Drug dens and “boring” family trees

I was tasked with a project from my grandmother; “I know nothing about my fathers’ side of the family”. This was not a statement, but a not so subtle quest for her genealogist granddaughter to undertake. She wanted me to get a move on with my own family tree.

My grandmother hails from South Australia and made the move to Victoria in the 1950s, met my grandfather and never left. All of her family stayed dotted around South Australia and no one had really had the inclination to be the keeper of the family history – until me!

My grandmother tells stories of her crotchety old grandmother, Penelope. A forceful woman whose domineering presence was felt, and who strictly enforced the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ rule. She remembers Sunday’s after church, spent in her grandparents’ stately home, where no fun, laughter or joy was to be shared on the holiest day of the week. Her grandfather, Henry, was a well-respected bank manager, who she fondly remembers as a state class, rifle-shooting gentleman. He died suddenly and unexpectedly when she was only 5 years old.

This was as far as my grandmother knew of her paternal side of the family. And for all intents and purposes the rest of the family was fairly benign and there was nothing worth noting in the family history…or so she thought.

After a brief search I was able to fill in some blanks. There was nothing remarkable, nothing that made any dramatic ripples. That was until I was researching my grandmother’s great grandfather – my great great great grandfather – Alfred Hughes. The year following the death of Alfred’s first wife, Mary Anne – my ancestor – he re-married Roseanna. Three years later, in 1879 Roseanna was attending the inquest into her husbands’ suspicious death at the King’s Head Hotel in Adelaide. Before his death, Alfred had been under the care of Dr Sprod who had been treating him for ‘low spirits and weakness’. The day before his death he went about his day as normal but appeared drowsy and ‘down-hearted’ on his return from lunch. Later in the day, Alfred took another turn and when his colour changed the doctor was summoned. Dr Gardner arrived in a few short minutes and believed that the patient ‘was suffering from apoplexy’. After further medical advice from Dr Corbin the pair ‘put mustard poultices on [Alfred] but he continued insensible, and died shortly after 7 o’clock pm’.

A local chemist assistant, Mr Robert Beddome, testified that for the two to three months prior to Alfred’s death, he remembered him frequenting the shop to purchase laudanum. The morning before his death he asked Mr Beddome for some laudanum ‘to send to the country for some friends’ – a common practice, and one which was not questioned at the time. Mr Beddome packaged the opiate into the requested three one-ounce bottles for Alfred to allegedly send on to his country customers. Laudanum, was an opiate which was commonly used for pain relief and was readily acquired without a prescription, or directions for use.

An Opium Den, 1881. Image courtesy of SLV.

Whilst the foreman stated that there was no sign of a missing bottle, the jury returned with their verdict of his death being ‘caused by deceased drinking the contents of a one-ounce bottle of laudanum while in a state of temporary insanity…’. The coroner agreed and declared Alfred’s death as an accidental opium overdose. Not uncommon, yet no less tragic end to a life for the father of five.

During the nineteenth century, the use of ‘therapeutic’ opiates remained largely unregulated and recreational use was quite common. Up until the 1880s the practice of importing opium was ‘widely accepted due to the revenue derived from taxation duties’. In Victoria, opium was deemed illegal in 1905, however there is evidence of opium den’s operating in Melbourne up until the late-1950s.

So, the bland family history that my grandmother guaranteed me of, was in fact a little off the mark and not to my disappointment (in the least morbid way).

And, just for the record, she was thrilled with the discovery!

Phoebe, April 2018

Returning to the South Australian roots on a family holiday, c1970. Image courtesy of Phoebe’s private collection.



South Australian Register (Adelaide), 8 December 1879, p. 6.

Evening Journal (South Australia), 8 December 1879, p. 3.

Burt, Daniel, ‘The History of Melbourne’s opium dens and their continuation into the 1950s’, ABC News, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-23/curious-melbourne-opium-dens-in-little-lon/9575652, accessed 26 March 2018.

Rowe, James, ‘Pure Politics: A Historical Look at Australian Drug Policy’, Alternative Law Journal, vol. 26, no. 3, 2001.