Rickesh Patel – Food Adulteration


During the Victorian period, while the upper classes became fascinated with the new tastes and sensations that the Empire’s new trade links offered, some denizens of the working-class slums began to seek new forms of manipulating the taste of food, to create cheaper ways of emulating this taste. Food adulteration – adding substances of inferior quality material to bulk up a product and thus make it cheaper to produce – was their primary method.  One London County Country Medical Officer discovered that ice cream from a local neighbourhood was full of cocci, bacilli, torulae, cotton fibre, lice, bed bugs, bug’s legs, fleas, straw, human hair, and cat and dog hair, which may have caused diarrhoea among other server symptoms. Roy Porter claimed that adulteration became a normal part of the daily lives and diet of working-class people.[2] John Burnett found that many working-class families drank ‘adulterated tea over and over again.’[3]


The Punch cartoon,‘The Great Lozenge-Maker’ is a powerful comment on the financial and physical effects of food adulteration. The image was inspired by the Bradford Poisoning, 30 October of 1858 when 100-200 people were poisoned by arsenic (on the left-hand side of the image) which was mistakenly supplied William Goddard, the apprentice of chemist Charles Hodgson, to a sweet maker. Instead of plaster of Paris, usually added to the sweet mixture to bulk it up and make it go further, deadly arsenic was added to the sweets. Twenty people died, [4] and a national outcry led not only to the conviction of Goddard and the trial of Neal and Hodgson but to the Adulteration of Food and Drink Bill of 1860 and the Pharmacy Act of 1868, which made druggists and chemists responsible for any product sold.[5]

While this image manages to find humour in a tragic situation, the scene served as a about the dangers of food adulteration. With the rise of food adulteration, incidents of arsenic poisoning and other related deaths – whether accidental or with malicious intent – spiked. Ian Burney shows how the ‘Victorian imagination’ became entranced by the delights of a ‘good poisoning case’ well before the Bradford poisoning,[6] as a sensationalist media became obsessed with cases such as the mysterious poisoning of John Parsons Cook by William Palmer.[7] Groups such as the Pharmaceutical Society campaigned against the readiness of arsenic for adulteration and poisoning and proved marginally successful before 1858, while  commentators such as Friedrich Accum were concerned about the widespread use of adulteration.  Accum saw the various merchants engaging in adulteration as ‘mercenary dealers’: 

But of all nefarious traffic and deception, practiced by mercenary dealers, that of adulterating the articles intended for human food with ingredients deleterious to health, is the most criminal, and, in the mind of ever honest man, must excited feeling of regret and disgust.

Accum, Fredrick ‘A treatise on adulteration of food, and culinary poisons, exhibiting the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine, spirituous liquors, tea, oil, pickles, and other articles employed in domestic economy. And methods of detecting them’ (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1820)

The dark humour of ‘The Great Lozenge Maker characterised the ‘lozenge-maker’ as the figure of death itself. The Bradford incident poisoned the reputations of many local merchants. This image symbolises the growing concern about food sellers who resorted to adulteration. It also sheds a light on the unease that the British public felt about the laissez-faire ­attitude of the government in interfering in questions of the adulteration and the abuse of chemicals such as arsenic.  

This image had real power to change attitudes towards food adulteration and how it should be tackled. Ultimately, Ian Jones has argued that the scandal surrounding the Bradford poisoning and images such as ‘The Great Lozenge-maker’ helped to intensify the pressure from the government to expand and enforce the regulation of poisonous materials, resulting in the Pharmacy Act of 1868.[8]

Rickesh Patel


[1] Wohl, Anthony S. ‘Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain’ (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.) pg. 52-53

[2] Porter, Roy, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Penguin, 1982), p. 216.

[3] Burnett, John, Plenty and Want: A Social History of Food in England from 1815 to the Present Day (London: Routledge, 1989). p. 86).

[4] Whorton, J.C The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was poisoned at home, work and play’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 150.

[5] Johnson, Ben ‘Dying for a Humbug, the Bradford Sweet Poisoning 1858’:  http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofBritain/Dying-for-Humbug-the-Bradford-Sweets-Poisoning-1858/ (Date accessed: 13/10/2016)


[6] Burney, Ian ‘Poison, detection, and the Victorian Imagination’ (Manchester: Manchester University Press: 2006) pg.1

[7] Jones, Ian ‘Arsenic and the Bradford Poisoning 1858 : http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/features/arsenic-and-the-bradford-poisonings-of-1858/20003896.article#References (date accessed: 1/12/2016)

[8] Jones, Ian, ‘Arsenic and the Bradford Poisoning 1858’.