Adultery at the produce counter

HandelHandel died in London, you know. His house in Mayfair is now a museum.  His death has been the cause of some speculation, as always seems to be the case when a famous person dies. His failed eyesight and ornery temper (apparently he once threatened to throw a soprano out of the window) has led to the interesting theory that he died from lead poisoning.

But how did he get so poisoned? Well, now, let’s talk a little about wine in Britain in the 18th century. See, although the reputation of British wine has improved in recent years, back then our taste was the laughing stock of Europe. British tastes were not particularly in favour of wine, which was considered sour and sharp (often, it is fair to say, due to poor storage). It was common to add sugar to sweeten it, which the French in particular found most risible. But sugar was expensive. A cheaper alternative to take the edge off was, yes, lead.

This was far from the only unpleasant additive one could find. Food adulteration was incredibly widespread back in the day. If you have a problem with artificial colours now, you may wish to look away. Colourings in the 18th and 19th century included compounds of iron, copper and mercury. There’s a popular, if unsubstantiated, theory that Napoleon was killed by vapours from his arsenic-dyed wallpaper. Well, if it’s possible to kill someone with arsenic-infused wallpaper, one shudders to think what the sweets coloured bright green with the poison were doing to their young consumers.

Even if you weren’t being outright poisoned by the colour of your food, plenty of unscrupulous vendors were making a little go a long way with some unorthodox filler material. Curry powder would be bulked out with clay. Milk would be watered down and then thickened with chalk dust. Fruit preserves would contain some fruit, but as like as not would be augmented with turnips or potatoes. Beer, as you might expect, suffered a severe drop in alcohol content on its journey from the brewer to the customer, thanks to the addition of water, salt and crushed oyster shells. Some of these additions sound almost as if they were put in for a dare.

Tea and coffee were not sacred either. Tea leaves would be made to go a bit further by the addition of more-or-less any kinds of leaves that could be found, iron filings, wood chippings and crushed graphite.

As for coffee, there’s a famous letter from Isambard Kingdom Brunel (a recurring character in this blog) concerning the quality of that beverage at the Swindon station buffet. Brunel complained to the manager and, as he was a high-up in the Great Western Railway, which owned the buffet in question, an apology was rapidly forthcoming. To which Brunel penned the following response:

Dear Sir,

I assure you Mr Player was wrong in supposing that I thought you had purchased inferior coffee. I thought I said to him that I was surprised you should buy such bad roasted corn. I did not believe that you had such a thing as coffee in the place; I am certain that I never tasted any. I have long ceased to make complaints at Swindon. I avoid taking anything there when I can help it.

Yours faithfully,

I. K. Brunel

This is the urn that coffee came from. It must be pretty hot, because Mr Player just got burned! Zing!

Continued appalling standards of railway catering have assured this letter’s place in history. Brunel was probably not far wrong in suggesting that the coffee was made of corn. Even the best coffee London’s department stores could supply in the early 19th century was rarely more than half coffee – beans, peas and, yes, corn had been common additions. An Act of Parliament had banned this nefarious practice in 1803 (three years before Brunel’s birth), but it was almost certainly this that the engineer was alluding to.

Even the mighty Fortnum and Mason were not immune from slipping a little something in. Their greengage jam, as noted by Arthur Hall Hassall in a survey, was a remarkably vivid green due to the presence of copper. Hassall was something of a one-man crusader against adulteration, causing no end of Hassall (har har) to the provision merchants of London, and his work led directly to the 1860 Food and Drugs act which, theoretically at least, would put a stop to this nonsense.

Often, though, the additions weren’t the result of greed as much as they were the result of carelessness. Metal contamination could come from the use of an inappropriate storage vessel with which the stored liquid might react. Tinned food, which was invented in Bermondsey in 1812, could be contaminated with lead from the solder used to seal the tins.

I suppose it was better than drinking the water, at least.

All in all, I’m sure you can understand why the bottle of wine on the right, seen in a wine merchant’s on the Strand, somewhat alarmed me.

Where did I start? Oh yes. Handel. Lead. Possibly.



Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Booze, Crime, Food, History, London, Politics, Regency, Shopping, The City

2 responses to “Adultery at the produce counter

  1. Pingback: I should cocoa | London Particulars

  2. Pingback: The Sweeney | London Particulars

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