People lying in a Melbourne opium den smoking pipes in 1896. (State Library of Victoria: The Argus Collection)
In the cultural landscape, an opium den is perennial shorthand for exoticism and a kind of shabby glamour, as explored by Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, or Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes.
We think of opium dens as a distinctly 19th-century phenomenon, but that may not be the case.
Curious Melburnian Lindsay Coker has strong memories of an opium den in Melbourne in the 1950s in a building where he sometimes worked.
“Upstairs, there was a narrow corridor with cloth curtains hanging over narrow doorways,” he said.
“I was told this was where opium was smoked.”
Lindsay asked us to investigate what record there was of this or other opium dens in Melbourne. We found the city has a long and fascinating history of what was dubbed “chasing the dragon”.
The Chinese influence
Historically, opium dens have provided the derelict arena in which to play out a city’s morality battles, immigration panics and approach to drug use.
That has certainly been the case in Melbourne.
In cities all over Europe and America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, opium dens were largely operated by Chinese immigrants.
By 1861 the Chinese community made up nearly 7 per cent of the Victorian population, boosted by those coming to seek fortune in the state’s goldfields.
An article published in the Truth, in 1905, about opium dens in Melbourne.
(State Library of Victoria)
Opium was not illegal in Victoria until 1905, and the volume imported into Australia increased fivefold in the late 1800s to keep up with demand.
Opium dens may have been introduced to Melbourne by the Chinese, but photos from the time show they had a distinctly cross-cultural appeal.
The drug’s mystique is accentuated by the customary image of users lying down, their bohemian bobble-heads hovering above the dust mites.
This signature repose is more than just the default arrangement of limbs most conducive to experience oblivion; it’s also the best position to hold the pipe over the lamp.
Moreover, most users were ill-equipped to prepare the apparatus themselves, making communal gatherings the product of necessity.
Dens of ‘infamy and immorality’
The fear of the Chinese influence was made plain in the 1868 Victorian Parliament Report on The Chinese Population in Victoria, in which the term “evil” appears 43 times.
We learn of “dens of infamy and immorality” populated with “abandoned European women”.
As for the effects of opium, there is concern that “in the course of time the practice will gradually spread among the European population, and produce as disastrous results upon them as upon the Chinese people”.
In developing a remedy, “exceptional legislation must be provided for this exceptional people, to save them from ruining themselves and society around them”.
Ultimately, the fight for a city’s soul can only be won on a particular straight and narrow path:
“But the grand instrument to be employed for the effectual reformation of these people is, unquestionably, the teaching of the truths of God’s Holy Word, and preaching the Gospel of Christ to them. “
The moral dimension of the outrage over opium dens was captured by the Total Abstinence Society; an organisation formed in Melbourne around 1842 and infamous for their New Year’s Eve parties that finished at 9:00pm sharp.
A historical sketch of the inside of a ‘Chinese opium den’. (Supplied: State Library of Victoria)
To carry their membership card was evidence of virtue.
Newspapers of the time did their part to support the anxieties of the temperance movement, some news reports were rich with alliterative slurs of the sort rarely seen outside of viral racist rants on public transport.
Hearing stories of this nature, one magistrate condemned daughters who frequented the red light district as, “poor hardened wretches”, and saw it as his duty to “prevent girls following such a filthy, dirty life”.
The cause was adopted by Cole’s Funny Picture Book, the popular series packed with stories, poems, cartoons and Victoriana puzzles.
The ‘family amuser’ devoted some its pages to warning of the opium scourge and of drugs that “physically, mentally and morally injure or ruin the greatest number of mankind”.
Some of the “pipes of the world” could be found at “Little Lon”. (Supplied: State Library of Victoria)
Some of the above ‘pipes of the world’ could be found at Melbourne’s notorious district of debauchery, ‘Little Lon’, bounded by Lonsdale, Spring, La Trobe and what is now Exhibition street.
Described in 1891 by evangelist Henry Varley as “a disgrace to any civilized city on earth”, Melbourne’s slums are today scarcely recognisable after being cleaned up in the 1940s.
The area has undergone multiple archaeological digs, with opium pipes uncovered alongside children’s toys and crockery. Many objects associated with opium smoking have been obtained by the Melbourne Museum, largely through sustained drug busts and police raids on opium dens.
Opium dens in the 1950s
A cartoon from 1877 from The Argus newspaper depicting women inside a Melbourne opium den. (Supplied: State Library of Victoria/ The Argus)
Our Curious Melburnian Lindsay says the building where he sometimes worked was near the corner of Swanston and Little Latrobe Streets, and he was certain an opium den existed in the building.
Research in 2011 also showed us how the demographic of Little Latrobe Street changed, from Anglo-Saxon in the 1880s to largely Chinese in the early 20th century.
There is also plenty of evidence to suggest opium dens existed in Melbourne as late as the 1950s.
Newspapers from the time reported on a push by police to clean up the area and close down opium dens, many of which were in buildings on crown land.
There were opium seizures at the ports too, as shown below with two customs officers displaying for the media their find, much like bureaucratic cats bringing to their owner a dead bird stuffed with contraband.
We could find no record of police raids at the building where Lindsay worked, so maybe this was one den that escaped the long arm of the law.
Two customs officers display their discovery. (Supplied: State Library of Victoria / The Argus)
The area once known as Little Lon, where opium dens flourished 100 years ago — and even more recently, if we consider Lindsay’s tale — is now a mix of business, residential and university buildings.
The building where Lindsay worked was recently demolished, but you only have to take a short stroll down Little Latrobe Street to get a sense of what the area must have been like back when opium dens dotted the landscape.
Melbourne’s Chinatown is the longest continuous Chinese settlement in the western world and a now source of great pride. The community’s contribution to Melbourne’s identity and culture is today celebrated by the population at large, just not with opium.
Daniel Burt is head writer for the ABC’s Hard Quiz and a history buff. His show A Trip Down Memory Laneway is on at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Who asked the question?
Lindsay Coker wanted to know about the history of opium dens in Melbourne, and whether there was any record of one he remembered at a building where he worked in 1957. “The basement and ground floors were used for the work, but upstairs was a narrow corridor with cloth curtains hanging over narrow doorways,” he said.
“I was told that this was where opium was smoked.”
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