2. The Cultivation of Opium in Britain

bulk of the opium used in England at this time was thus imported. But
there were also small-scale attempts at domestic cultivation of the
drug in the early years of the nineteenth century. Opium was a very
minor, if surprising, part of the move towards agricultural
`improvement‘ in Britain at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of
the nineteenth centuries. Although much of the fundamental
transformation of landownership and farming was already established by
the middle of that century, the later eighteenth and early part of the
nineteenth century was a time of increasing output and productivity,
when changes in crops and crop-rotation, new methods of stock-breeding
and an increase in the size of farms consolidated the move to
commercial farming techniques.‘ Opium’s inclusion with turnips and
rhubarb in the agricultural discussions of the period was one sidelight
on the content of agricultural innovation. It was an indication, too,
of the drug’s acceptability; the `home-grown‘ product bore witness to
the place of opium in society at the time.
`I make no doubt it may
be brought to the greatest perfection in this country, and rendered at
one half the price at which we have it from the East, and without the
least adulteration…‘ John Ball, who wrote this letter in 1796 to the
Society of Arts, was referring to his cultivation of opium. In a letter
two years previously, he had written
I think amazing quantities are
consumed every year; and am of opinion, that there is twenty times
more opium used now in England only, than there was fifteen or twenty
years since, as great quantities are used in outward applications,
and it is continually advancing in price …2
Ball was a small
farmer from Williton in Somerset, and was among the first seriously to
consider the commercial possibilities of cultivating opium.
beginnings of experimentation had a lengthier history, for the white
opium poppy was indigenous in certain areas of the country, most
notably in the Fen ditches in parts of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire.
Poppy-head tea and fomentations made from poppy capsules had long been
widely used in domestic remedies,
in particular in that area. One
of the first to produce opium rather than poppy capsules was Dr Alston,
Professor of Botany and Materia Medica at Edinburgh in the middle of
the eighteenth century. Alston had begun his experiments in the 1730s,
although he did not write them up until 1742. He used primarily the
poppy, taking little account of debates on which variety was
the best to use. He thought that there was little difference, it was
simply that the white had the biggest head and so gave the most opium.3
eighteenth-century experimenters followed Alston’s example and used
methods of collection adapted from Far Eastern experience. Mr J. Kerr,
Surgeon to the Civil Hospital in Bengal, estimated in 1776 that one
acre harvested in this way in Britain could yield sixty pounds of
opium.4 Woodville, in his Medical Botany (1793), held out very
favourable hopes of the possibilities of domestic opium cultivation. He
himself had `appropriated a part of the garden at the Small-pox
Hospital‘. It was, he thought, `highly probable that the White Poppy
might be cultivated for the purpose of obtaining opium to great
advantage in Britain‘.5
Such hopes were the forerunner to the main
period of experimentation and discussion. This lasted for roughly
thirty years, from the late I790s until the mid-1820s, although
individual attempts at cultivation continued later in the century. The
Society of Arts, which had taken an interest in the introduction of new
medicinal plants, was the agency which encouraged extensive
experimentation. Its interest in the general area of drug cultivation
dated back to 1763, when it had appointed a committee to encourage the
introduction of rhubarb cultivation, offering a gold medal as
inducement. At the end of the century it began to take an interest in
opium as well, primarily after the approach by John Ball, to whom the
Society eventually awarded fifty guineas for his home-grown opium.
Fifty guineas or a gold medal were also offered in general for those
producing considerable quantities (at least twenty pounds) of the drug.
Another experimenter, Thomas Jones, used five acres of ground near
Enfield after an initial experiment in 1794. He managed, despite
numerous setbacks when seeds were strangled by weeds, and cold and dry
weather in May was nearly fatal to the growing plants, to produce
twenty-one pounds of opium. In 1800 he was the next recipient of the
financial prize.“
Other learned societies began to take an interest.
The Caledonian Horticultural Society aimed primarily to encourage the
production of lettuce opium, which it hoped might lack the ‚distressing
consequences‘ which sometimes resulted from the medical use of opium.
In 1810 it offered two prizes. One was for the best method of preparing
`soporific medicine‘ from the juice of the common garden lettuce, the
other for the best method of preparing opium in Britain and the most
advantageous manner of cultivating poppies for that purpose. One of the
first to claim the opium prize was Dr Howison, ex-Inspector of Opium in
Bengal, who, in 1813, described how he had found the double red garden
poppy the best plant for use in Scotland. He had experimented with the
white poppy in a plot about ten miles from London and had found that he
could collect milk better both in quality and in quantity from it
there. But the size of the plant was a disadvantage for cultivation in
Scotland, where strong winds were likely to break it down. Dr Howison
received the Society’s prize medal .7 But no further successes were
reported until 1820, when John Young, who had described his collection
of lettuce opium to the Caledonian Society, also received the Society
of Arts‘ gold medal. Young, an Edinburgh surgeon, aimed to demonstrate
that opium could be successfully cultivated in a cold wet climate. This
he amply did, for his experiments in cultivating poppies not just for
opium but for oil as well had given a profit of £50-£80 an acre. A
yield per acre of fifty-six pounds of opium, several hundred pounds of
oil and oil cakes, and a quantity of early potatoes prudently planted
in addition produced the handsome sum of £110 7s. 6d. profit.8
the most successful opium cultivators were Dr John Cowley and Mr
Staines of Winslow in Buckinghamshire, who, in 1823, received thirty
guineas from the Society for `143 Pounds of opium, of excellent
quality, collected by them from about eleven Acres of Land, planted
with the Papaver Somniferum‘.9
Opium cultivation did not end with
their efforts. Isolated experiments continued in various parts of the
country. But the main period of competition to produce the most and
best of the domestic variety was over. Opium cultivation, with reports
coming in from places as far apart as Edinburgh and Somerset, appears
not to have concentrated in any particular area of the country,
although cultivation was obviously more successful in southern England.
There was no generally agreed method of cultivation and each
experimenter tried to improve on that used by his predecessor. Mr Arnot
in 1742 was the first to describe cultivation:

What I have found
most successful is to trench a spot of new  rich ground, where
Poppies had not grown the preceding year; for if they are
continued several years on the same Ground they degenerate. A chusing
the ripest and whitest Seed of the great single-flowered Turkey Poppy,
I sow it in the month of March very thin and superficially in Drills at
two Foot Distance each, to allow Place for Weeding, etc. As soon as the
young Plants spring up, I take most of them away, leaving only the
strongest most thriving Plants at about a Foot distant from each other.

opium was collected by roughly the same method as it generally was in
the Far East – incisions were made into the poppy capsule and the milky
juice allowed to run out. This was then scraped from the poppy head
into a tin or other container and evaporated to obtain the pure opium.
Dr Alston had `collected
the pure Milk with a little Silver Spoon and my Finger into a China Tea-cup‘.
was an age of cheap and exploitable labour. The harvesting of opium was
still costly in man-hours and ways of circumventing this cost were much
discussed. Ball, Jones and Jeston explained the possibilities of child
labour. As Ball pointed out, with children making the incisions and
taking off the opium, `the expence [sic] will be found exceedingly
trifling‘. Jones and Jeston both carried the possibilities of child
labour to greater lengths, establishing a clear pay structure with
financial inducements. Jones, employing seven or eight boys between
eight and twelve years old with a man as superintendent, based his pay
scale on age and behaviour. `To the youngest, I gave threepence a day,
and, if tractable and well disposed, an additional penny for every
additional year.‘ Jeston favoured a productivity deal, with a rate of
eightpence a day and a penny for every extra bottle of opium collected.
labour was the main requirement. Cowley and Staines employed two women
for nine days in 1819, paying them a shilling a day. They commented
that `a general cultivation of opium would certainly be beneficial by
calling into action a description of persons not calculated for common
agricultural labour, and that
between hay-time and harvest‘. A
later experiment used unemployed lace-makers from the Winslow
neighbourhood. They had also employed six `peaceable and industrious‘
Irish migrant labourers (also paid a shilling a day for eleven hours‘
work) and noted that if cultivation was expanded beyond their present
fifteen acres of land then: `We must do it by the Irish, great numbers
of whom are every year seeking employment during the Opium Season.“ One
commentator even suggested that opium cultivation might be a means of
rejuvenating Irish economic life – `the cultivation of poppies …
might be very profitably undertaken in IRELAND, where labourers … are
abundant…‘.“ Opium could even provide the solution to the Irish
The growers of opium experienced little difficulty in
finding profitable outlets for their produce. Druggists were very ready
to buy a variety of the drug which was pure and unadulterated. John
Young, in his 1820 schedule of cash and profits, estimated the selling
price of his opium variously at between 17s. 6d. and thirty-
six shillings a pound, roughly equivalent to variations in the current price of best Turkey opium.12
opium found ready acceptance in medical circles. Thomas Jones’s opium
was used by a hospital physician in cases of acute rheumatism, disease
of the bowels and a case of hysteria. An apothecary at the Middlesex
Hospital used the home-grown product on Elizabeth Spraughton with a
`diseased state of the stomach‘, giving her a grain of opium every four
to six hours. Dr Latham of Bedford Row tried a one-grain soap and opium
pill made with John Ball’s opium and found it relieved his tickling
cough.13 Experiments were made with regular consumers of the drug, who
were asked to try British opium to see if it produced the same effect.
British opium was found more efficacious than the Turkey variety.“
was glowing testimony to the efficacy and purity of English opium. Some
observers even thought that local cultivation could supply domestic
medical needs. But British opium did not live up to such expectations.
The cultivation of the opium poppy never became widespread. The
existence of a domestic variety of the drug was quite widely known in
the first half of the century; and the various experiments obviously
made some public impact. ls It was unlikely that production continued
on any great scale. But some growers did continue the experimentation
of the early years of the century. Sir Roger Martin of Burnham Westgate
in Norfolk collected English opium there in the 1 840s. As late as the
1870s a Mr Dymond of Birmingham and Mr Sutton of Norwich were
describing experiments in its cultivation to fellow pharmacists. 16
Clearly many such small-scale attempts could have been made,
particularly in Norfolk, where the white opium poppy grew wild. At a
time when attempts were being made to produce opium on a commercial
scale in Western Europe, most notably in France and Germany, where
trials were made in the 1820s and again later in the century, it was
very likely that further attempts were madein England too. 17
only successful commercial production was not of opium, but of poppy
heads. This was well-established in the neighbourhood of Mitcham as
early as the 1830s. The London drug market obtained the bulk of its
supplies from the Mitcham growers. The poppy heads yielded an extract
known as `English opium‘ which contained 5 per cent morphia, a lower
proportion than in either the imported or home-grown variety. An
average bag of three thousand poppy capsules sold for about E4 Ms. in
the 1830s.18 There were attempts to use the obviously congenial Mitcham
climate for the production of cannabis, too.

But British opium
and British cannabis never became large-scale commercial propositions
to rival the pre-eminence of the imported drug in the early decades of
the century. The `precariousness of our climate‘, problems with
`marauding hares‘, the attractions of more easily grown and harvested
crops were all reasons for failure. The short-lived domestic experiment
in cultivation was an interesting, if very minor, facet of the general
move towards agricultural innovation and change in this period, the
establishment of a capitalist agricultural structure to parallel that
of industry. The calm discussion of its medical and agricultural
possibilities, the use of child labour, the balance sheets of profits
and losses which were drawn up, were in another sense interesting. For
the experiments, like the import of the drug, emphasized society’s
acceptance of opium use in any form at this time.


1. E. J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1969) pp. 98-9.
2. J. Ball, `English opium‘, Transactions of the Society … of Arts, 14 (1796), Pp. 253-70.
C. Alston, `A dissertation on opium‘, Medical Essays and Observations,
5, part 1 (1742), pp. 11o-76. See also T. Arnot, `A method of preparing
the extract and syrup of poppies‘, Medical Essays and Observations, 5,
Part 1 (1742) Pp. 105-9.
4. J. Kerr, `The culture of the white poppy
and preparation of opium in the province of Bahar‘, Medical
Observations and Inquiries, 5 (1776), PP. 317-22
5. W. Woodville,
Medical Botany (London, James Phillips, 1793), vol. 3, P. 506. See also
S. Crumpe, An Inquiry into the Nature and Properties of Opium (London,
G. G. and J. Robinson, 1793), p. 18.
6. T. Jones, `English opium‘,
Transactions of the Society … of Arts, 18 (1800), pp. 161-94; see
also J. Burnby, `Medals for British rhubarb‘, Pharmaceutical History, 2
(1971), pp. 6-7; and John Sherwen and Drug Cultivation in Enfield: A
Re-examination, Edmonton Hundred Historical Society occasional paper,
n.s. No. 23, 1973
7. A. Duncan, `Observations on the preparation of
soporific medicines from common garden lettuce‘, Memoirs of the
Caledonian Horticultural Society, 1(1814), p. 160; J. Howison, `Essay
on the preparation of opium in Britain‘, ibid., p. 365.
8. J. Young,
`English opium‘, Transactions of the Society … of Arts, 37 (1820),
pp. 23-39; `The Winslow opium‘, Pharmaceutical Journal, 4th set. 16o
(1948), pp. 106, 151. See also, for other experiments, G. Swayne, `On
the manufacture of British opium‘, Quarterly Journal of Science,
and the Arts, 8 (1820), pp. 234-40; 9 (182o), pp. 69-80; and J. W.
Jeston, `English opium‘, Transactions of the Society … of Arts, 41
(1823), PP. 17-31.
9. J. Cowley and Mr Staines, `English opium‘,
Transactions of the Society … of Arts, 40 (1823), PP. 9-29; 41 (1823)
PP. 15-16, and `On the cultivation of the white poppy and on the
preparation of English opium‘, Technical Repository, 7 (1825), p. 145.
10. J. Cowley and Mr Staines (1825), op. cit.
11. `Cultivation of opium in England‘, London Medical Repository, 24 (1825) P• 93.
12. J. Young, op. cit., pp. 23-39
13. J. Ball, op. cit., pp. 267-70; T. Jones, op. cit., pp. 190-93.
14. J. Cowley and Mr Staines, op. cit., 40 (1823), pp. 9-29.
As, for example, in the comments made on its production in `The
narcotics we indulge in‘, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 74 (1853),
pp. 605-28; `Opium‘, Penny Magazine, 3 (1834) P. 397; `Poppy oil and
opium‘, ibid., 13 (1844), pp. 46-8; J. Pereira, Elements of Materia
Medica (London, Longman, Orme, Browne, Green and Longmans, 1839-40),
vol. z, p. 1276; A. Ure, `Observations on opium and its tests‘, London
Medical Gazette, 6 (1830), pp. 73-6.
16. F. Fluckiger, `What is
opium?‘, Pharmaceutical Journal, n.s. 10 (18689), pp. 208-11; J. Hood,
`Notes on the cultivation of the opium poppy in Australia‘, ibid., 3rd
ser. 2 (1871-2), pp. 272-4.
17. The Western European trials are
described in, for instance, `Opium from French poppies‘, Pharmaceutical
Journal, 17 (1857-8), p. 28; C. Harz, `Opium production in Europe‘,
ibid., 3rd ser. 2 (1871-2), pp. 223
18. The Mitcham market is
described in A. S. Taylor, On Poisons in Relation to Medical
Jurisprudence and Medicine (London, John Churchill, 1848), p. 607; and
J. Stephenson and J. Churchill, Medical Botany (London, John Churchill,



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