Extinct Entertainments No. 6

By TimB Last edited 110 months ago
Extinct Entertainments No. 6

We are proud to bring you a constant stream of the best and brightest entertainment news each day... but we are also proud of our reports on London past. In this series, we join up our talents and take a look at London entertainments that no longer exist, and the closest equivalent available today.

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5. Opium dens

In Victorian London, there were two particularly notorious dens: one in New Court (now vanished), and in Shadwell (E1), just down a passageway past the Royal Sovereign (also gone). One was run by Latou, a Chinese immigrant and two Englishwomen called "Lascar Sal" and "Chinese Emma". The other was Johnston's, run by John Johnston, aka Ah Sing, (and for Dickens fans, the inspiration for "John Chinaman" in The Mystery of Edwin Drood). According to Matthew Sweet, author of Inventing the Victorians, these two dens provided the inspiration for decades of literary opium dens, created as much from an anti-Asian racism as from research and experience. London's apparent plethora of opium dens seems overstated partly because you could buy the stuff over the counter. "Why would ordinary Victorians have gone to all the trouble of visiting some rat-ridden den to get their fix," Sweet asks, "when the stuff was available on demand in any chemist’s shop?" Opium and laudanum users of the time included such hardcore druggies as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wilkie Collins.

Where are they now?

Suffice it to say modern drugs such as crystal meth, ecstacy and cocaine have overtaken pure opium as the recreational illegal of choice (and opium's spawn, heroin, still draws a crowd). Paris Hilton bought a property in October in the East End that is reportedly a "former gin palace, opium den and brothel", which will probably now be painted candy pink. To see a Hollywood take on the dens, watch From Hell, which sees Johnny Depp's eyes roll back in his head while reclining on a faded chaise longue. Philip Pullman’s children's book The Ruby in the Smoke (and TV adaptation starring Billie Piper) also feature these iniquitous halls. In Pullman’s take though, his heroine takes opium in order to open up her repressed memories and solve the novel’s mystery. Times change – The Famous Five had to make do with ginger beer.

Words by Tim Benzie. Picture by Matt from London.

Last Updated 09 December 2008