The Poisoned Bath Buns Scandal

The Hertford Mercury and Reformer, on Saturday, 31st December 1859, highlighted the scandal of the adulteration of foodstuffs by unscrupulous tradesmen, who had been discovered to be using poisonous minerals to give a tantalising hue to their products.

This practice had been highlighted by a recent case in which several pupils at a top Bristol boarding school had become seriously ill ill after eating some Bath buns they had purchased from a local confectioner, and the newspaper was fuming at what the case had exposed:-



“The public attention has recently been called to the dangers resulting from the unchecked adulteration of articles of food by dishonest tradesmen, and the legislative toleration of unqualified chemists and druggists, who recklessly supply tradesmen with the deadliest poisons.

There have been several cases recently of school boys and other persons being poisoned by Bath buns.

The oldest of us recollect the time when we would rather have given twopence for one of these yellow circlets of sweetness, than for a dozen ordinary buns made of wholesome flour and milk, but less attractive in colour and taste. When we ate the sugary compound we never dreamt that the glowing golden hue which made it so pleasant to the eye was communicated by a mineral poison.


That poison might have been the obscure cause of many youthful ailments; or perhaps when the oldest of us were boys, tradesmen were more scrupulous, or had not begun to dabble in chemistry, and gave the desiderated yellow tinge to these pleasant comestibles by a liberal infusion of the yolk of eggs.

But whatever may have been the practice in past days, it appears that the use of eggs in confectionery is far from being universal at present. They are either too costly for the purpose, or the greed of the tradesman induces him to substitute a cheaper and less wholesome article, which gives to Bath buns, and probably to many other “sweets,” the appearance of a richness that they do not possess.


The colouring agent ordinarily used is chrome-yellow, i.e., chromate of lead, a slow poison, dangerous, because cumulative, that is, not passing out of the system; but it seems that, in at least one case, through the careless ignorance of a druggist, a more virulent poison was substituted.


The iniquity was discovered in this way:-

Numbers of persons residing at Redland and Clifton, near Bristol, including six school toys, were seized with severe illness within half an hour after eating Bath buns.

The symptoms were those which follow the taking of irritant poisons into the stomach; but emetics having been promptly administered, fatal consequences were prevented.

The confectioner, being closely pressed, admitted that, in desiring to give a “rich” appearance to his buns, he had coloured each of them with six grains of chrome yellow, which he procured of a neighbouring druggist.


A bun was analysed, and was found to contain, not chromate of lead, but the yellow sulphide of arsenic, a deadly poison.

The druggist, on being asked for a sample of the article he had sold to the confectioner, produced a packet labelled chromate of lead, which was found to contain yellow arsenic, which he had been in the habit of selling as chrome yellow.

Thus, through the cupidity of a trader, and the ignorance of a druggist, the eaters of Bath buns in the neighbourhood of Bristol were involuntarily taking a sufficient quantity of mineral poison to cause rapid and painful death.

There is nothing in our civilization so humiliating as the spectacle which these circumstances present.


There was a time, in Italy, when it was not safe to smell a flower, or to taste a peach, or to wear a pair of gloves presented, with every mark of affection, by some smiling friend.

Enmity or jealousy lurked beneath the blandishments of love, or the courtesies of friends; and the bloom upon the peach, the fragrance of the flower, the delicate scent imparted to the amber glove, was indifferently the vehicle of some subtle poison.

To touch, to smell, to taste, was death.


That time, with its monstrous and unnatural crimes, has passed away.

But modern civilization has its own stain, not of hate, but of presumptuous ignorance and reckless greediness.

Avarice stands behind its counter, selling cheap poison, at a dear rate, to rosy boys and girls – careful only of the pence that are to be scraped together – altogether careless about the pain and injury its inflicts.

There is a frightful coldness of criminality in this insensibility to the duty men owe to others.

We can fancy the manufacturer of these deliberately poisoned dainties complacently asking, while he counts over his wretched gains – “Am I brother’s keeper?”

The other picture suggested to the imagination by these occurrences is not less terrible.


Bustling behind the druggist’s counter one sees smug Ignorance

“Pestling a poisoned poison
Behind his crimson lights.”

Ignorance, with the lives of a city in his hands! Ignorance, permitted by law to deal in poisons, and retailing them to all comers “without asking questions.” Ignorance, too, unable to distinguish between chrome-yellow and yellow arsenic, and substituting the one for the other, careless whether he kills outright and at once a score of neighbours, or shortens as many lives and makes them wretched.


We say it is a stain on our civilization that these things should be. The law is shamefully imperfect. Had any one died from eating the Bath buns made in Bristol, the vendor of them might have been indicted for manslaughter, or even murder; but as people only suffered pain and loss of health, the magistrates could not interfere.

If a man but holds up his at another, he commits a constructive assault, for which he may be punished; but if he poisons a town by the wilful adulteration of that which he sells as wholesome food, the law will not lay so much as its little finger upon him, unless the result of his poisonings is death.


It ought to be enough to point out this blot our jurisprudence.

To provide a remedy should be the first business of Parliament, taking precedence of Reform Bills, and of all political measures whatsoever.

It is not enough, however, that the fraudulent trader should punished. Prevention is better than cure; and it would be more satisfactory to feel safe, than to see the avaricious adulterator on the treadwheel.


Dr. Griffin, of the Bristol School Chemistry, who has brought the case to which we have referred under the notice of the public in the columns of The Times, proposes the appointment of a Public Health Officer, armed with powers for the detection and prosecution of adulterators.

He also suggests that no persons should be allowed to practice as chemists and druggists who have not passed an examination to test their acquaintance with the properties of the deadly agents which they dispense.


In the meantime, the public would do well to avoid Bath buns, and, indeed, all kinds of coloured confectionery, not procured from tradesmen whom they know well, and upon whose conscientiousness they can implicitly rely.

Let them remember that the cheap confectionery is always the most brilliantly coloured, and that the brilliant colour is for the most part obtained from mineral poisons.”