Buying food today is a straightforward process. Products are made under strict hygiene standards, the ingredients are usually clearly labelled and the origin of the product is named. In Victorian England, it was far more hazardous. The problem was that nothing was as it seemed because almost every kind of food was adulterated in some way.

From bread, pickled fruits and vegetables through to sweets, cakes, cheese and butter – they were all adulterated. This meant that foods were being bulked up with other additives to increase the shopkeepers’ profit margins. Every time the Victorians went shopping, they were being sold adulterated food. Even worse, this could pose serious risks to their health.

Potatoes, ground bones, plaster of Paris, lime and pipe-clay were often added to bread, as was sulphate of copper and alum. Alum was used in the dyeing and tanning industry, and it increased the weight of bread and added whiteness. Although it wasn’t poisonous in itself, it caused severe indigestion and constipation.

‘The Great Lozenge Maker’ from Punch (1858

Even more deadly were the poisons that were routinely added to sweets and other confectionery to make them more colourful and attractive. Chromate of lead created a deep yellow but caused lead poisoning; the more times it was ingested, the more serious the results. Red sulphuret of mercury (vermilion) produced a bright orange-red hue but was known to be a dangerous poison, while green sweets were usually coloured with verdigris (copper acetate) which was a highly poisonous salt.

In 1858, the use of poisons as additives in sweets became headline news. In Bradford, twenty people died and more than 200 others became ill after eating sweets that had been accidentally laced with arsenic during the making process, instead of harmless ‘daft’ (usually plaster of Paris).

A year later, another less well-known poisoning scandal hit the headlines. I wrote briefly about the case of the poisonous Bath buns a few years ago for the British Newspaper Archive blog. But the story is worth re-telling in greater detail. In December 1859, six boys from a boarding school in Clifton, near Bristol bought some Bath buns from the shop of a confectioner named Farr. Within half an hour of eating them, they fell violently ill ‘with a horrible sickness and other symptoms of irritant poison’. The quick thinking of a doctor in using emetics to empty their stomachs meant that five of the boys soon recovered.

A confectioner’s shop in Spalding, Lincolnshire (circa 1907)

But for one of the boys, the poisoning almost proved fatal. He had been greedier than the others and had eaten three of the buns. He remained ‘writhing in agony for a number of hours and fell into a state of collapse’. Luckily, he eventually recovered. The schoolboys were not the only people affected by this batch of Bath buns. A publican called May also bought some for himself and his brother, and they ‘likewise suffered horrid tortures’ for nine hours. When he got better, May complained to the magistrates but as he had not been poisoned outright, there was no case to answer. Had he died, a manslaughter case might have been brought.

Preliminary investigations revealed that Farr regularly coloured the buns with chromate of lead without being aware of its dangers, and at first it was supposed that this time he had carelessly used too much. However, when the buns were analysed by Doctor Frederick Griffin of the Bristol School of Chemistry, it was discovered that the colouring matter was, in fact, yellow sulphide of arsenic in the proportion of six grains to each bun. It turned out that in this instance, the druggist had mistakenly supplied Farr with sulphide of arsenic, a much more deadly poison than the slower-acting chromate of lead. No action was taken against the confectioner or the druggist because the poisoning was accidental.

Doctor Griffin wrote to The Times, arguing that ‘many of the obscure chronic and dyspeptic complaints now so prevalent are due to the systematic adulteration of articles of food with unwholesome or slowly poisonous materials’. This was probably also the reason for the large numbers of adverts in Victorian newspapers offering indigestion remedies.

Dr Jenner’s Absorbent Powder for Indigestion Heartburn and Acidity (Credit: Science Museum, London)

In 1868, the Pharmacy Act was passed, after which only qualified pharmacists and druggists could sell poisons and dangerous drugs. Unfortunately, until 1875, there still remained very little control over the food and drink sold to the public. Although the first Act for Preventing the Adulteration of Articles of Food or Drink was passed in 1860, it had very little effect. In 1872, an amended Adulteration of Food, Drink and Drugs Act came into force, which included the mandatory appointment of public analysts. A second select committee was set up and its findings formed the basis of the Sale of Food and Drugs Act (1875).

Under this legislation, inspectors had the power to sample food and drugs, and to test them for adulteration. There was a further amendment to the Act in 1879, followed by the Margarine Act (1887) and finally, the Food Adulteration Act (1899). From the late 1880s and early 1890s, there were an increasing number of prosecutions for food adulteration, as reported in the local and national newspapers. This was the beginning of the trading standards legislation we take for granted today.

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