Thames Mud Butter

In March 1870 the English press became most excited by suggestions from South London that an industrious Frenchman had succeeded in manufacturing butter from the mud of the River Thames at Battersea.

The South London Chronicle, on the 26th March 1870, presented its readers with the full, tongue-in-cheek, stomach-churning story:-


“We must hope that the “butter from the Thames Mud” revelation will turn out a very harmless bogie after all.

Some little time ago, a local contemporary horrified its readers on the south side of the river by the story that a French  chemist was extracting fat from Thames mud in the neighbourhood of Battersea, and that one result of his researches had been witnessed in “a specimen of pure white fat, tasteless, and perfectly inodorous,” capable of being used in the adulteration of butter.

It is needless to say that the disclosure created a genuine sensation.

Old father Thames gathering from the river mud.
This Punch cartoon shows why butter from the Thames mud was not though of as a great idea!


The traditional pock of dirt was a comparative trifle – and, besides, we had got used to the idea; but that it should be our fate to have our food lubricated with a slimy decoction from the too familiar organic deposits of our noble river, had never dawned upon the perceptions of even the most morbid amateur analyst amongst us.

Some light, however, has been since thrown upon the alleged discovery, and we are glad to say that things are not so bad as they looked.


A sample of the so called fat, or rather grease, was submitted to Dr. Muter for analysis; and he reports the stuff to have been “dark in colour, offensive in odour,” and “entirely unsuitable for the adulteration  of butter.”

Specimens of mud, which were also analysed by the same chemist, were found to contain grease in such a trifling proportion, that extraction would not have paid for the trouble.

Nothing can be more gratifying, so far as it goes.


But the analysis does not convince our contemporary, who, enamoured of the nasty theory first broached, is unfeeling enough to hint that the samples sent to Dr. Muter, and the first specimen examined, only represented different stages in one beneficent process.

We, on the other hand, are disposed to agree with the doctor.

If  long and troublesome manufacture succeeds at its latest stage in turning out nothing better than a pure white fat, which is tasteless and inodorous, it is plain that the margin for profit on adulterating butter, an article, in itself, cheap, must be very narrow.


According to the doctor, the two things are altogether different, and to produce a resemblance by chemical arts, must, of necessity, enhance the cost of the ingredient.

That is our consolation.


Of course, it may be a sad disappointment to the ingenious Frenchman, and we can fancy him brooding over his oleaginous mess and muttering, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas de beurre.”

[The article is parodying the famous quote by Pierre Bosquet – “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre: c’est de la folie,”  which referred to the Charge of the Light Brigade, and which translates as, “It is magnificent, but it is not war: it is madness.”]

But he has always one resource.


He may, like Mr. Miles, in the old Protection days when fighting against the admission of Dutch butter, “take his stand upon grease.”

Let him turn his attention to railways, and benefit a distressed interest by lubricating its carriage-wheels cheaply.


Meanwhile we may comfort ourselves by thinking of one real protection which we have; for the truth that the transmutation of filth into something eatable, by any less cunning chemistry than that of nature herself, must always be an expensive task, is, to our minds “as clear as mud.””


A poem in the Liverpool Daily Post on the 15th April 1870, informed readers how the process worked. The rhyme also went into a little detail about who the ultimate recipients of the miraculous natural mud butter were:-

We read that some parties, who reside
Down Lambeth way, on the Surrey side
Of the Thames, have discovered that butter could
Be made from the dirty river mud
The mud they collect, and after that
From it they extract a kind of fat
And into it they afterwards put a
Whole lot more rubbish and sell it as butter
This mess, that no well-bred pig would touch
They sell to Holland and send to the Dutch
We hope they do, for how much worse it
Would be if we got it for “Weekly Dorset.”


That same month the Essex Standard treated its readers to a delightful explanation as to how the miracle conversion of mud into butter was being achieved:-

“Another ray of light has been shed on the mystery of the conversion of Thames mud into butter.

It seems that the banks of the river swarm with animal life – worms and so forth – and these are said to be the source of the chemical products added to the material supplied from the dairies of Holland.”


It wasn’t long before the scientific brains that had been investigating the viability of London’s river as a source of dairy products had dispelled any suggestion that butter could, indeed, be manufactured from the mud of the Thames; and, on the 9th of April 1870, The South London Chronicle broke the tragic news to its readers:-

“The Thames “Mud Butter” bubble has burst, and the nasty imputation of the use made of the mud from Battersea is dispelled.

“We are relieved,” says the Food Journal, “to learn that the great ‘mud butter’ question is a canard, invented by certain imaginative persons, for the purpose of making a ‘sensation’ paragraph.

Dr. Muter has analysed the mud, and some grease extracted from it, and came to the conclusion that, although the latter contained a good deal of fatty matter, the proportion of grease existing in the mud could never have made the speculation profitable.

On this point, therefore, our suspicions are lulled.”


However, the idea that mud from London’s river could be used to make butter, had caused such a sensation that the thought of it stuck in the public consciousness for many years after.

Indeed, in the 1880’s – and around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders – the term “Thames Butter” was common slang for the cheap and nasty butter that was, inevitably, sold in some of the less salubrious grocer’s shops and eating joints around Whitechapel, Spitalfields and the East End as a whole.