Health & Safety in Victorian Bow: I can’t believe it IS butter

A879

A lot has been made in recent years about the contents of foodstuffs and the laws we have in place to protect consumers. Restrictions of what went into food and drink, along with attempts to police illegal practices, are part and parcel of the growth of the state in the Victorian period. Quite simply the Hanoverian state was not large enough or as a closely controlled from the centre as Britain became in the 1800s following its victory over Napoleonic France. From the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign her governments oversaw a tremendous increase in bureaucratic systems aimed at monitoring and controlling all aspects of daily life.

Today we might complain about ‘health and safety gone mad’ but this process is not a new one, it started in the 1800s and we can see it in things like the Factory Acts, legislation to determine the width of streets, the building of houses, the amount of hours children could work, and the amount of adulteration allowing in the production of foodstuffs.

So whether it was chalk in bread (to make it whiter), water in milk (to make it go further) or the sale of meat that was off, the Victorians led where we have followed in trying to protect the consumer from physical harm and from being ‘ripped off’. Today one of the key battles over our future relationship with Europe revolves around arguments over who can best protect our current regulations on food safety.

In April 1894 Frederick Lock and Edgar Simmonds were summoned to appear before the magistrate at Worship Street Police court.  The summons were issued on behalf of the Bow Sanitary Authority and their officer was in court to press charges against the two men who kept shops in the district.  The sanitary officer had visited each man’s premises and reported that both were selling butter from large tubs kept behind their counters.

Now we buy butter from supermarkets and it comes pre measured, wrapped, and in chilled cabinet. In the late nineteenth century it was sold loose and by weight, so you bought exactly what you needed. This was a age before modern refrigeration and you simply couldn’t keep things cold and fresh easily at home. Nor did most families in East London have the money to waste food or to purchase any more than they needed. It was quite common for housewives to buy a pennyworth of this or that, a twist of tea, or, say, a rasher of bacon.

When the officer entered first Lock and then Simmonds’ shops he asked for a ‘half-pound of that’, pointing at the butter in the tubs. There were no labels on the wooded tubs but, he said, it was widely understood that they contained butter. However, when he took the ‘butter’ and had it analyzed it was found to be adulterated in each case with ‘foreign fats’ (i.e. substances other than butter). Lock’s butter only contained 40% pure butter while Simmonds was better with  53%. Both men had allegedly contrived the law surrounding legislation which is why the officer had brought the prosecution.

Instead of butter, the officer stated, the retailers were selling their customers ‘margarine’ a cheaper, less ‘pure’ substance. Neither man denied selling margarine however, and said that they’d never labeled the tubs as butter anyway. There was no deception involved, they argued, and Mr Bushby (the magistrate) was minded to agree. This seemed like an overeager ‘heath and safety’ officer who hadn’t appreciated how small shopkeepers like this operated in the district.

Nevertheless there was a clear breach of the law even if it was perhaps not intended to defraud or deceive. Mr Bushby fined each of the 10and awarded costs (of 126d) to the sanitary officer. Both would have to ensure that in future their labeling was clear so that they didn’t attract the wrong sort of attention from the inspectors.

[from The Standard, Saturday, April 07, 1894]

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