taken.