Opium Dens: Bluegate-fields (near Shadwell)

Bluegate-fields is not in this police district, but the inspector will send a constable with me … There is no limit to the variety of nationalities patronising the wretched hovel we are about to visit. From every quarter of the globe, and more immediately from every district in London, men come [here] the sole bond between them being a love of opium … Sailors, stewards, shop men, mountebanks, beggars, outcasts, and thieves meet on perfect equality in New-court, and there smoke themselves into dreamy stupefaction. There is a little colony of Orientals in the centre of Bluegate-fields, and in the centre of this colony is the opium divan. We reach it by a narrow passage leading up a narrow court, and easily gain admission on presenting ourselves at its door … The curious dry burning odour, which is making your eyelids quiver painfully, which is giving your temples the throbbing which so often predicates a severe headache, and which is tickling your gullet as if with a feather and fine dust, is from opium. Its fumes are curling overhead, the air is laden with them, and the bed-clothes and the rags hanging on the string above are all steeped through and through with the fascinating drug … As soon as we are sufficiently acclimatised to peer through the smoke, and after the bearded Oriental, who makes faces, and passes jibes at and for the company, has lighted a small candle in our honour, we see a sorry little apartment, which is almost filled by the French bedstead, on which half-a-dozen coloured men are coiled long-wise across its breadth, and in the centre of which is a common japan tray and opium lamp. Turn which way you will, you see or touch opium smokers. The cramped little chamber is one large opium pipe, and inhaling its atmosphere partially brings you under the drug’s influence. Swarthy sombre faces loom out of dark corners, until the whole place seems alive with humanity; and turning to your guides you ask, with strange puzzlement, who Yahee’s customers are, where they live, and how they obtain the wherewithal for the expensive luxury of opium-smoking … Mother Abdallah, who has just looked in from next door, interprets for us, and we exchange compliments and condolences … Mother Abdallah … who, from long association with Orientals, has mastered their habits and acquired their tongue. Cheeny (China) Emma and Lascar Sal, her neighbours, are both [away] from home this evening, but Mother Abdallah does the honours for her male friends with much grace and propriety — a pallid wrinkled woman of forty, who prepares and sells opium in another of the two-roomed hovels in the court: she confesses to smoking it too for company’s sake, or if a friend asks her to, as you may say, and stoutly maintains the healthiness of the habit.

O’Neill, Gilda. The Good Old Days: Poverty, Crime and Terror in Victorian London (pp. 68-69). Endeavour Press. Kindle Edition.