Lessons from history : we don’t want your Chlorinated chicken America

Cock fighting

The crowd that had gathered around Thomas Masters on Houndsditch one early evening in August 1867 looked angry. Angry enough at least to worry one passerby who took it upon himself to find out what was going on.

As he pushed his way through he saw an old man holding a cockerel. The bird was dripping blood and had lost a lot of its feathers along with its claws and spurs, but was alive. The man seemed drunk and the crowd was berating him.

The ‘good Samaritan’ (a Mr Moore) decided to act quickly lest the crowd used violence against their quarry. He called a policeman over and had the elderly man arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty.

The next day the man was brought before the Lord Mayor at Mansion House police court. He gave his name and admitted being a little drunk that day. He said he had clipped the bird’s spurs and claws, and removed some feathers ‘to improve his appearance and make him look younger’. One wonders why he would go to such drastic lengths, was trying to use the bird for cock fighting (illegal by the 1860s having been banned in 1835) or was he hoping to sell him?

The Lord Mayor fined him 5for the cruelty but Masters had no money so was sent to prison for three days in default.

I think this story tells us that the British have a low tolerance for animal cruelty, at least when it is flaunted in front of us. The RSPCA was founded quite early in the nineteenth century, in 1824, and long before a charity to protect children from cruelty. We have been a nation of animal lovers for a very long time and pets are much more closely integrated into out way of life than they are in many other countries.

I think that the Americans might do well to remember this as they make sweeping statements about post-Brexit trade deals. When it comes to animal welfare the States do not have standards that are anything like as rigorous as ours or the European Union’s. Chlorinated chicken may be safe but that is to miss the point. British consumers want to know that their food is both safe and – to a large degree at least – ethically sourced. We may not ask too many questions about where our meat comes from at first, especially if it cheaper. But campaigners will soon let the public know if animals were being abused to put cheap food on our tables and then, I believe, a very British sense of fair play will demand that our supermarkets source produce elsewhere.

So the Americans can demand whatever they like in terms of access to UK markets for their agriculture, it doesn’t mean we are going to buy it. We’ve had consumer boycotts before (in the Apartheid years for example) and the US might soon learn that we are capable of saying ‘no thank you’ to a vast range of American goods.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, August 22, 1867]

“Buy British!” is the cry from Smithfield (but check it is fit to eat)

smithfieldmarketyears2308q.jpg

Smithfield Market (c.1890)

George Waller junior was a butcher like his father and traded from the Central Meat Market at Smithfield. In April 1889 he was, as was normal, selling meat from his stall in front of the wholesale shop operated by his father. Once the wholesale business of the market was concluded the public were able to come and buy directly from the trade.

George was offering cheap offal that morning, in this case lamb kidneys. And he was selling at a knockdown price. Where normally these would be advertised at 26d  to 3s   6a dozen Waller was selling them at just 6a dozen. It was a real bargain and it drew the attention of punters but also one of the meat inspectors.

Inspector Terrett came over to the stall and examined the goods on sale. He found that the kidneys were ‘putrid’ and not fit for human consumption, so he seized them. In June George Waller was summoned before the magistrate at the Guildhall (Smithfield falling under the City of London’s jurisdiction) to answer a charge of selling diseased meat to the public. In court Waller offered a limited defense, claiming that while he was charged with selling 121 putrid kidneys there were only 46 for which he was liable. He added that they came from imported German sheep and so he shouldn’t really be blamed.

The alderman magistrate brushed this aside but did comment that it was unfair if imported meat was not expected to be of the same standard as domestic produce:

I take a very strong view of the case’ he said. ‘Foreigners can send filthy stuff to England, and have no liability, whereas our own subjects would be liable’.

Goodness knows what he would make of chlorinated chicken…

In the end he decided that Waller would be fined but excused him the whole penalty, having some limited sympathy for him. Instead of paying 20each for 121 items of ‘bad meat’ he would pay just £36 and he hoped it would be a lesson to him to be more careful in future where he got his produce from.

[from The Standard, Friday, June 07, 1889]

On 16 October 1888 George Lusk, the chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance committee (set up as a communal reaction to the police’s inability to catch the Whitechapel murderer) received a very unpleasant parcel in the post. When he opened it Lusk found a small part of a human kidney wrapped in a little box with a letter attached. It read:

Sir, I send you half the Kidne I took from one woman preserved it for you. tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a while longer signed Catch me when you can

Mishter Lusk.

The letter was addressed ‘From Hell’ and has become one of the most contested pieces of evidence in the Jack the Riper mystery. On June 15 Drew’s new book (co-authored by Andy Wise) is published by Amberley Books. It is a new study of the Whitechapel murders of 1888 which offers up a new suspect, links the ‘Jack the Ripper’ killings to the unsolved ‘Thames Torso’ crimes, and provides the reader with important contextual history of Victorian London. The book is available to order on Amazon here: