Until the 20th century drug abuse (as we would term it) wasn’t really a matter for the law. Despite characterisations of areas such as Limehouse in the East End as overrun by opium dens London actually had relatively few addicts compared to the USA or Europe. Britain had of course famously fought a war to ensure that it could continue to supply the people of China with opium (against the wishes of the Chinese government) – an interesting reversal of modern fears about ‘foreign’ imported drugs being used to undermine our citizens’ physical and mental health.
In fact opium was widely available in England in the 19th century, and not just from opium dens or the local Chinese population. You could get opium, or its derivatives such as laudanum , from the chemist until well into the 1920s.
So when James Clark (a 65 year-old traveler) and James Prior, described as a labourer, were brought before the magistrate at Lambeth charged with having in their possession 2 and a half gallons of ‘over-proof’ spirits and 3lb of opium it was the alcohol that concerned the authorities, not the ‘hard’ drugs.
They had been under suspicion and when they were followed by officers from the Inland Revenue their barrow was found to contain the ‘articles mentioned in the charge’, of ‘which they gave a very unsatisfactory account’.
They were also personally searched and papers were found on them that linked them to a gang concerned with the ‘illicit trade’ in the sale of unlicensed liquor. This was a case of tax evasion not the supply of illegal drugs that it would have been today.
The alcohol they had was ‘at least 50% over proof’ which presumably means they intended to dilute it to make considerably more than the 2.5 gallons they already had. The justice told them they could be liable for a massive fine, of up to £500. Instead he fined them £50 (or four months imprisonment) and £15 (or two) respectively, with the more serious sentence for Clark.
What happened to the opiates is anybody’s guess.
[from The Standard, Wednesday, February 05, 1890]