Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Victorians and Food


Barely a week goes by without items appearing on the adulteration of food. The current controversy over burgers and horse meat being a recent example and a local newsagent was prosecuted ,last year for selling vodka to which a toxic substance was added. Concerns over the quality of food and its impact on the populace first come to the fore during the 19th century.

All through the Victorian era food was adulterated. It was, put simply, a fact of life. Almost anything you purchased was likely to have had something added. The main reason was economic diluting the product increased profit. Adding water to milk is probably the most common instance of this although adulteration was far more widely practised.

The list of poisonous additives reads like the stock list of some mad and malevolent chemist: strychnine, cocculus inculus (both are hallucinogens) and copperas in rum and beer; sulphate of copper in pickles, bottled fruit, wine, and preserves; lead chromate in mustard and snuff; sulphate of iron in tea and beer; ferric ferrocynanide, lime sulphate, and turmeric in Chinese tea; copper carbonate, lead sulphate, bi-sulphate of mercury, and Venetian lead in sugar confectionery and chocolate; lead in wine and cider; all were extensively used and were accumulative in effect, resulting, over a long period, in chronic gastritis, and, indeed, often fatal food poisoning. It is not surprising that purgatives were frequently used

It also explains the trust people had in the Cooperative Movement in securing quality in food . The Rochdale Pioneers opened their store in 1844 and within a few months they had become known for providing unadulterated goods and a movement was born.

By the 1870s legislation was enacted and from that date prosecutions start to come through the courts. In February 1879 a local butcher Enoch Clarkson was taken to court in Cheadle for selling discoloured beef unfit for human consumption. A grocer in Burslem was fined for adding alum to flour and in Kidsgrove another was found guilty for adding plaster of paris called “daft” to confectionery On that example sometimes the tendency could have fatal consequences . In 1858 a sweet shop owner in Bradford named Neal mistakenly added arsenic to his peppermint lozenges resulting in over 20 deaths. It was cases like this led to legislation on food quality