Opium poppy - cultivation in Britain

Although fields of opium poppies conjure images of exotic Asian landscapes and dry soils, its cultivation also has a history in Britain. It has been a medicinal staple since at least the Middle Ages. By the nineteenth century opium use in medicines was widespread and no home was without an alcoholic tincture of opium called laudanum. A sixth of all children in Britain were regularly lulled to sleep with a syrup that contained opium. By the 1870s, some 100 tonnes of opium was consumed in its many forms in Britain annually. To supplement the opium imported from India, Iran and Turkey, opium poppies were grown in Britain. Its centre of cultivation was the water meadows of Mitcham in Surrey.

Opium fields

A black and white sketch of a seed head and the small utensils used to extract the latex.
Tools used for cultivating opium.

Opium poppies have been cultivated in Britain for a very long time. Recent research excavated the remains of opium seeds from a 2500 year old Scottish settlement. Over the years it is likely that interest in its cultivation died out. However, it was boosted in the 1790s when the Society of Arts in London encouraged the growing of pharmaceutical plants. The society offered cash prizes to successful opium growers. One winner was John Ball, who produced a bumper crop on his land in Somerset, selling the harvest to local apothecaries.

This soon came to the attention of Mitcham's farmers. They built up huge businesses supplying London and elsewhere with every kind of medicinal plant and fragrant herb. Hundreds of acres around the village became known as the Mitcham Physic Garden and stills and mills were built to process the products. Some famous names began here such as the Yardley cosmetics company and the Potter & Moore brand. By the 1830s, Mitcham had become the opium capital of Britain and was the major source of "English opium" for London druggists.

Opium gradually fell out of favour at the end of the 19th century, partly because of growing medical concern about its psychotropic and physical effects. With the introduction of the 1920 Dangerous Drugs Act, it finally became illegal in Britain to possess opium without a doctor's prescription.