Never was the adage “you get what you pay for” more apt than when your average Victorian citizen went food shopping. Indeed, when they went shopping for delectable and dainties, such was the deplorable state of adulteration in the food chain, that they, quite literally took their lives in their hands – or, in the case of food, their mouths.
THE BRISTOL BATH BUNS CASE
In December, 1859, six pupils at one of Bristol’s top boarding schools purchased some Bath buns from a Redlands confectioner by the name of Farr.
That evening they were all taken seriously ill, and but for the timely intervention of Mr Cross, the local surgeon, who realised that they had been poisoned and administered the necessary remedies, they may well have died.
As it was, although it was thought that two of them might not survive the night, all six eventually recovered.
ACTION WAS NEEDED
The case, following as it did hot on the heels of the poisoned lozenges scandal in Bradford of a month previous, caused trepidation and outrage, and, on Thursday, 29th December, 1859, Mr. Frederick W. Griffin, Ph.D., of the Bristol School of Chemistry, wrote to The Times, to demand that action be taken:-
Mr Frederick W. Griffin, Ph.D., of the Bristol School of Chemistry, has addressed to The Times the following important letter:-
A case of poisoning has lately occurred here which is so instructive when considered from several points of view that I am induced to forward you authentic statement of the particulars.
On Thursday, the 15th inst., various persons became seriously ill after eating Bath buns purchased of a confectioner, at Redland.
Among the sufferers were six youths, pupils at leading school at Clifton.
Within half an hour after eating the buns they were seized with deadly nausea and other unmistakeable symptoms of irritant poison.
Emetics having been promptly administered, the greater part of the material was fortunately removed from the stomach before absorption had taken place. Nevertheless, the violent symptoms lasted six or eight hours, and one lad, who had eaten three buns, was in some danger from collapse.
Mr May, a publican, who had also partaken of the buns with like effect, applied to the magistrates for advice last Monday, but as he had not been poisoned outright they could afford no assistance.
COLOURED WITH LEAD
The confectioner, when closely pressed, admitted that, being ambitious of making his buns appear extra rich, he had coloured them with chrome-yellow (i.e. chromate of lead, an insidious poison, and, like all the compositions of lead, persistent and accumulative in its action on the system).
To procure this he repaired to a druggist only two doors off, who must, therefore, have known his occupation, and might have suspected the probable use to which he would apply yellow powder.
NO QUESTIONS ASKED
However, “no questions asked” was the order of the day, the pigment was handed over, and the buyer and seller are at direct variance as to whether or not the word “poison” was written on the packet.
The confectioner confesses that he mixed this powder with his dough in the proportion of about six grains to each bun, and, in a very few hours, his unsuspecting customers were writhing in agony from its effects.
THE WORST OF IT
But the worst is not yet told.
One of the buns was placed in my hands for analysis. This disclosed that no chromate of lead was present at all (indeed it could not have produced such speedy and violent effects), but that the colouring matter was pure orpiment, or yellow sulphide of arsenic.
The druggist, when asked by the baker for a slow poison, had sold him one of the most deadly under a false name.
Application was subsequently made for a sample of this powder. He produced a brown paper parcel of it, loosely tied, and scattering its poisonous contents on all sides. Having put up a sample he wrote on it, “Chrome yellow” (chromate of lead), though it proved on analysis to be yellow arsenic, and the parcel from which it was taken was actually so labelled.
WHO IS SAFE?
With the agents of life and death in the hands such men who among us is safe?
Many reflections might be made on this flagrant case, but the facts speak for themselves. There is little doubt but 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 is difficult to trace, so it generally passes unheeded, but, when ignorance or knavishness risks our summary dismissal to our last account with lozenge or a bun, signal example should be made of the culprits.
A PUBLIC HEALTH OFFICER IS NEEDED
Private individuals, however, can hardly devote time and trouble, as well as considerable outlay, to the getting up of a prosecution.
A public health officer, armed with powers for the detection and prosecution of such offenders, is imperatively demanded in large towns.
One word as to the position of druggists (the addition of ‘chymist’ is, in most cases, a ridiculous misnomer).
EDUCATION AN OPTIONAL MATTER
The partial failure of the late Mr Bell’s Pharmacy Bill has, unfortunately, left education still an optional matter with them, which is the case in no other country in Europe. Those who pass a voluntary examination are entitled to style themselves as “pharmaceutical chymists.”
This is not so fully understood by the public as it ought to be.
All should support those bearing this honourable title, as it is the only guarantee of adequate education and acquirements.”