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]

The peril of children running errands on London’s streets

Boys exercising at Tothill Fields Prison

I recall being dispatched to buy cigarettes for my father on several occasions in my youth, or to return ‘pop’ bottles for the deposit. Both involved a long walk (or run) down (and then back up) the hill where we lived. Running ‘errands’ like this was a common enough thing in the past but I suspect it is one of those things that no longer happens, especially with small children, given the perceived perils of modern society.

In the nineteenth century sending a child (even one as young as 7) out to fetch food or drink, or to deliver a message, was very normal. After all children worked at a much younger age and until mid century school was really only for the sons and daughters of the better off.

But the streets could be just as dangerous a place for children in the 1800s as they are today. Carts and coaches rumbled along the cobbled thoroughfares at great speed and could rarely stop in time to avoid a running child if they stepped into its path; thieves and villains lurked around every corner, and child prostitution rackets operated in the capital.

Sometimes the threat came from young people not much older than themselves, as in this case from 1855. In early March Ann Jane Hatley had been sent out with sixpence to buy some butter. She was 7 years of age and lived with her parents in Exeter Street, Chelsea. As she walked along a small boy, about 12 or 13 came up to her and asked where she was going. When she explained he said she needed to be careful of lest she drop the 6in the mud of the street.

The lad, whose name was William Smith, produced a piece of paper and said the best thing was for her to wrap her coin in it to protect it. When Ann handed over the money for him to do so he promptly ran off with it. Fortunately, a passer-by had seen what happened and set off in pursuit. William was captured and brought before the magistrate at Westminster.

In court several other children were produced who reported similar robberies on them whilst out running errands. Susannah Welsh (who was 9 or 10) had been sent to buy flour. William had followed her for ‘some distance’ before he suddenly pounced and wrestled the money she was carrying (2s) from her grasp.

Thomas Mursell (just 8) had been entrusted with 9to pay a baker’s bill when Smith approached him and asked what he was doing. When he discovered the boy had money Smith contrived to knock it out of his hand, as ‘if by accident’, and then offered him some paper to wrap it in as they pair collected it from the street. It was only when Thomas got to the baker’s shop that he realized that William had managed to steal over half of it.

There were a string of other small boys and girls with similar tales to tell but the magistrate (Mr Arnold) had heard enough. He duly committed the ‘expert juvenile highwayman’ (as Reynold’s Newspaper dubbed him) for trial before a jury.

William went for trial at the Westminster Quarter Sessions where he was convicted of two thefts (from Ann and Susannah) and sentenced to a spell in the house of detention.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1855]

‘You won’t believe it’s not butter’

jersey-butterine

 

Today we are protected by considerable and complex laws affecting our consumer rights. Food is labeled (albeit confusingly at times) with levels of fat, sugar, chemicals etc. There are directives about weight, sell by and use by dates and governing packaging and advertising. Caveat emptor applies to many things but not really to food.

In was very different in the early Victorian period when all sorts of things were added to food and other consumables to make them cheaper, sweeter, or more attractive. The 1800s saw an attempt to standardise food however, and to remove the poisons that were routinely used to adulterate things such as beer, milk and bread. The ever expanding bureaucracy of the Victorian state passed more and more pieces of legislation and hired inspectors to enforce them.

On occasion we can see the results of this in the Police Courts of the Metropolis.

In December 1876 Charles Theobald , a grocer with a shop at 20 Regent’s Street, was summoned before the magistrate at Westminster for selling butter that was not really butter.

Owen Williams, an officer of the Board of Works, had entered Theobald’s shop and asked for a pat of butter. Theobald’s 12 year-old son served the customer, and sold him a pound of butter.

Mr Williams explained to the court that he wanted the butter it for analysis and that what he thought he had been sold was ‘butterine’, not butter. This, he added, was not supposed to be sold ‘as the natural production from the cow’. Williams took it away for analysis by a Dr Du Pré who found that it was only 10 percent butter and 90 percent animal fats. What the Theobalds were selling was a butter substitute. There seems to have been nothing wrong with doing so so long as it was’t being sold as the superior dairy product.

Buttering seems to have been a successful product in the USA in the Edwardian period, most of the adverts (some of them terribly racist it has to be said) come from across the Atlantic. The first dictionary reference is just before the First World War, so the Theobalds may have been pioneers. It is certainly much older than ‘I can’t believe its not butter’ which has been manufactured by Unilever since the mid 1970s.

Charles Theobald explained that he had recently punched the shop and all its stock just 6 days earlier and his son had no idea that he was doing something wrong. He didn’t know that there was a different product, the buttering looked like butter after all. It was genuine mistake and would not occur again. Both he and his son were ‘perfectly innocent of any attempt at fraud, and any fraud lay with his predecessor’.

The magistrate accepted his word and cautioned him for the future, the summons was then dropped and the grocer was free to return to his new business.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, December 28, 1876]

NB if you are one of the growing number of regular  readers of this blog I just wanted to say thank you. I started this as an exercise in keeping my research brain active on a daily basis; the fact that hundreds of people seem to find it interesting enough to dip into from time to time helps me keep it going.