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

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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]

‘Iron filings clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’: some of the things found in a very British cup of tea

grocers

I am writing this on Monday and at this point we still don’t know what is going to happen with regards to Brexit. As it stands though, unless the PM has managed to persuade enough MPs to back her deal, we are still scheduled to leave the European Union at 11 o’clock tonight.  We joined the EU (or rather the European Common Market as it was then) on 1 January 1973 after a referendum was held to test the public’s desire to enter or not.  Today we may leave on the basis of another such referendum, or we may not.

I thought it might be interesting to find out what was happening in the Metropolitan Police courts 100 years before we joined the European club. After all in March 1873 Britain was a very different place. Instead of being a declining world power we were THE world power, an empire upon which ‘the sun never set’. Queen Victoria had been on the throne for almost 36 years and had been a widow for 12 of those. William Gladstone was Prime Minster in his first ministry and he was opposed at the dispatch box by Benjamin Disraeli who he had beaten by 100 seats in the 1868 election. Oh what Mrs May would give for a majority of 100 seats, or any majority for that matter

Britain was stable, powerful, rich and successful in 1873 and Europe was a collection of individual nation states of which republican France, under Adophe Thiers, and Germany, (under Kaiser Wilhelm I and his able chancellor Bismark), were dominant. Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire represented the old guard  by comparison. No one was talking about a European union in 1873 but the slide to European war (in 1914) could already be predicted by those able to read the runes.

1873 in Britain saw the opening of the Alexandra Palace in London, and Londoners watched in horror as it burned down a fortnight later. The Kennel Club was created in April , the first of its kind in the world. Another first was the opening of Girton in Cambridge, as an all female college.

220px-Elizabeth_Garrett_Anderson,_MElizabeth Garrett Anderson (right) also became the first woman to be admitted to the British Medical Association, an honor she retained uniquely for almost 20 years. In Africa British colonial troops went to war with Ashanti king, ostensibly because of the latter’s continued trade in human slaves.  Mary_Ann_Cotton

On the 24 March Mary Ann Cotton (left) , one of history’s most unpleasant murderers, was hanged in Durham goal for the murder of her stepson (and the presumed murder of three former husbands); her motive was to cash in on their life insurance money.

Over at Clerkenwell Police court things were a little less dramatic as a tea dealer named Brown was set in the dock before Mr Barker, the incumbent police magistrate. James Neighbour, the sanitary inspector for St Luke’s, testified that he had purchased tow sample of tea from Brown’s shop and had taken them away for analysis. Dr Parry certified that both had been adulterated.

The adulteration of food was common in Victorian Britain and the authorities were keen to prevent it, not least because of the risk it posed to the health of population. Dr Parry’s verdict was that one sample of tea contained ‘iron filings and clippings, gritty matter, and foreign stalks’ while the other was made up of ‘tea dust’ and ‘small fragments of wood’ as well as all the other substances found in the first one. The tea was described variously in signs in the shop window as ‘capital’ and ‘noted’ mixtures but they were very far from it.

However, when pressed the doctor would not or could not say that the tea was ‘injurious to health’, it just wasn’t what it was advertised to be.  Whether it had been adulterated by the defendant or had arrived in that state from China was also something he couldn’t comment on with authority.  This led Brown’s defense lawyer (Mr Ricketts) to argue that the prosecution had failed to prove its case against his client. Mr Barker disagreed. He said it was self-evident that the tea dealer either knew his product was adulterated with ‘foreign matter’ even if he hadn’t adulterated it himself. This was done, he declared, to bulk up the actual tea and cheat the customer. Had it been dangerous to health he would have fined him £20 but as it was not he let him off with a £10n and ordered him to pay the inspector’s costs.

Of course one of the things the EU protects is our consumer and environmental rights, through its stringent laws on trade. Indeed one of the fears some have is that if we open ourselves up to a genuine free market we might have to accept products (such as bleached American chickens) that would not pass EU food standards. We might also note that in 1873 that Britain dominated world trade and that most trade passed through British ports, making money and creating work as it did so.  But in 1873 we had an empire and a navy that was the envy of the world.

Today not only do we longer have an empire but we also have a navy that has been stripped back to the bare bones, to the extent that we only have one aircraft carrier and that is unable to launch the sort of planes we have available. In 1873 we were the major power in the world, truly GREAT Britain. In 1973 we joined a trading community to ensure our future prosperity. In 2019 we may be about to leave that club having grown frustrated with its attempts to evolve into something that resembles a United States of Europe rather than the trade club we signed up to.

Who knows where we go from here and whether this will prove to be a smart move or a disaster that will haunt us forever. History will judge us, and those that made the decisions that led us to this point.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 29, 1873]

A row over the adulteration of the great British banger (and its got nothing to do with the EU!)

butcher

What percentage of a pork sausage should be made up of meat? It’s a good question now and it was a good question in 1882 when Henry Newman was dragged before the magistrate at Southwark by the sanitary officer of the Bermondsey vestry.

The officer, a Mr Thomas, testified that he had bought a pound of sausages from Newman’s shop on Southwark Park Road for nine pence. He told the butcher he was ‘going to have them analyzed’ (which seems a waste for a packet of well made bangers). He took them to a Dr Muter who issued a certificate  that declared they were made from 82 per cent meat and fat and 12 per cent bread. The doctor confirmed however, that while the sausages contained bread they were not in any way ‘injurious to health’.

In court the vestry’s legal team contended that the bread was used ‘so that inferior parts of meat could be used’ to manufacture the sausages. Newman’s  brief challenged that and brought along two other sausage makers to explain to Mr Slade (the justice) that it was impossible to make proper sausages without adding bread to the mix.

The magistrate agreed that bread was an essential part of the process and said the question turned on whether 18 per cent constituted adulteration under the act. In his opinion it didn’t and so he dismissed the summons and two further similar cases that the overeager vestry had brought against other butchers. In the end the vestry were required to pay costs of £2 2sand Mr Thomas probably chose to buy his supper somewhere else in future.

So is 18 per cent too much bread in a sausage? I don’t know. Why don’t you have a look at the next packet you buy from a supermarket or ask your local butcher (if you still have one).

[from The Standard, Thursday, March 23, 1882]

No news of the “Ripper” as London carries on as normal in the 1880s

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Charles Booth’s poverty map of London, areas coloured blue or black represent the worst level of poverty in the capital; red and gold indicated relative comfort or wealth

I thought today I’d peer into the pages of the London press a year after the so-called ‘Ripper’ murders reached their height. In late September 1888 the killer struck twice in one night (30 September), murdering Elizabeth Stride in Berner Street before he later killed and savagely mutilated Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square. The ‘double event’ and the infamous ‘dear boss’ letter raised the level of public engagement with the Whitechapel murder series to fever pitch and helped to make it a global news event.

Researchers do not agree on when the murders ceased. There is some consensus that the last victim was Mary Kelly but three other homicides have been attributed (by some) to the unknown assassin known only as ‘Jack the Ripper’. These are are the headless body a woman found in Pinchin Street in 1889, and the murders of Alice McKenzie and Frances Coles (in July 1889 and February 1891). So given that ‘Jack’ was not (officially at least) in custody in September 1889 is there anything in the Police Court reportage that might link at all to the killer that had terrorised London in the autumn of 1888?

The answer for the 28 September 1889 is no, not really.

At Guildhall a general merchant was prosecuted for obtaining 400 sponges by false pretences. The case was complicated and the magistrate adjourned it for further enquiries. A salesman at the London Poultry market was charged with cruelty to chickens and was reprimanded several by the justice and fined 5s.

At Marlborough Street three men were charged with running a disorderly gaming house in St Martin’s Street. The court heard that the Cranborne Club was, despite appearance sot the contact, a ‘common gambling house’. The men were released on substantial recognises to appear again at a later date.

At Dalston a 22 year-old wood turner was committed for jury trial for assaulting and robbing a vicar. The Rev. Matthew Davison had just got home to his house in Downs Park Road, Clapton when Walter Taylor rushed up and rifled his pockets. The vicar lost a valuable watch and chain and worse, when he set off in pursuit one of Taylor’s associates attacked him from behind knocking him to the ground. Taylor was also charged with a similar theft, that of robbing a young woman named Lucy Millard in Hackney. Taylor (and two others) eventually faced a jury at Old Bailey in October 1889, where they were convicted and sent to prison for between 12 and 18 months.

At the West London Police Court violence was the subject of the newspaper report that day but not stranger violence (as the ‘Ripper’s murders were). James Cook was sent down for four months for for beating his common law wife, Caroline Moore. Cook had fractured his partner’s ribs by jumping on them but Caroline was still very reluctant to bring charges.

Over at Bow Street, the senior police court, four men were brought up to answer a charge of conspiracy to burgle the premises of the Railway Press Company. The men were tracked down by undercover detectives to a house in White Hart Street. The four were all in their twenties but a young girl of 16 was found to be living with them. This may have been what prompted the newspaper editor to choose this story from amongst all the others at Bow Street that day. Rose Harris said she ‘had neither money nor any friends’, and had lived in the sam room as the thieves for three weeks. She was, therefore, a possible witness, and  while the men were remanded in custody Rose was taken to the St Giles Mission to be cared for.

Finally there was a case from the Thames Police Court, one of two (with Worship Street) that covered the East End, the area that has since become synonymous with Jack the Ripper. Thomas Booth, a beer and wine retailer, was prosecuted for selling adulterated beer. Booth’s premises had been inspected by an officer from the Inland Revenue and his beer tested. On two occasions his beer was found to contain too much water. Booth tried to argue that his pipers were faulty and this had led to ‘washings’ (the beer slops) ending up back in his barrels. Mr Kennedy, the sitting magistrates, accepted his excuse in part but not in full and fined him 5s plus 10s costs. Watering down beer was inexcusable.

So a casual reading of the police court news from a year after the most notorious murder series in British history had unfolded would perhaps leave us to think that London carried on as normal. The everyday crimes and misdemeanours continued to occupy the columns of the London press and here was to be found ‘all sorts and conditions of men’ (and women).

The only footnote to this was a letter to the editor of the Standard, published in full at the end of the court reports section. It was from a R. C. Bedford, Bishop Suffragan* for East London. It was a long letter and concerned the ‘East End Poor’. He noted that the levels of poverty in the area were higher than usual by the docks, although had improved from the period of the Great Dock Strike earlier in the year. He was particularly concerned for the plight of the casual labourer in the wake of the strike, because while the workers had secured better pay (the ‘dockers’ tanner’) and some security of employment, those reliant on turning up for the ‘call’ in the early morning probably faced a more unpredictable future.

Bishop Bedford was asking for charitable help to be distributed through his church, and not indiscriminately.  However, he clearly believed that charity was not the solution, the real way to help the poor was to provide them with proper work not ‘doles and shelters’. The letter serves to remind us that late nineteenth-century Britain was a desperate place to live if you were poor and that in the 1880s unemployment was rife, and few areas were as badly affected as the East End. It is no coincidence in my mind that the editor of The Standard choose to position the bishop’s letter on the same page as the Police Court news. Here it would seen by the working and middle classes that read these reports (albeit for slightly different reasons). But it also serves to draw a link between crime, environment and poverty; something that was increasingly recognised in the later 1800s.

[from The Standard, Saturday, September 28, 1889]

*’A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a metropolitan bishop or diocesan bishop. They may be assigned to an area which does not have a cathedral of its own’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suffragan_bishop#Anglican_Communion)

‘There’s more milk drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’, a milkman tells the Thames magistrate.

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London, in fact, knows nothing of real milk, which differs as thoroughly as chalk is unlike cheese, from the spurious stuff we are at present contented with. Commercial milk is a compound which any conscientious cow would indignantly repudiate, 

Punch, 1849

When George Day was charged with stealing milk at Thames Police court it revealed the wholesale adulteration of milk in the capital, something the sitting magistrate was clearly unaware of. The ‘audience’ at Thames however, laughed throughout the hearing, suggesting that they were well aware of the practice and were amused by both the candour of the various witnesses and the ignorance of ‘his Worship’.

The prosecution was brought by Thomas Stevens who ran a dairy and kept cows at Dock Street in Whitechapel. George Day was a regular customer but Stevens had his suspicions about him. The dairyman was pretty certain that the milkman was pinching his milk by the fairy subterfuge of paying for one pail whilst collecting two.

On Thursday morning (18th September 1845) Day appeared as usual (carry two emptily pails) and asked for six quarts of milk. John Knott was milking a cow and when he’d filled one pail (with around 11 quarts) he handed it to Day. Normally those buying milk wholesale like this would have it taken to be strained in the dairy but Day said he was in a hurry so told Knott that he would carry in himself. However, Knott noticed that the milkman had set it down nearby and headed into the dairy without it.

All of this had been seen by Stevens who had hidden himself in a room above one of the cow houses and was spying on him from a window. He saw Day stroll into the dairy carry his empty pail where he was served by another of Steven’s employees, Mrs Gilbert. She gave him six quarts of strained milk, which he paid for.

So the con was pretty obvious: Day presumably appeared each morning with two empty pails which could hold up to about 12 quarts each. He asked and paid for six quarts of fresh milk and ended up with more than twice that amount by the simply tactic of getting his milk directly from the cow and hoping no one noticed. He was caught because the dairy was more alert than he thought it was.

However, the case was made much more interesting because of what George Day did next.

Having received the six quarts for strained milk (i.e. ready to sell to his customers) he carried it over to a pump and topped it up with water. When he admitted this before Mr Broderip at Thames Police Court the place collapsed in laughter (with the exception of the magistrate that is).

‘Is that usual?’ the justice asked him.

‘For him to do so it is sir’, explained the dairy owner.

‘I have regally bobbed it – it’s all right’, confirmed Day, seemingly unembarrassed by his admission that he watered down his milk.

Mr Broderip was confused, what did ‘bobbing’ mean? That was, he was told, the term used to describe adding milk and chalk to strained milk to make it go further. Far from being ashamed to have been caught out George Day was quite happy to tell his worship ‘a few secrets of the milk trade’.

‘We never sell it without water. Of course warm water is the best, ’cause then the people believe it’s just been yielded by the cow. Nothing like it, sir. We adds a little chalk to the score sometimes, and the customers don’t mind it’.

As he had made to leave the dairy, with his two pails balanced carefully over his shoulders with a yoke, Thomas Stevens had run after him and accused him of stealing his milk. Despite Day’s loud denials he was given into the custody of a nearby policeman and so had ended up before the Thames magistrate.

He denied his crime and continued to argue he had done nothing wrong in ‘bobbing’ the milk he sold on the streets.

‘Law bless your worship, its not the first time it’s been done by thousands’ (prompting yet more roars of laughter in court). It was ‘and old saying’ Day told the court, ‘that more milk was drank in London in a fortnight than all the cows in England give in a month’.

The practice of adulteration (or ‘bobbing’) was evidently widespread and well known.

Mr Broderip was satisfied that a felony had been committed but before he could draw up the indictment to send Day for trial he needed formally to hear Mrs Gilbert’s evidence. Therefore he remanded Day overnight for the dairywoman to appear. As for ‘bobbing’ he suggested that the public (via the newspapers) needed to be made aware of this sharp practice, and after this report they certainly were. My suspicions however are that most working class Londoners were already well aware of the reality of what their milk contained, although it may have come as a shock to polite society. Regardless the magistrate declared that it was one of the most ‘impudent’ defences he had heard for a long time.

Day was eventually tried for the theft of 11 quarts of milk but I’m unsure of the outcome. He was listed as being in the Middlesex House of Detention awaiting trial (probably at the Middlesex Sessions). Given the extent of evidence against him I rather suspect he would have been convicted and then imprisoned for a few months.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, September 19, 1845]

Food adulteration was a massive problem for the Victorians: ‘As late as 1877 the Local Government Board found that approximately a quarter of the milk it examined contained excessive water, or chalk, and ten per cent of all the butter, over eight per cent of the bread, and 50 per cent of the gin had copper in them to heighten the colour’. (1) 

(1) Adulteration and Contamination of Food in Victorian England, Professor Anthony S. Wohl, Professor of History, Vassar College [http://www.victorianweb.org/science/health/health1.html]

‘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

Adulterated milk and the Inspector of Nuisances

 

There were no cases from the Thames or Worship Street Police Courts reported in the London press on 17 June 1881. As an exercise in following one court for seven days then this has been something of a failure. However, the absence of reportage is not evidence that the court did not do any work – we know these courts sat daily. Henry Turner Waddy recorded that:

‘All the police courts are open for business on every week-day of the year, Good Friday and Christmas Day only excepted. The ordinary hours are [from] 10 am to 8 pm’.  The Police Court and its Work, (London, Butterworth, 1925)

The manuscript records of the Thames court reveal that it opened on Saturdays as well. Given that they heard dozens if not hundreds of cases daily it stands to reason that the press representation of them is highly selective, when we can see that on some days they reported nothing from one or more of the courts then clearly we need to look carefully at what was (and was not) chosen by the reporter or his editor as worthy of inclusion.

With nothing from either of the two East London courts it is necessary to look at the others on this day.

Earlier in the week we had a short report of an assault that arose out of a dispute between rival milkmen. Well today that same milk company, the Farmers’ Dairy Company (FDC), were back in the news. George Shepparton, the manager of the FDC, was summoned to Clerkenwell Police Court for ‘selling as unaltered milk from which the cream had been extracted’.

We are encouraged to drink low fat milk and avoid cream but the Victorians had different concerns when it came to food. In the 1800s it was the adulteration of food which brought prosecutions: bread with bleached floor, or watered down beer, and of course milk from which the cream had been removed.

The case was brought by William Roache, the wonderfully entitled Inspector of Nuisances. He had seen a man selling milk in Lancing Street (near Euston Station) . The vendor was shouting ‘Fresh Farmhouse milk, twopence a quart’. He bought a pint and then informed the seller that he intended to have it analysed. This prompted the vendor to tell him that it was in fact ‘skimmed milk’.

In court the deface and prosecution lawyers argued over whether the milk had been intentionally sold as something other than skimmed milk. The prosecution said that since it was advertised at ‘Fresh Farmhouse milk’ that implied it was full cream. Mr Wakeling, for the dairy, argued that:

‘the price at which the milk was sold was sufficient to show that there was no pretence that it was anything but skimmed milk’.

Today a pint of milk is likely to cost much the same regardless of whether it is full fat, semi-skimmed or virtually far free. After all you are probably paying more for the packaging now than you are for the content. Supermarkets sell milk at ridiculously low prices compared to cost of producing it.

Back at Clerkenwell the magistrate felt he needed more time and advice before he could make a decision on the evidence he’d heard. He sent the parties away and asked them to return in a  week. Meanwhile he dealt with several other cases of adulteration.

Percival Hawes was convicted of selling milk from which all the butterfat had been extracted, he was fined £20 plus cost. Andrew Carrucio of Gray’s Inn Road was similarly convicted and fined, as was James Ernteman who operated a business on the same road.

George Matthews of Camden Town was summoned for selling adulterated mustard. Mr Roache claimed he had been sold mustard which was mostly flour with a small amount of turmeric (for colour). Matthews countered that he had bought it wholesale from a reputable business so ‘he thought he might safely trust them’. Roche said that the mustard powder he’d been sold came not from a wholesaler’s tin but loose from a drawer. The conviction stuck and Matthews was also fined £20 plus costs.

These are not petty fines, £20 in 1881 was a significant sum of money, close in fact to £1000 in today’s prices. So the state, in the form of Mr Roache the Inspector of Nuisances for St Pancras, was doing sterling work. Today I think that job is part of the role performed by councils and the Food Standards Agency, which checks up on labelling to make sure it is accurate and not misleading. It is worth remembering that this has such a long history.

[from The Standard , Friday, June 17, 1881]