Opium Dens: Bluegate-fields (Tiger Bay)

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’ … 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 …

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 … who is as wasteful as that,’ And she accompanied the severe observation with a shake of her head, and a glance that 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.

O’Neill, Gilda. The Good Old Days: Poverty, Crime and Terror in Victorian London (pp. 69-70). Endeavour Press. Kindle Edition.