How much was too much?

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Keeping infants quiet, especially when teething or similar, is very difficult, even with the advantages and affluence of the modern age. It was significantly more difficult in for the poor in the Regency period but there was a novel way of going about it which would cause controversy now- they were drugged with opium based syrups with names such as  Dalby’s Carminative, Syrup of Poppy and the most famous brand- Godfrey’s Cordial.

Joseph Redwith of Paddington was not poisoned directly by Godfrey’s Cordial but by the system that condoned it. He had, according to the surgeon at his inquest in December 1816, been regularly dosed with the cordial. On this occasion he had accidental been given arsenic .Joseph had been coughing and having trouble with his teeth. His mother Ann sent out the daughter Eliza to pay two penny worth of Godfrey’s Cordial from the druggist Mr Pralle in King Street Paddington. The daughter was served by the assistant with a phial of brown liquid and she took it home to her mother. Despite not having any illness herself, she pinched some of the liquid on the way home- not enough to raise suspicions and not enough to kill her. She fell ill on the way home but this this did stop Ann from administering it to Joseph. When he fell ill, after 15 minutes, she sent the daughter back to check that it was the right medicine. It was discovered that it was not Godfrey’s Cordial but not that it was arsenic. Cordial was used as an antidote, but by this time Joseph was dead and his internal organs soon became gangrenous.

Mr Keridge, the assistant, who was also qualified to dispense medicine, had given Eliza arsenic because the poison was not labelled as such, and had been put in the place where the Godfrey’s cordial was. The Coroner suggested that this might not be a good idea.

The Surgeon at Joseph’s port mortem, Mr North, took the opportunity to condemn Godfrey’s Cordial and similar sleeping draughts. They did not cure any children’s ailments ( when the Cordial was advertised it was often under the worryingly vague heading of “Disorders of Children”). They were given to make children sleep for long periods of time. He claimed this “pernicious drowsiness” was worse than most of the illnesses that it failed to cure. Rather than have any empathy, North suggested that Godfrey’s cordial was given to “gratify their idleness” and he condemned the parents for abusing these medicines. It was probably not what you wanted to hear at the post mortem of your baby, and it showed no empathy for the lack of support that poor families had. Mr Redwith was a baker working all hours and life must have been very difficult for the family. That was never a consideration.

Robin Parkins of Fleet, Hampshire died the same way. He was 13 months old, the same age as Joe Redwith. He, too, had nagging gums. His mother sent a 13 year old neighbour to the druggist with her own brown bottle but the young man asked for pure laudanum and the druggist gave it to him and the child died in half an hour. Once again, nobody was asking why society allowed bottles of pure opiate in the house or why people needed it.

In 1819, the 6 week old child of baker in White Ladies Aston, Worcestershire was killed when he was given dose of vitriol instead of a teaspoonful of Godfrey’s Cordial from an unmarked bottle. Clearly the family, like those of the Parkins, were buying small amounts of Godfrey’s Cordial from the druggist in their own bottles.  In any case, a teaspoonful for a six week old child would have be a severe problem it itself. He would have slept for many, many hours and be unable to cry out. His appetite would be suppressed as well- another boon for the poor mother on a low budget

What was the correct dose of Godfrey’s Cordial? Nobody seemed to know. This from the from Stamford Mercury 17 September 1819


The poor women who took the advice of her neighbour to give the child two teaspoonfuls did not take into account the fact that child who was given it regularly would need considerably more to get the same effect.

It   was an unregulated drugs trade that killed these children. Godfrey’s Cordial would not have killed him in 15 minutes but it did lead to a slow lingering death for many children. It is significant that the advertisers of 1816 called it “Godfrey’s Genuine Cordial”- it seems that druggists were making their own versions, either as a copy of a counterfeit. There was no fixed dosage. Anybody could buy it. Anybody could administer it.

Another incident in 1819 in Stamford Lincolnshire shows the problem when free market unregulated medicine collided with the ignorance and desperation of the poor. A family called Smith were passing through Bourn and needed something to quieten their two week old child. They went to a druggist for some branded Cordial but were given some “nostrum” that the druggist had created. He put excessive opium in the mixture meant that the child slept for 24 hours and then died. The Coroner reprimanded the druggist and warned the parents to take care. The Coroner had done the same in Newhaven in July 1817 when Mr Bolton’s “fine” (but unnamed) boy was poisoned by the deleterious nostrum was given to the child by a druggist

It may seem that it was not being given Godfrey’s Cordial that killed children. However the mixture of molasses and opiates killed children slowly and anonymously. Some more and more  medical men were beginning to realise this; an extract from the Morning Post( 1819)   from surgeon “CS” from Tower Hill.


The doctor was saying the cure was worse than the disease, and the fact a comatose child could not exhibit the symptoms that needed treatment was probably for the advantage of the nurse. The admixture of unregulated medicine, a country hooked on laudanum and the desperate life of the regency poor meant that its working class children were regularly poisoned, dosed to sleep and often killed.


More social history like this is available in my history of the Regency. Publishers details here; my blog about the book here .




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