Esoteric London

No. 150: Commercial Road, E14

Posted in London Places by esotericlondon on September 24, 2010

Commercial Road, London, E14. Photo © Roger Dean 2010

Odd People in Odd Places – James Greenwood, 1883:

I remember there was a dingy alley not twenty yards down Brunswick Gardens, where was to be found the most famous smoke-house that the neighbourhood could boast of. It was kept by a dirty old almond-eyed pigtailed Chinaman, who, in compliment to the country of his adoption, had taken the unmistakably English name of Johnson. I went there once, feeling curious to satisfy myself by personal experience as to the delicious sensations said to accompany the smoking of opium, and with the result that I never felt so dreadfully sick in all my life.

As fresh in my mind as though it happened yesterday, is the picture of the dilapidated room, with its walls and ceiling as grimy as those of a coal-cellar. The frowsy bedstead, with an Indian mat for a counterpane, and on which squatted Johnson, like a diabolical tailor, with his lamp and his tinder-box, and his pipes and his toasting-skewers; the two awful-looking Malays he had already operated on, with their shaven heads, reposing on the greasy bolster, and their opal eyes nearly closed in swinish satiety.
 There was a Mrs. as well as a Mr. Johnson, whose complexion was that of discoloured parchment, crooning over the fire, and stirring an opium brew in an iron pot, at the same time filling the chamber with nauseating fumes. I might have pretended that I had suddenly bethought me of an urgent appointment, and so made my escape. But the obstinacy of my nature, goading me to go through with what I had begun, I waited until Mr. Johnson rolled one of his intoxicated Malay customers off the mattress, and stuck him in a sitting posture against the wall, and then I resigned myself into his hands. He seemed to be aware that I was a novice, and was tenderly solicitous to make me comfortable: he tucked up the bolster, so that my head might rest easily; he selected his choicest pipe, and gave the mouthpiece of it (it was the one the last Malay customer had sucked himself to sleep with) a wipe on his cap, taking it off his head for the purpose; he fished up a morsel of the brown abomination out of the tinder-box, and toasted it in the flame of a lamp and placed it in the pipe-bowl, put the stem between my lips, and gave me a light. I don’t know how many pulls I took at it, because, after the third or fourth, the opium fiend took possession of me, and I was no longer accountable for my actions.

Nicotine, double distilled, seared my palate, my throat revolted, my entire internal organization rose in rebellion. I got up so suddenly that it was only by making a hasty clutch at a bedpost that Mr. Johnson saved himself and his lamp and tinder-box from being capsized. Taking the stairs three at a time, I at length reached the street, and for many minutes did bitter penance with my forehead pressing against a brick wall.

 

[Limehouse became the site of London’s original Chinatown when Chinese sailors began to settle in the area in the 1880’s. R.D.]

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