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French Connections: London-Paris linkages in interwar drug culture

Updated: Jul 24

In the early hours of the morning of 1st July 1937, Gerald Edward Mary O’Brien was detained by police officers on the ferry returning from Dieppe. He had crossed the channel with six grammes of high-quality heroin concealed about his person. It was the last of what had been a regular series of trips to Paris from his home in London, and he had sourced the heroin from two young Americans living in a hotel in the Pigalle, which was the entertainment and ‘vice’ district of the French capital.[1]  The transaction was a small part of a broader global network overseen by Corsican and Sicilian organised crime groups; the poppies were grown on the Anatolian plains of Turkey, the opium shipped to Marseilles and converted to heroin in illicit French laboratories before arriving in Paris and being taken on to North America and around the world – the early, rudimentary beginnings of the famous ‘French connection’ that would take heroin to the mean streets of North America in the postwar years. The Paris route to London was a minor facet of an increasingly global trade.

Gerald O’Brien was Irish by birth, his father a stone mason who moved the family to East London. He now lived in the West End of London where he was involved in the night-time economy, running unlicensed night clubs at which drinking, dancing, gambling and drug use took place. He had qualified as a chartered accountant at the age of twenty and was successful in that profession. However, he soon became bored with this lifestyle and was drawn inexorably to the night life of the capital, with its neon lights and basement clubs, its independent women, its jazz and gangster-mythology. He turned his considerable talents toward the ‘West End Life,’ sharing a flat with Bella Gold, a dancer and nightclub hostess, who would also be arrested a couple of months later, and attend court charged with possession of small quantities of heroin, cocaine and hashish. Detective Sergeant Len Dyke (later of the Home Office Drugs Branch), who was the main witness for the prosecution, insisted that Gold was a trafficker of drugs, serving up supplies from her Mayfair flat. Letters were found at the premises, which Dyke claimed had contained drugs sent from Paris, along with notes featuring references to getting high, hot drugs and ‘blowing the top off.’ This was the jive talk of the US drug culture, which despite the traditional historiography, had already arrived in London in the years before the Second World War.

The pair were at the centre of a network based in the West End, using and retailing drugs that were sourced illicitly from Paris – not obtained through the legal ‘British System’ with its script doctors and chemist’s shop supplies. Both represented themselves as victims in court, with Bella in particular painted as a frail, ‘titian haired’ girl suffering lung problems as a consequence of the smoky clubs where she earned her living, seeking relief for her cough only to be offered restorative doses of heroin by a ‘pernicious beast’ in Paris, and soon ‘captured’ by his pestilential trade. These two routes of supply were known to be utilised by consumers of illicit drugs in interwar London. Both O’Brien and Gold made regular trips on the boat train to Paris, bringing back supplies, while Gold also relied on the postal service to order and receive illegal drugs.

Brenda Dean Paul, who moved in a different network of opioid use and transgression, high bohemia in nearby Chelsea, had written of her own enchantment with Paris and with French culture; she went there in search of a ‘mysterious underworld.’ It was in Paris that she, too, was allegedly introduced to the morphine to which she would consecrate the brief candle of her life. Paul, along with others such as the English painter and opium smoker Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood, celebrated the arrival of modernist culture from across the channel and the more flexible forms of social life that went with it.[2] Kit Wood was the friend, companion and lover of the Chilean diplomat Anthony de Gandarillas, a connoisseur who partied with the Bright Young People in London and began smoking opium around the same time as Cocteau. During the 1920s, they travelled together to Smyrna in Turkey in order to buy the choicest opium. Gandarillas came from a wealthy background, and maintained homes in both Cheyne Walk, Chelsea and in Paris. The linkages between the artistic and bohemian sets in Paris in London are truly labyrinthine, and large numbers of them, up to and including Picasso, were consumers of opiates.

The Italian journalist, novelist and cocainist Dino Segre, writing under the nom-de-guerre ‘Pitigrilli,’ venerated Montmartre and ‘the venal medusa of the many poisons and innumerable philtres that attracts the traveller with a boundless fascination.’ The French capital was indeed a magnet for young bohemians in the 1920s and 30s; home to Jean Cocteau, the dazzlingly talented artist and writer who began smoking opium in 1924 and over the ensuing decades would introduce numerous others to the practice. Uncounted artists and writers gathered together ‘around the lamp’ to smoke, and in turn drew psychoactive pilgrims from across the planet into their altered orbit.[3]

The connections with Paris and France more broadly bring into view the fact that all of the players in this drama, at least those on the British side of the channel, were engaged in a cultural and social struggle over English identity. Indeed, conflict over what it meant to be English and/or British pervaded drug control and resistance to it at this time. A key ingredient of this national identity was the allegedly abstemious sexual and moral character of its subjects. In the words of the J.S Clynes, a future Home Secretary with ultimate domestic responsibility for drug control: ‘the general moral standards of most of the European countries, and particularly France, are lower than those obtaining in this country.’ Major William Coles, head of the Home Office Drugs Branch, meanwhile contended that, ‘it is not a characteristic of the British race to indulge in narcotic drugs.’ Acting as witness to a parliamentary committee examining proposals for a channel tunnel in the late 1920s, Lord Crawford stated: ‘I am a xenophobe, particularly as regards the French. I look upon France as a corrupt and corrupting influence, and that the less personal intercourse between Britain and France the better for Britain.’[4] It was the notion of ‘indulgence’ that linked together drugs and a cache of transgressive sexual pleasures, and made them a source of English distaste. The governing classes in Britain were determined to defend the country from the ravages of European influence, including modernist art and pornography from France and ‘homosexual pamphlets’ from Germany. Unfortunately, from their perspective at least, the national border, in both its material and imaginative forms, was irredeemably permeable, and people, drugs, ideas, styles, and texts continuously leaked over and through it.

Underneath the cultural traffic of literary and artistic modernism, unlawful linkages were also passing across national jurisdictions. As we can see from the case of Bella Gold, postal services provided an effective conduit for the supply of drugs, and performed the same role for pornographic materials, the Home Office Drugs Branch being assigned authority over both. (The low, criminal mix in fact included some of the forbidden modernist texts: when D. H. Lawrence’s books were banned by the censor in Britain, they were rapidly reprinted in Paris and mailed to customers in the UK.) Britons escaped to France for their ‘dirty weekends,’ and French sex workers were popular and busy on their trips to London. Some Parisians involved in the supply of drugs made visits too. For example, the impressively titled Countess de Flammereville, known more prosaically as Marie Le Franc, who carried cocaine to London in 1932. She supplied some of the more notorious local consumers, such as Brenda Dean Paul and Anthea Carew, and came thereby to the attention of the Metropolitan Police. Detectives raided her room at the Hotel Somerset in Orchard Street, a stone’s throw from Selfridges. The presence of a mysterious French Countess in a West End hotel in the context of a drugs case meant that the tabloid press was swarming all over her appearance at Marlborough Street Police Court. ‘Countess Drugs Case: Miss Brenda Dean Paul mentioned,’ as the Daily Express observed. The Countess (she was, in fact, a countess, albeit long since divorced from her count) lived in a luxurious suburb of Paris and was a convicted trafficker in her home country. The French police had traced her connections with the Marseilles underworld. In a telling communique to Scotland Yard, they described her as ‘an adventuress capable of doing anything to obtain money…it is not known exactly whence this woman obtains her means of existence. Her life is very animated; she frequents night halls and night clubs in Paris with a view to meeting an occasional lover.’[5] Both sets of police were, it appears, equally anxious regarding Marie le Franc’s lifestyle.

There are numerous cases, most of them appearing in the reporting of court proceedings, where the hidden connections operating between London and Paris in the period between the two world wars are made visible. I have mentioned a few in this post, hopefully enough to demonstrate the importance of the linkages in both the lives of contemporary consumers of drugs and the roles that their experiences played in the development of ideas of English national identity. Many of those using these – still newly illicit – psychoactive materials saw their own drug consumption as a part of a larger set of cultural changes, even if they did not necessarily make this explicit or elaborate it within the same terms. On the other hand, much of the energy of those attempting to close the borders and suppress drug consumption was expended defending the identity of a colonial Britain that peaked in the 19th century and was already creaking during the Edwardian period. Naturally, things were much more complex for the individuals involved than a simple binary of modernity and conservatism; but in broad strokes, national identity was certainly a key factor in the drama of drug control in interwar Britain.


[1] Christopher Hallam, White drugs cultures and regulation in London 1916-1960. Palgrave MacMillan. London, 2028.

[2] Sebastian Faulks, The Fatal Englishman: Three short lives. Vintage Books, London, 1997. The Fatal Englishman – Sebastian Faulks: Sebastian Faulks

[3] The Book of Smoke – Points: short & insightful writing about the long & complex history of drugs & alcohol (

[4] The National Archives, UK. HO 45/13708.

[5] The National Archives, UK. MEPO 3/2579.

Unsplash feature image credit: Rafael Kellermann Streit.

#AnthonydeGandarillas #London #interwar #nationalism #britain #Paris #KitWood #Europe #MarieLeFranc #Europeandrughistory #Drugs #opium #BellaGold #DinoSegre #BrendaDeanPaul #GeraldO039Brien #France #identity #BrightYoungPeople

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