In 1867 Dr Hawkins of King’s Lynn informed the readers of the British Medical Journal that Lincolnshire and Norfolk consumed more than half of the opium which was imported into the country. A chemist in Spalding told Hawkins that he had sold more laudanum in his first year in the town than he had sold over twenty years in Surrey. It was widely used to treat the symptoms of Fenland ague or malarial fever - known locally by various names including marsh fever, the Bailiff of the Marshes, Lord John's fever, or Old Johnny Axey - which was endemic in the marshes of the Fens for the greater part of the nineteenth century.

A penn’orth of comfort if you please
There is no cure for my disease
But the poppy’s kiss might bring some ease

By dyke and ditch, by marsh and mere
Old Johnny Axey creeps round here
He floods the fens with his disease
His breath will bring you to your knees

Fen-folk’s life is mostly tough
Just getting by is hard enough
But harder still when your body groans
With fevers, sweats and aching bones


In every garden, poppies stand
Fenland physic close at hand
While in the town on market day
To the chemist’s shop all make their way

‘A penn’orth of comfort’ is the refrain
Laudanum lulls and dulls the pain
A penny buys a few more days
Solaced by the opium haze


By dyke and ditch, by marsh and fen
Hard times for many, now as then
While the poppy with its treacherous charms
Still offers comfort in its arms