London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by
James Greenwood, 1874 - An Opium Smoke in Tiger Bay
[... back to menu for this book]
OPIUM SMOKE IN TIGER BAY
THE person who would enjoy the inexpressible treat attendant on the smoking of a
genuine and unadulterated pipe of opium must make a pilgrimage for it. He must,
for the time divest himself of all genteel scruples and every shade of civilized
fastidiousness, and approach the mystic shrine unconspicuous among the humblest
of the throng of opium worshippers. The main difficulty is to discover the
whereabouts of the shrine. "It is the only establishment of the sort,"
a friend informed me; "there is scarcely a sailor hailing from the East who
does not, so soon as he touches at a Thames port, hasten there at once to
gratify his pent-up hunger for opium. The place is patronised, besides, by many
distinguished members of the nobility and aristocracy of Great Britain and it is
rumoured even that Royalty itself has condescended to visit the opium-master in
his modest retreat."
Hearing this, and learning that Shadwell was the region
honoured by the residence of so famous a personage, I had no doubt that I should
be able to find him easily enough but my friend deemed it prudent to give me a
few more explicit directions : "There are two ways of arriving at. the
opium-master's house," he said. "One is to make for High Street,
Shadwell, and keep along till you spy a tavern, the sign of which is the Hoop
and Grapes; next to it is another tavern, the Gunboat, and opposite is
another, the Golden [-230-] Eagle; while within range of a pea-shooter are three other
taverns, the Home of Friendship, the Lord Lovat, and the Baltic - and the
last-mentioned is at the corner of the very street. Or you may go another way,
down Cable Street, till you arrive at a not particular inviting-looking
thoroughfare, on a corner of which is inscribed 'To Rehoboth Chapel.' From the
end of this street you make out a dingy-looking little public house, called the
Coal Whipper's Arms. The opium master's house is just handy - up a
Tiger Bay - or, more properly speaking, Blue Gate fields -
has been so often described that it will be needless here to say more respecting
it than that it is as tigerish as ever; that the dens to which, every night of
the year, drunken sailors are betrayed, swarm and flourish openly and defiantly
in spite of the police. I discovered that my friend, in describing the street
that rejoiced in a Rehoboth Chapel and a Coal Whippers' Arms as "not
particularly inviting," had done it, no injustice. It is in the very heart
of the Bay, and from end to end it presents an unbroken scene of vice and
depravity of the most hideous sort. Almost every house is one of "ill
fame." It was not quite late enough for the tigresses to make themselves
sleek and trim, preparatory to going on their customary prowl through their
hunting ground; and there they sat, or lolled, or squatted at their doors,
blear-eyed and touzle-haired from last night's debauch. There, too, lounged, and
smoked short pipes, and drank out of tavern measures the convenient,
resting-place of which was the window sills, the males of the tribe - the
thieves and bullies, who, quiet enough now, would be wide awake and ready to
show their quality when dark came, and the tavern gas was flaring. It was
somewhat dis-[-231-]couraging to find the mystic tree of celestial solace planted in
such unpromising soil; but I comforted myself with the reflection that doubtless
the eastern splendour of the opium-master's abode would shine the more
brilliantly for the shabby setting. I entered the little public house, and,
inquiring of the barmaid - who, all among the pots and glasses, and in fair view
of several customers, was "changing her frock" as coolly as if she
were in her private chamber - I was at once directed to the court where the
opium-master resided. An awful little court it was, with a narrow arched entry,
and pregnant with the peculiar odour of neglected gutters. The houses of the
court were of three rooms and a washhouse order; and, as directed, I applied at
the third house of the left hand row.
There was no one at home but the opium-master's wife; but as
she is English, I experienced no difficulty in making known to her my desire.
She exhibited not the least amazement that one of her own countrymen should have
a craving after the celestial luxury.
"I 'spect it wont be long before he's back," said
she; "will you call again in a little while, or will you come up?"
"I will stay till he comes in, if you have no
objection," said I; whereupon she shut the outer door, and toiled slowly,
like a person who is very ill, up the narrow filthy little staircase. I followed
her. There were not many stairs, but she mounted them so slowly that I had ample
opportunity, ere we reached the mystic chamber, of making myself acquainted with
the smell of that which, if all went well, I should presently enjoy the felicity
I cannot say that the odour was appetizing. The filthy little
house seemed full of some subtle sickening [-232-] essence lurking on the stairs and
under the stairs, and ascending in invisible vapours through the many chinks and
holes in the rotten woodwork. It seemed likewise to lie on the handrail in the
form of a fine dust, that instantly melted to some loathsome moisture the moment
the hand was laid on it.. There was a window, either open or broken, somewhere
over head, as I could tell by the downward draught; but this was not an
unmitigated advantage, for it stirred the dull leaden-looking hair on the
woman's head, and the sickening odour was instantly and unmistakably increased.
I have been since endeavouring to decide to what other familiar smell or
mingling of smells the odour in question might best be likened, but not yet
successfully. Treacle melted with glue over an open fire, and flavoured with
singeing horse-hoof in a farrier's, might be something like it; but after all
the comparison is feeble. Arrived at a landing, the opium-master's wife pushed
open a door. "Come in and take a cheer, sir," she said, politely.
I went in, and unless I outlive memory I shall never forget
the strange spectacle that was revealed. The room, at a rough guess, may have
been eleven feet long and nine wide. An awfully dilapidated little den, the
much-begrimed ceiling patched with rain leakage, and broken here and there, so
that the laths were visible; the walls black with smoke and grease; the
shattered upper panes of the foul little window plastered with brown paper.
There was a bedstead in the room - a bedstead so large that there was left but a
yard or so of space between it and the fire-place - a "four-poster,"
amply hung about with some kind of flimsy material, the original colour of which
it is impossible to guess. But the bedding was more remarkable than the bed-[-233-]stead; for the bed was "made" the wrong way - across the length of
the bedstead instead of its width, with a long bolster; and it was covered,
instead of a counterpane, with a huge breadth of fine Chinese matting. A table
and three chairs, if I remember rightly, constituted the remainder of the
furniture in the opium-master's smoking-saloon, with a few gaudy prints on the
walls, and the mantelshelf crowded with ornaments, evidently of Oriental origin.
Having surveyed the furniture, I was at liberty to
contemplate the opium-master's wife. I have said that she was English, but it
was only by her speech that her nationality could be so readily decided. A small
lean woman, with such a marvellous grafting of Chinese about her, that her
cotton gown of English cut seemed to hang quite awkwardly on her sharp
shoulders. Her skin was dusky yellow, and tightly drawn at the nostrils and the
cheek bones; and evidently she had, since her marriage, taken such a thoroughly
Chinese view of life, that her organs of vision were fast losing their European
shape, and assuming that which coincided with her adopted nature. She was very
ill, poor woman. It was killing her, she said, this constant breathing of the
fumes of the subtle drug her husband dealt in. She didn't mind it, she had grown
used to it, but it "told on her," and lodged in her chest, and gave
her a cough.
"You mean that it is the smoke from your customers'
pipes that affects you," I remarked.
"There is no smoke from the pipes, it's too precious for
that," replied the woman. "Nobody ought to smoke opium - nobody knows
how to smoke opium - who is as wasteful as that." And she accompanied the
severe observation with a shake of her head, and a glance that [-234-]
fathomless pity for a person in my benighted condition.
"Then how do the fumes, or the smoke, or whatever it is,
get into your throat, ma'am ?" I enquired, humbly.
"It's the preparing of it chiefly," said she,
"which I'd better be doing now, if you have no objection."
On the contrary, I was but too grateful for the opportunity
of witnessing such a mystery. I was presently amazed, too, as well as thankful;
for, dropping on her hands and knees, she crawled a little way under the
bedstead, and again emerged with a saucepan - a common iron saucepan, capable of
holding perhaps two quarts. This was a painful stab at my reverence for opium.
Had I seen a vessel of ancient porcelain, or even a brazen pipkin, it would not
have been so shocking; but a vulgar, smutty pot, such as potatoes are boiled in!
I began to have doubts lest, after all, I had come to the wrong shop; but a
searching question soon drew out clear evidence that I had been preceded in my
visit by the illustrious travellers of whom I had heard. The woman placed the
saucepan with the water in it on the fire, and then proceeded to fix on the
mouth of it a sort of little sieve, the finely-woven meshes of which hung into
the water. Then she shredded some cake opium, as sailors shred Cavendish for
smoking, placed it on the sieve, and put on the brew to simmer.
I made no remark, for fear lest a further exposure of my
ignorance might turn pity to downright contempt; but a light dawned on me. This
was the secret of my failures with the opium pipe! I had procured the very
best sort from the druggists, and filled with it the most freely-drawing of
meerschaums, but nausea had been the only result. I had been guilty of the gross
barbarism of taking my opium raw! It should be cooked - [-235-]
stewed in the
manner that I have described; then the essence filters through the sieve, and
falls to the bottom of the pot in the form of thinnish treacle, while what
remains in the sieve is of no more account than common tea-leaves. The brew
required some care, however; and, as I contemplated the poor woman with her head
over the pot stirring and kneading, I could understand how it happened that so
much of the noxious fume got into her hair as well as her chest.
After a while the sound of ascending footsteps was heard on
the stairs, and the next moment the door was opened. "Here he is! I thought
he wouldn't be long," said the woman. It was the opium-master; and he has
brought home with him two customers of his own nation. Once again was I doomed
to disappointment. I had pictured to myself an individual of commanding aspect,
richly costumed as a mandarin; but here came a shabby, shambling, middle-aged
Chinaman into whose apparel, if I mistake not, vulgar corduroy entered, and who
wore his pigtail over a sort of stableman 's smock. He had on Chinese boots,
however, and a Chinese cap, which, on seeing me, he removed, bowing with great
cordiality and politeness, as gracefully as his lame leg would permit. He looked
at his wife inquiringly, and uttered the word "Smoke?" and, on her
nodding affirmatively, he again bowed and rubbed his dirty hands, and turned
with what I knew from its tone to be a whisper of apology to his two friends.
It was plain that he was explaining to them that probably I
had been waiting some time, and it would be no more than courteous to let me
have my pipe at once. But they were of no mind to be put off. They were dirty,
savage-looking villains, evidently fresh from ship-board, and sorely itching for
an "opium drunk." They [-236-] wore knives at their waistbands, and their very
pigtails seemed to stiffen in anger as they scowled on me. I hastened at once to
declare that I was not in the least hurry, and would give up my turn quite
cheerfully. They knew nothing of English, but the master did, and in his quaint
clipped lingo thanked me, at the same time explaining that he possessed but two
opium pipes, else we could all have been served at one and the same time. This
little difficulty smoothed, the two dirty Chinamen, restored to good-humour,
flung off their caps and leaped upon the bed with the agility and eagerness of
cats bent on stealing fish from a dresser. They curled down on the mat
counterpane, about three feet apart, and mowed and grinned at each other as they
wriggled into a perfectly comfortable position, with their heads on the bolster.
Then, with much gravity, the opium-master commenced
operations. Out, of a cupboard he produced his tools - the two pipes, a sort of
a tinder-box of the old-fashioned pattern, a slender iron bodkin fixed in a
little handle, and a small brass lamp. The pipes were not a bit like ordinary
tobacco pipes. Let the reader imagine a sixteen inch length of dark-coloured
bamboo, as thick as a man's forefinger, hollow, and open at one end. There was
no "mouth-piece," except the wide, open bore: while, at the closed
end, an inch or so from the extremity, was a screw hole. Into this was screwed
the tiny bowl, made, I think of iron, and shaped like a pigeon's egg. The
opium-master lit the little brass lamp, and stepping up on the bed, squatted
tailorwise between his customers, with his tools ready at hand. The thing like a
tinder box contained the opium, but it was not, even after the stewing it had
undergone, as yet ready for smoking; it had to be frizzled. It seemed to
about the consistency of treacle, and dipping in the tip of the bodkin, he
twaddled it round till he had secured a piece as large as a common grey pea.
This he held in the flame of the lamp till it was done to his liking.
Then he clapped the precious morsel into the pipe that one of
the Chinamen was already greedily sucking, and, to all appearance, the ugly
fellow was at once translated from earth to heaven. As the woman had previously
informed me, the smoke that was drawn up through the stem was not blown out from
the mouth - it was swallowed or otherwise disposed of by internal machinery.
Nothing but what seemed to be the thinnest possible thread of purple vapour
escaped from the pipe-bowl; and as the awful-looking being on the bed
rapturously sucked and sucked, the thread became thinner, his face lit up with a
strange light, and his pig-like eyes closed till but two mere streaks parted the
lids - two streaks that glowed as though his eyes had turned to opals. While he
was thus tasting felicity, the other villain was served, and presently there was
a pretty pair. I never should have supposed the human countenance capable of
wearing an expression so sensuous, so bestial and revolting. Faintly and more
faintly still they sucked, till a gurgling sound in the pipe-stems announced
that the opium in the bowl was spent; then the pipes fell from their lips, and
they lay still as dead men. I couldn't bear to look at them. I felt as though I
were assisting at some sacrifice with a strong flavour of brimstone about it;
and felt quite relieved when I turned my eyes towards the fireplace, to observe
the woman engaged in nothing more supernatural than gutting a haddock for her
In about ten or twelve minutes the hideous figures on the bed
evinced signs of revival. Observing this, [-238-] the opium-master, who was still
squatted on the bed, hastened to roll up a couple of cigarettes of common
tobacco, and lit them by taking a whiff at each, after which he handed them to
the Chinamen, who rose from the couch yawning, and, like men only half awake,
staggered towards the fire, and sat regarding it in silence. They were not going
yet; they had come for a "drunk," and would probably indulge in
half-a-dozen more pipes before the evening was over.
Now the opium-master was at my service. I would have given
more money than I had about me to have postponed my initiation in the art of
opium smoking; but the demon on the bed was politely beckoning me, and I dared
not say him nay. With a tremulous heart I mounted the mattress, but was firm in
my resolve to take my pipe sitting, and not reclining. Direful qualms beset me
in a rapidly rising tide; but I was an Englishman, and the eyes of at least one
of the sleepy barbarians by the fire were blinking on me. The dose was toasted,
and I took the great clumsy pipe-stem between my jaws, and sucked as I had
observed the Chinamen suck. I swallowed what I sucked, or desperately
endeavoured to do so, and the result was precisely what might have been
expected. Without doubt I was stupefied, or I never should have ventured on
another pull. That did it! Before I ventured on my perilous expedition I had a
vivid recollection of what came of smoking my first cigar; but that dismal
remembrance is now quite eclipsed by one a hundred times more dreadful.
"Sispince, please!" said the still polite opium-master, extending his
hand; but I hastily pressed on his acceptance the whole of the half-crown I had
brought for the purpose, and was glad enough to find myself once more breathing
the free and delicious air of Shadwell.
source: James Greenwood, In Strange Company, 1874