The Godfrey’s Cordial was a molasses syrup containing laudanum (tincture of opium, today illegal in many countries) commonly used as a sedative to calm down children in the Victorian era in England. Mainly employed by mothers who were used to working in the farming or factory industry, the mixture would guarantee to the women hours of sleep, so that they could rest and go to work without being woken up by their children.

Below: bottle of Godfrey’s Cordial, with its specification indicating the high presence of Opium

The formulation was not only used by the working women, often forced to sedate their children for contingency; nurses and baby sitters were also users of the Cordial, which allowed them to tranquilise the little children for long time. The original formula was called after the pharmacist Thomas Godfrey, native of Hunsdon in Hertfordshire. Godfrey died in 1721, and on his death some people attributed the medicine to the pharmacist Ambroise Hackwitz, changed his name in Godfrey and opened up an emporium in Southampton Row.

Below: a woman and a doctor force the Godfrey’s Cordial down a guy’s throat, who tries to resist. Illustration from the  1840 shared via Wellcome Images – licence Creative Commons 4.0

The syrup was happily drunk by the children due to its high content of molasses and was utilised for pretty much any typical disturb common in youth.

Colics, diarrhoea and insomnia

After the invention of the Cordial, the liquid was widely used during the whole 1700 but it was only after the Industrial Revolution at the beginning of 1800 which we saw many mothers moving into a systematic use of the drug.  It is the pharmacists and doctors themselves who advised the Godfrey’s Cordial, and even opium was considered as a tonic and energising substance.

Below: ad of an alternative to the Godfrey’s Cordial, specifying its energising properties for children

In 1823 Thomas Wakley analysed  its formula and ingredients, whose were published on the magazine “The Lancet”. Amongst the ingredients there was ginger, alcohol, rectified spirits of wine, oil of sassafras (used for the production of MDMA, semisynthetic drug also known as ecstasy), tincture of opium and Venice treacle.

Below: an illustration by George Cruikshan shows a group of doctors who reflect next to a patient. The common cures available back in the day are there; they prescribe a “sick goose” while the Cordial is the first one to the left. Picture share via Wellcome Images – licence Creative Commons 4.0

The Cordial used to contain the 0,26% of opium and was available without prescription both in the UK and US.

The abuse of the syrup was lethal and the Godfrey’s medicine was recognised as cause of thousands of dead for opium poisoning.

Despite the awareness of the composition which was supposed to alarm parents or children tutors, the blend was produced and sold up until the early 20th century, also helped by its cheap cost and immediate effects on young patients.

Below: a child who drinks the Cordial through what was renamed as “Killer Bottle”, baby bottle which caused many dead as the sterilisation of its components was impossible

Despite many cases of death had been reported and linked to the use of this medicine, it is hard to establish how many people have actually died because of it. The children were used to a continuous ingestion of opium, with consistent health issues that they were carrying on in their adulthood too and an addiction to drugs for good.

A first action intent on stopping the limitless use of opiates was started by the English parliament in 1857, when an act tried to classify opium and its derivatives as poisons.

The lobby of chemical societies though managed to produce a strong enough pressure on most of its deputies, succeeding in the abolition of the act

A “sweetened” version of the act showed up in 1868 and implemented in the “Pharmacy Act” which limited the commerce of opium derivatives  only to registered chemists and pharmacists legally qualified. The law was excluding licenced medicines from its application though, so the Godfrey’s Cordial as well as many imitations of this product, remained in the shelves of the shops.

Below: a child fed through the “Killer Bottle”

Only in the 1890 the use of the drug started decreasing exponentially due to several restrictions that the Pharmacy Act imposed to licenced medicines as well. The British Medical Association published a list of safe home remedies, in the attempt of increasing the awareness of public health. In these lists it was mentioned calomel and sugar- based derivatives as substitute sedative agents.

The Godfrey’s Cordial remained available until the 1908, when the “Pharmacy Act” classified it as a real poison. The “Dangerous Drugs Act” in 1920 imposed the prescription to opium based medicines.

Matteo Rubboli

I am a publisher specialised in the digital distribution of culture and founder of the portal Vanilla Magazine. I don't wear a tie or branded clothes, I keep my hair short so I don't have to comb it. That's not my fault but just the way I've been drawn as...

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