Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - An Opium Smoke in Tiger Bay

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AN 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 court."
    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 of tasting.
    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-] betokened her 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 [-237-] be 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 husband's supper.
    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