‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit’: a Norfolk knacker falls foul of the law

The Cats' Meat Man

Regular readers of this blog will know that alongside the very many cases of theft, drunkenness and assault the Police Courts dealt with a great deal of business that today would not get before a magistrate. London justices of the peace in the eighteenth century and their Victorian counterparts (the Police Court Magistrates) in effect regulated the daily life of Britain’s capital city.

So disputes over transport, employment, the provision of poor relief, the education of children, weights and measures, the sale of alcohol, and excise duty, all came under the purview of the magistracy. As a result the Police Courts are an ideal place to see how the metropolis functioned (or didn’t) in the past; all human (and often animal) life was here, and all manner of trades and occupations appear for the historian to study.

In a city as huge as London was (approximately 1/10th of the British population lived here in the 1800s) one perennial concern was the health and wellbeing of its citizens. The capital devoured vast amounts of food from all over the British Isles  and beyond and all of this had to fit for human consumption.

Meat was a particular concern and it fell to the market inspectors at Smithfield and the other city markets, as well as other officials to inspect meat and poultry that was offered for sale to the public. If suppliers (whether butchers, costermongers or slaughter men) attempted to foist unhealthy or rancid meat on an unsuspecting consumer they might well find themselves in front of a police court magistrate on a charge.

This is what happened to a Norfolk slaughterman named Thomas Fisher.

Fisher appeared before Sir Sydney Waterlow at Guildhall accused of ‘sending three quarters and a half of beef to the London Market for sale as human food’, when it was ‘diseased, unsound, unwholesome, and unfit for the food of man’. The case was brought by Mr Bayliss representing the Commissioners of Sewers (created in 1848 following concerns about public health in the wake of cholera outbreaks).

Bayliss told the Guildhall court that the animal concern had belonged to a grazier in the same area of Norfolk as Fisher. The cow had become sick and was diagnosed with a lung disease. Nowadays we are aware that bovine TB can be transmitted to humans and so is a significant health risk. Whether they knew this in 1870 is unlikely but an animal with the ‘lung disease’ as this beast had should not have made it to market.

The grazier was aware of this and so called for Fisher to take it away for slaughter and the meat to fed only to dogs. However, when Fisher collected the animal and started to ‘drive it home’, it collapsed on the road and he ‘was obliged to kill it there and then’. Afterwards he took the carcass to a slaughter yard were it was stripped and prepared and later sent on to London for sale as human food.

Once all this had been presented and verified in court Thomas Fisher had the opportunity to speak up for himself. The knacker argued that in his opinion the meat was fine when he sent it south. When ‘it dropped down he did think it was the lung disease, but when it was opened he saw that it had fallen from having a nail in its heart’. The meat was far too good, he insisted, to be wasted as dog food and if it was putrid when it reached London it must have been because of the hot weather.

A butcher was produced (presumably on behalf of the prosecution) to testify that he had seen beasts live for months with a nail in their hearts. In ‘one case an animal had a small roll of wire in its heart’ and still survived. The contention was that Fisher knew full well that the animal was diseased but chose to ignore this (and the implications for the health of Londoners) in order to profit from the carcass.

Sir Sydney was sympathetic to the knacker; he didn’t want, he said, to send a man like him to prison but he had clearly breached the laws around food safety and so he must fine him ‘the full penalty’. The full penalty in this case was £20 and £5s costs, the considerable sum of £925 in today’s money. Thomas Fisher was a relatively poor knacker who had probably spent a not insignificant sum of money in answering the summons by travelling to the capital from the Norfolk countryside. He certainly didn’t have £25 on his person (and probably not to his name).

In consequence, despite Sir Syndey’s sympathy he was sent to prison by default. After this was stated in court the gaoler led him away to the cells to begin await transfer to one of the capital’s prisons, probably Clerkenwell, to serve a month inside. If and when he emerged he faced the prospect of having to tramp back to Norfolk again under his own steam or to try and make a new life in London.

Given the tens of thousands of horses that vied with pedestrians on the capital’s crowded streets he might well have made a new career in the ‘Wen’ despatching the poor animals that reached their use-by date. Many of those animals then ended up being sold piecemeal on barrows by ‘cats-meat’ men. Horse meat sold as such was intended for cars and dogs but, as Dickens observed, sometimes graced the tables of not so discerning diners amongst the poorer classes.

So Fisher, having been accused and found guilty of trying to pass off diseased meat as fit for human consumption may well have ended up legitimately supplying horse flesh to the same consumers anyway.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 17, 1870]

If you are interested in this tale of the regulation of food in Victorian London then you might enjoy this post as well: A butcher is hooked

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