Opium prescription and growing in Winslow (c.1820-3)

collated by Ed Grimsdale

The London Medical Repository, Monthly Journal, and Review, Volume 14
PREPARATION OF ENGLISH OPIUM – The papaver somniferum has been cultivated by Mr J. Cowley and Mr. W. Staines, Surgeons at Winslow, Bucks, from which opium of great purity has been obtained to a considerable amount; and, in consequence of various improvements they have introduced, important advantages may be expected to accrue to the medical practitioner.

An Account of the Effects of British Opium, exhibited to an Habitual Opium-Taker

By JOHN COWLEY, Member of the Royal College of Surgeons.

SARA WING, aged about fifty, applied to me this morning (Sept. 4th 1820) for half a drachm of opium, which she observed was her regular dose, having taken that quantity daily during the course of seven years.

The wretchedness depicted on her countenance led me to suspect that she meditated suicide. She was labouring under violent trembling and complained of a distressing flutter in her chest; subsultus tendinum was observable at the wrist, and the extremities were cold and clammy, with remitting pains. The pulse was so feeble, tremulous, and irregular, that I could not count it. The symptoms, she declared were owing to the want of her usual dose of opium.

Being satisfied, on the arrival of her husband, that her assertions were correct, I gave her half a drachm of crude British opium in the presence of three medical friends ; it was then thirty-five  minutes past nine o’clock A.M.

Ten o’clock and the tremor aching of the limbs much relieved. Pulse one hundred and twenty, irregular.

Twenty minutes past ten, says she feels very comfortable. Pulse one hundred and twenty, more regular. Extremities warmer, and less clammy.

Thirty-five minutes past ten, pulse one hundred and twenty regular; extremities warm : countenance animated and happy. She says she feels well.

Half-past eleven, pulse one hundred and four, not quite regular.
Three P.M., pulse eighty-six, feels well.

Sept.5th, half-past eight A.M., pulse 96, she has had a very comfortable night, slept from eleven until five. She has now repeated her dose of opium, and pursued her journey, after expressing her conviction that the opium she had yesterday, was superior to any she has previously used.


I do hereby declare that for seventeen years past I have been in the daily practice of taking opium; and that during the past seven years, my custom has been to take half a drachm every morning; which dose I have not once omitted during the last-mentioned period.  I have been in the frequent habit of travelling, and have seldom been enabled to purchase more than one dose, never more than three, from the same shop. I have consequently had frequent opportunities of comparing the opium purchased from various shops; and firmly believe that the dose of opium which I took yesterday morning in Mr Cowley’s surgery was superior to any I had before used; because I have not for many years enjoyed so much rest as I had last night, and because the trembling of my limbs, and the fluttering in my chest, were more speedily and effectually removed.
Winslow, Sept 5th

SARAH   +      WING
her Mark.

The above declaration was made in my presence.
James PREEDY, Vicar of Winslow
Witness, W.STAINES,Surgeon

The following is based on: Virginia Berridge and Griffith Edwards, Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth- Century England (A. Lane, 1981)

Cambridge Chronicle, 7 June 1822
The Society of Arts distributed their annual premiums on the 29th ult. the Duke of Sussex in the chair.  The rewards first distributed were in agricultural and rural economy.  The large gold medal was presented by his Royal Highness to Messrs. Cowley and Staines, Winslow, Bucks, for drawing turnips in the month of November, 1821, and preserving the same in a sound state, fit for feeding cattle, to the end of April, 1822.  The gold Ceres medal was also presented to the same gentlemen, for cultivating four acres of the white poppy (papaver somniferum), and extracting from it 60 lbs. of solid opium, equal to the best Turkey opium. 

“Perhaps the most successful opium cultivators were Dr John Cowley [of Sunnylawn House] and Mr Staines of Winslow in Buckinghamshire, who, in 1823, received thirty guineas from the Society [of Arts] for 143 Pounds of opium, of excellent quality, collected by them from about eleven Acres of Land, planted with the Papaver Somniferum."

"Cheap labour was the main requirement. Cowley and Staines employed two women for nine days in 1819, paying them a shilling a day. They commented that "a general cultivation of opium would certainly be beneficial by calling into action a description of persons not calculated for common agricultural labour, and that between hay-time and harvest'. A later experiment used unemployed lace-makers from the Winslow neighbourhood."

"They had also employed six "peaceable and industrious" Irish migrant labourers (also paid a shilling a day for eleven hours' work) and noted that if cultivation was expanded beyond their present fifteen acres of land then: "We must do it by the Irish, great numbers of whom are every year seeking employment during the Opium Season.""

Cowley & Staines had this letter printed in Transactions of the Society of Arts 41 (1823), 15-16:

Winslow, March 29, 1823.
SIR; We have inclosed a specimen and testimonials to exemplify the quality, and certify the quantity, of opium which we obtained last year from about 11 acres of land, which we request you to lay before the Society.

The method of cultivating the poppy and extracting the opium, differed in no respect from that employed in the preceding year, the account of which is already in the possession of the Society : the only circumstance worthy of notice is, that the collection of opium was begun on June 26th, and finished July 13th, being more than a month earlier than the usual period; this was attributable to the dryness of the season, as was also the deficiency of the produce which fell below the average quantity. Some compensation, however, was made for the deficiency by an abundant crop of turnips which succeeded the poppies.

This report appeared in the Northampton Mercury, 5 June 1824

The anniversary of the Society [of Arts] took place on Wednesday at the King’s Theatre, for the purpose of distributing the various medals and awards that had been voted to the respective ladies and gentlemen in the course of the last year. The Duke of Sussex presided.

The prizes in agriculture were … Messrs Cowley and Staines, Winslow Bucks, for cultivating 12 acres of poppies and obtaining therefrom 196lbs of opium, thirty guineas. His Royal Highness stated that this opium had been sold for 2s per lb. more than any of the foreign growth which had been brought into the market.

Opium production in Winslow seems to have finished by 1830, when Pigot's Directory records it in the past tense. English opium was not a commercial success because the crop was too unreliable and imports were relatively cheap.

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Copyright 5 April, 2018