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decorated initial 'M'edical officers were convinced that one of the major causes of infant mortality was the widespread practice of giving children narcotics, especially opium, to quieten them. At 1d an ounce laudanum was cheap enough — about the price of a pint of beer — and its sale was totally unregulated unitl late in the century. The use of opium was widespread both in town and country. In Manchester, according to one account, five out of six working-class families used it habitually. One Manchester druggist admitted selling a half gallon of Godfrey's Cordial (the most popular mixture, it contained opium, treacle, water, and spices) and betwen five and six gallons of what was euphemistically called "quietness" every week. In Nottingham one member of the Town Council, a druggist, sold four hundred gallons of laudanum annually. At mid-century there were at least ten proprietary brands, with Godfrey's Cordial, Steedman's Powder, and the grandly named Atkinson's Royal Infants Preservative among the most popular. In East Anglia opium in pills and penny sticks was widely sold and opium-taking was described as a way of life there. . . . Throughout the Fens it was used in 'poppy tea,' and doctors there reported how the infants were wasted from it — 'shrank up into little old men,' 'wizened like little monkeys' is the way they were described. . . .

Opium killed far more infants through starvation than directly through overdose. Dr. Greenhow, investigating for the Privy Council, noted how children 'kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished.' Marasmus, or inanitition, and death from severe malnutrition would result, but the coroner was likely to record the death as 'debility from birth,' or 'lack of breast milk,' or simply 'starvation.'

References

Wohl, Anthony S. Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983. pp. 34-35.


Victorian Web Public Health

Last modified 1989