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]

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]