Dodgy meat on sale at Smithfield and is a cat’s meat man in the frame for the Whitechapel murders?

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On Thursday 27 June 1889 Frederick Miller was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police court in the City of London. His alleged offence was selling meat unfit for human consumption and the prosecution was brought by the Commissioners of Sewers who policed food safety at the Central Meat Market, Smithfield.

Alderman Evans, the presiding magistrate, was told that Miller had brought a cow carcass to market from his home in Norfolk and attempted to sell four pieces from it. That animal had been slaughtered and then prepared for sale on Whit Sunday, the day after Pentecost (which is usually 50 days after Easter Sunday). Since Easter fell on the 21 April in 1889 the likely date the meat was prepped was probably around the 2 June, or three weeks before it reached market in London.

While Miller pleaded not guilty the inspectors (and the Medical Officer of Health, Dr saunders) were able to convince the alderman that the meat was bad and that the public would have been at risk had they not spotted and confiscated it. Alderman Evans fined Miller 50plus £3 3costs, warning him that if he did not pay up he’d go prison for two months.

Miller was described as horse slaughterer and butcher, living at North Walsham and was well-to-do enough to employ a solicitor. London’s horse slaughtering business at this time was dominated by the firm of Harrison, Barber who had premises across the capital. They fed the market in horse meat that supplied the cat’s meat men that catered to Londoner’s love of pets. The history of this little known industry is something I address in some depth in my recent investigation into the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. In June 1889 body parts were found floating in the Thames near Horselydown steps; they were the forth of the so-called ‘Thames Torso mysteries’ that baffled police between 1887 and 1889. In my book I suggest that one man – a cat’s meat seller no less – might have been responsible for these and the Whitechapel murders.

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[from The Standard, Friday, June 28, 1889]

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

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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:

An expensive day out in the capital for two east midlands butchers

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The Metropolitan Meat Market at Smithfield 

The City of London actively policed the market at Smithfield so as to protect the citizens of the capital from the ill effects of diseased meat. Prosecutions were brought to the Guildhall Police court by the Commissioners of Sewers who used inspectors backed up by doctors from the Medical Board of Health. Those caught selling or supplying meat deemed unfit for human consumption could expect hefty fines.

The process means that we get a rare chance to see how the meat trade operated in the late nineteenth century when of course nearly all animals were farmed outside of London (as it true today). In the earlier part of the century farmers would have driven their cattle into London to be sold at Smithfield and then slaughtered in the East End but drovers were increasingly being prevented from driving cattle and sheep though the crowded city streets, which were dominated by pedestrians, omnibuses, and cabs by 1889.

There were two prosecutions at Guildhall on the 19 June 1889 when Alderman Phillips was in the magistrate’s chair.

The first was John Stafford, a butcher from Wharf Street in Leicester who had sent four pieces of beef to the market on the 16 may that year. These had been inspected and found to be unfit. Stafford pleaded his innocence saying the meat was fine when he’d dispatched it but Dr Sedgewick of the Board of Health disagreed. He testified that he’d seen the meat and it was:

 ‘wet and emaciated, was very dark, and had a very offensive odour. It had’, he added, ‘the appearance of coming from an animal that had been ill for some time’.

The butcher had been brought south by an officer from the Leicestershire constabulary, detective-sergeant George Crisp, who had been asked to make inquiries by the Commissioners in London. Stafford said he’d bought the animal at a local fair then had killed it, and prepared the cuts himself.  The alderman was convinced the butcher had known the meat was bad and fined him a huge sum – £60 (£15 for each piece) – and added 3 guineas costs on top.

The next defendant was also from the east midlands. Francis Height was a butcher who gave his address as Polebrook in Northamptonshire. He was accompanied by Dennis Andrews, an police inspector in the Northants constabulary.

Height had sent a sheep to the market for sale and this had been seized by one of the market inspectors. Dr Saunders, for the Board, said the animal suffered from a lung disease and the meat was not fit to be eaten by people. The Northampton man admitted sending the sheep but again declared that he thought the meat was fine when he let it go. It was no defense and he was fined £20 and costs.

So that day the Commissioners of Sewers and the Guildhall court pulled in £80 in fines, a whopping £6,500 in today’s money. That would have bought you eight cows in 1889 so those butchers had a very expensive trip to the ‘smoke’ that week.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 20, 1889]

‘Nothing but skin and bone’; animal cruelty on Putney Fields

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The British are, as everyone knows, a nation of animal lovers. The RSPCA was formed in 1824, fully 60 years before an equivalent society was founded to protect children. Of course we are also a nation of meat eaters, we just don’t like see animals abused before they become the centre piece of our Sunday roast or that morning breakfast bacon sandwich.

There were clear guidelines and rules to protect animals and humans in the Victorian meat industry. Inspectors regularly prosecuted butchers and market traders at the Police Courts and in 1858 the RSPCA helped the police bring a prosecution against an amateur  pig farmer from Putney.

William Watts was described as a tailor when he appeared before the police court magistrate at Wandsworth. He was accused of cruelty to animals; in this case several pigs that he kept on Putney Fields.

Several locals had complained to the police about the state of the animals and a policeman, Sergeant Backing (V Division) paid a visit to the piggery. He found the animals there in a dreadful state:

‘There were 2 pigs in a most miserable condition’ he reported. The animals were housed in 4 compartments and in these there ‘was a large quantity of stagnant water and a quantity of dung in each compartment, but there was no straw on which the pigs could lie’.

Worse still, the ‘animals appeared almost starved, and two of them stood up in a corner perfectly paralysed with cold and hunger’.

Watts promised to feed them better in future and the sergeant went away. When he visited again a few days later things seemed to have improved slightly but it was a false dawn. On a subsequent inspection Sergeant Backing found that the animals had been attacking each other. Watts claimed they had been fighting as pigs do, but the policeman was sure that they had been trying to eat each other, so starved were they.

He declared that he’d never seen pigs in such a poor condition; they were ‘perfect skeletons’ he said and averaged only 3 stone in weight even though they were at least 17 months old. Either he or the public alerted the RSPCA who sent an inspector named Knight to take a look.

Knight arrived too find one of the sows dead in the stye.

‘It was quite a skeleton’, he reported, ‘the carcase being nothing but skin and bone’. As for the other animals:

They were ‘large pigs, and their hind quarters were drawn quite to a point, and nothing remained but their frames’.

It was awful and Watts was fully convicted of animal cruelty at Wandsworth Police Court. He said he’d fallen ill himself and with no one to look after the pigs they’d been left to starve. He claimed to have looked after them well before that but Mr Dayman was not interested in his excuses. He wasn’t sure which was worse, the man’s ‘folly or his cruelty in withholding the food’. The animals would hardly be worth anything now in the state they were in, he’d get no meat from them even if they were now improving as Watts had argued.

He fined the tailor 50s and 2s costs which the man could not pay. Thus, for failing to feed his animals and allowing them to live in squalor William Watts was sent to prison for a month. One wonders who fed the pigs in the meantime.

[from The Standard, Monday, March 01, 1858]

A coster’s barrow stinks out the Guildhall

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Sometimes it is the banality of the Police courts that interests me. The magistrates that presided in London’s summary courts sent thousands of offenders up through the system  to face trials at Old Bailey or Clerkenwell where they were, if convicted by a jury, sentenced to transportation, imprisonment and even to death. Many more petty criminals, drunk and disorderly men and women, or anti-social juveniles were sent for spells of hard labour, expelled to a reformatory, or fined a few shillings or pounds.

The justices (the magistracy of London) had wide ranging powers which were hardly constrained by the right of appeal. Tremendous discretion rested with these men, all of whom had a legal background and many of whom served their communities for years.

One of the responsibilities they had was to keep to peace and another was to help regulate trade and maintain what we might term, health and safety. The metropolis had a infrastructure of inspectors and health officers but it fell to the magistrate to deal with those that broke the numerous rules that governed food sales and preparation or the maintenance of property.

In October 1889 Alfred Woodbridge was summoned to appear at the Guildhall Police Court before the alderman magistrate who presided there. Woodbridge was a costermonger, a trader who sold goods cheaply from a barrow. Costermongers didn’t enjoy a terribly respectable reputation and had frequent and endemic run-ins with the police who were forever moving them on from their pitches on the city’s streets.

Woodbridge wasn’t in trouble for obstructing the highway however; he had been brought on the instructions of the Commissioners of Sewers for having in his possession meat that  unfit for human consumption.

The coster had been spotted outside one of the City’s markets (either Smithfield, Fleet or Leadenhall – the report did not specify which) by a meat inspector named William Allen. Mr Allen told the court that he had discovered that Woodbridge had on his barrow:

’29 hams and eight pieces of pork, which were diseased and totally unfit for human food’. He seized them and took them to Dr Sedgewick Saunders – the Medical Officer of Health for the City of London – to be examined.  Dr Saunders confirmed the meat was bad saying that:

‘The odour from them was filthy, and they were quite black. It would have been a very serious result had they been eaten’.

Luckily they weren’t and so no harm had been done. Woodbridge made no attempt to deny the charge and he was fined £9 and 5s with a warning that if he could not find the money to pay he would go to prison for a month.

The magistrate then was enforcing the regulations that allowed trade to function across the City and at the same time protecting the public from unscrupulous traders. Whether Woodbridge learned his lesson and made sure his produce was safe in future is of course unknown. But a £9 fine was no small beer and we can be fairly sure that if he showed his face again in the area inspectors like Mr Allen would be quick to check his barrow.

[from The Standard, Friday, October 18, 1889]

‘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

A butcher is hooked

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Thomas  Turner sold meat the London Central Meat Market (which opened at Smithfield in 1875). At least he called it meat but several of his customers clearly begged to differ and complained to the City of London authorities.

James Newman, a City meat inspector, decided to investigate. He went along to Smithfield to buy some of Turner’s bacon. The butcher offered him  6lb which Newman bought and examined. It was rotten; ‘in a putrid state, and unfit for human food’, the inspector reported.

The case came before the sitting alderman magistrate at Guildhall brought by the City solicitor, and Turner grumbled that had he known his mystery shopper was a market inspector he wouldn’t have tried to sell to him. He added that he didn’t know the meat was bad.

This was far from a defense of course, and the court heard that Turner was regularly in the habit of selling bacon for 4-5d a pound that might endanger the health of anyone eating it. I suppose it is reminder of how ‘clean’ the food industry is by comparison today (despite our scares about horse meat in Tesco burgers and salmonella in the 90s).

Turner was fined £10 plus cost for his transgression and presumably his card was well and truly marked for the future.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, September 06, 1876]