A Night in an Opium Den, 1891

An intrepid journalist follows in the smoke rings of Dickens (or does he?)

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“With a final grin which threatened to distort permanently his features, he bade us follow him, and led the way up the most villainously treacherous staircase which it has ever been my lot to ascend.”

This is a rather enjoyable article from an 1891 edition of The Strand magazine… See my editorial notes underneath for more about its author.

Yes, I have smoked opium in Ratcliff Highway, and in the den which was visited by Charles Dickens [see editor’s note below], and through the pipe which had the honour of making that distinguished novelist sick.

‘And did you have lovely dreams? and what were they like?’ asks a fair reader.

Yes, I had lovely dreams, and I have no doubt that by the aid of imagination, and a skilful manipulation of De Quincey, I could concoct a fancy picture of opium-smoking and its effects, which might pass for a faithful picture of what really occurred. But what those dreams were, I could not for the life of me now describe, for they were too aërial and unsubstantial to be caught and fixed, like hard facts, in words, by any other pen than that of a Coleridge, or a De Quincey. I might as well attempt to convey to you, by means of a clay model, an idea of the prism-fires and rainbow-hues that circle, and change, and chase each other round the pictured sides of that floating fairy-sphere which we call a soap-bubble, as attempt, unassisted, to describe my dreams in words. Hence it is that in this narrative, I have confined myself strictly to the facts of my experiences.

The proprietor

The proprietor of the den which I visited was a Chinaman named Chang, who positively grinned me over from head to foot – not only when I was first made known to him by the friend who had piloted me to the establishment, but as long as I remained within grinning range. An uninformed onlooker might not unnaturally have concluded that I was stone deaf and dumb, and that our host was endeavouring to express, by his features, the cordiality he was unable to convey in words. In reply to every casual remark made by my companion, the Chinaman would glance up for a moment at his face, and then turn round to grimace again at me, as though I, and I only, were the subject of their conversation, and he was half afraid I might think he did not take a becoming interest in it. In the few words which I exchanged with him, I found him exceedingly civil, and he took great pains to explain to me that his wearing no pigtail was attributable, not to his own act and deed, but to the fact that that ornament had been cut off by some person or persons unknown, when he was either drunk or asleep – I could not quite make out which.

The smile became more rigid than ever, when I informed him that I was anxious to smoke a pipe of opium. The way in which he turned his face upon me (including the smile, which enveloped and illumined me in its rays) was, for all the world, like the turning-on by a policeman of a bull’s-eye lantern. With a final grin which threatened to distort permanently his features, he bade us follow him, and led the way up the most villainously treacherous staircase which it has ever been my lot to ascend.

A villainous staircase

‘Den’ was an appropriate name for the reeking hole to which he conducted us. It was dirty and dark, being lit only by a smoking lamp on the mantel-shelf, and was not much larger than a full-sized cupboard. The walls, which were of a dingy yellow (not unlike the whites of the smokers’ eyes) were quite bare, with the exception of the one facing the door, on which, incongruously enough, was plastered a coarsely coloured and hideous print of the crucifixion. The furniture consisted of three raised mattresses, with small tables on which were placed pipes, lamps, and opium.

In the den

Huddled or curled up on these mattresses lay two wretched smokers – one of them with the whites, or, I should say, yellows, of his eyes turned up to the ceiling, and another, whose slumbers we had apparently disturbed, staring about him with a dazed and stupefied air. Something in the look of these men – either the ghastly pallor of their complexion, or the listlessness of their bearing – reminded me not a little of the ‘white lepers’ of Norway. I have seen patients in the hospitals there whose general aspect greatly resembled that of these men, although the skin of the white leper has more of a milky appearance – as if it had been bleached, in fact – than that of the opium-smoker, which is dirtier and more yellow. The remaining occupants of the den, two of whom were Chinamen, were wide awake. The third was a partly naked Malay of decidedly evil aspect, who shrank back on my entrance, and coiled himself up in the recesses of a dark corner, whence he lay furtively watching me, very much in the same way in which the prisoned pythons in a serpent-house watch the visitors who come to tap at the glass of their cages. The Chinamen, however, seemed pleased to see me; and, after I had handed my cigar-case to the nearest, begging that he and his friend would help themselves, they became quite companionable.

At this point of my visit, and before I could take any further stock of the surroundings, I was not a little surprised by the entrance of a young, and by no means ill-looking Englishwoman, to whom I gave a civil ‘good evening’, receiving, however, only a suspicious and surly nod in reply. She occupied herself at first by tickling one of the Chinamen under the armpits, evidently finding no little amusement in the fits of wild, unearthly, and uncontrollable laughter into which he broke, but growing weary of this, she seated herself on the raised mattress where I was located, and proceeded to take stock of her visitor. Beginning at my boots, and travelling up by way of trousers and waistcoat, up to my collar and face, she examined me so critically and searchingly from head to foot that I fancied once or twice I could see the row of figures she was inwardly casting up, and could hear her saying to herself, ‘Boots and trousers, say, sixty bob; and watch and chain, a couple of flimsies each; which, with coat and waistcoat, bring it up to thirty shiners; which, with a couple of fivers for links, loose cash and studs make about forty quid – that's your figure young man, as near as I can reckon it.’

While this was going on, my host, Mr Chang, was busily making preparations for my initiatory smoke by sticking small pellets of the opium (a brownish, glue-like substance) upon a pin, and rolling and re-rolling them against the pipe, which is about the size of a small flute, and has a big open bowl with a tiny aperture at the base. Into this aperture the drug-smeared pin is slipped, and the pipe is then held over a lamp, and the fumes of the burning opium inhaled. The occupation is by no means a luxurious one; for, as surely as I removed the pipe from my lips to indulge in a furtive cough (and it did make me cough a bit at first), it inevitably went out. By means of repeated applications to the lamp, however, I managed to get through the allotted number of pipes, and sank slowly and insensibly into the deep waters of slumber, until at last they closed over my head, and I was swept and borne unresistingly away upon the vast seaward setting tide of sleep.

Of my dreams, as I have already said, I have but the haziest of recollections. I can just recall a sensation of sailing, as on a cloud, amid regions of blue and buoyant ether; of seeing, through vistas of purple and gold, a scene of sunny seas and shining shores, where, it seemed to me, I beheld the fabled ‘Blessed Isles’, stretching league beyond league afar; and of peeps of paradisial landscapes that swam up to me as through a world of waters, and then softened and sank away into a blending of beauteous colours, and into a vision of white warm arms and wooing bosoms.

I woke to wonder where I was, and where were my boots, my hat, and my umbrella; woke to find the faithless friend, who had promised to guard my slumbers, sleeping peacefully at his post; and woke with a taste in my mouth which can only be likened to a cross between onions and bad tobacco. And this taste, in conjunction with a splitting headache and a general lowness of spirits, served, for the next day or two, to keep me constantly in remembrance of my visit to the opium den in Ratcliff Highway.

Editor’s note:

‘A Night in an Opium Den’ was cryptically subtitled ‘By the author of “A Dead Man’s Diary”’. A quick search of the Internet Archive reveals this charmingly annotated copy indicating who the anonymous author really was:

The unmasked Coulson Kernahan was in fact a prolific author of the era, often in conjunction with his wife, Jean Gwynne Bettany. The University of Reading has a collection of their letters.

Kernahan mentions going to the same den that Dickens had visited – in fact, Dickens only commissioned the article ‘Lazarus, Lotus-Eating’ for his magazine All the Year Round from one Joseph Charles Parkinson – who turns out, rather surprisingly, to have worked for the ‘Accountant and Comptroller-General’s Department’ of the Inland Revenue!

(Next time: a second trip to Victorian London, before we go further afield in time and space…)

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