Poisoned treacle in Lewisham (and an empty poor box in the City)


In a report of a meeting of the Lewisham Board of Works (which sounds as riveting as its title suggests) from 1877, it was claimed that a supply of poisoned treacle was being sold in the borough. The treacle had apparently been ‘accidentally poisoned with arsenic’ but was now being sold in the ‘poorest districts, where it could easily be disposed of at low prices’ (suggesting to me that the vendors were well aware of what it contained).  The board reported that two families had already been made ill by the sweet sticky substance and requested samples be taken so the source could be traced and the remainder removed from sale.

This was not yet a crime (in that no one had been arrested and therefore no court action taken). But hopefully this would have eventually ended up in the Police Courts and in a prosecution for adulteration of food at the very least. Hopefully no one was killed as arsenic in low quantities is rarely fatal.

Meanwhile over at Mansion House a very different problem faced the authorities.

The magistrate (the Lord Mayor on this occasion) announced that the poor box was empty. Indeed not only was the ‘poor-box fund of the court’ […] ‘quite exhausted’, it was also slightly in debt.

It seems to have been the norm for the Mansion House court to use the proceeds of fines and sometimes of costs to provide temporary handouts to the poorest of those that came before the court. Now, however, these funds had been used up and so the Lord Mayor issued an appeal to the public to donate monies to replenish the fund.

I suppose this shows us that in the 1800s (as indeed seems to have been the case in the previous century) the summary courts of the capital played an important role in providing temporary support to London’s large population of paupers and others, like abandoned wives and mothers, that needed it.

[ from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, September 16, 1877]

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