Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Adulteration of Food and Drink in Victorian England


It’s a warm summer’s
day in London in the latter years of Victoria’s reign, the temperature is climbing and the streets are crowded with the hustle and bustle that we know characterizes the great metropolis. We are in Shoreditch or Seven Dials or any one of the great city’s numerous poorer districts. It is time for an Ice or an Ice-Cream.


It was only at mid-century that the Ice and Ice-Cream sellers began to make their presence felt, but now in the 1880s, they are everywhere. The Ice-Cream or Hokey-Pokey man, like the ubiquitous organ-grinder, is likely to be Italian and from Saffron Hill in the London Borough of Camden. In the middle of the century Saffron Hill was a squalid slum overrun by paupers and thieves. It was there that the Artful Dodger took Oliver for it was at Saffron Hill that Fagin had his den; a “dirty and more wretched place” than the boy had ever seen. “The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.” Even clergymen visiting the area had to be accompanied by plainclothes policemen.

In 1877, Thomson and Smith, writing about Street Life in London described the

... little villainous-looking and dirty shops [in which] an enormous business is transacted in the sale of milk for the manufacture of halfpenny ices. This trade commences at about four in the morning. The men in varied and extraordinary d├ęshabille pour into the streets, throng the milk-shops, drag their barrows out, and begin to mix and freeze the ices.

Even the frozen water-ices which should have consisted of nothing but water and a bit of flavouring were adulterated. The colouring was artificial, it contained none of the fruit from which it was allegedly made and as Thomson and Smith went on to point out, it was "a very questionable article, and the less consumed the better the consumer will find himself."

It was the cream ice, as it was called, that had the greatest appeal. Properly made it included milk and eggs and, therefore, the cost of production, especially when it was made with care and with good ingredients, was higher than the cost of producing Ices, the profits could be considerable. And these profits could be extended by mixing water ices with the cream ices and using milk which was frequently adulterated.

Not only was milk commonly adulterated, it was often unclean. Coming as it did from cowsheds in London and from the surrounding countryside; it “proved," in the eyes of Charles Dickens Jr, "often the source of, or rather, perhaps, the means of spreading, serious epidemics of typhoid, diphtheria, and scarlatina.” It may, indeed, have been safer to use the adulterated milk which was usually just water and chalk, than the real thing. Mr Punch aptly described the product as a “wishy-washy triumph of art over nature ... milk from the pump and chalk-pit, without ever having been possessed of a cow.”

All through the Victorian era food was adulterated. It was, put simply, a fact of life. Almost anything you purchased was likely to have had something added. Two reasons for such practices are readily apparent. First, food might be adulterated to make it more appealing. This is a practice which is still employed with the use of food colourings and special lights over meat displays in order to give the meat a richer, redder look. The second reason was to dilute the product in order to increase the profit margin. Adding water to milk is probably the most common instance of this although adulteration was far more widely practiced in terms of the range of foods available to Victorians. Often the two practices merged. James Greenwood, in his 1869 book, The Seven Curses of London, makes a telling point.

We are constantly reminded that “competition is the soul of trade,” but we should be loath to think that such were the fact if the term “competition” is to be regarded as synonymous with adulteration, or, in plain language, robbery.
More than a decade earlier, in his testimony before a Parliamentary committee, the Select Committee to inquire into the Adulteration of Food, Drinks and Drugs, Arthur Hill Hassall pointed out that the practice “prevails in nearly all articles which it is worth while to adulterate, whether it is food, drink or drugs.” and he went on to point out that

The majority of adulterations consist in the addition of substances of greatly inferior nature, for the sake of weight and bulk. Others consist in the addition of various colouring matters, to conceal other adulterations, or to heighten, and, as it is considered, to improve the appearance. Lastly, a few adulterations are for the purpose of imparting smell, pungency, or taste.
Among the items adulterated and the adulterants used were alum, added to flour in the production of white bread; sloe, ash and elder leaves used to adulterate tea; peas and beans in ground coffee; alum to brighten wine; Brazil wood to colour Port; and sawdust and filbert husks to make red wine more astringent. Just how widespread was the adulteration of food and drink? Certainly it varied from area to area, but it is likely that it was as great or greater in London than in any other part of the British Isles. Writing at the very beginning of the Victorian Era, Theodore Sedgwick commented that it was “difficult to mention a single article of food that is not adulterated.” Some items, he noted, could hardly be found in their genuine state. Even medicines were adulterated and the “quantity of medical preparations thus injured is said to exceed belief.”

Although a string of acts were passed in the second half of the century, it was not until the 1875
Sale of Food and Drugs Act with its definition of an adulterated product as one which endangered the health of the consumer or one by which the customer was deceived through misrepresentation of the goods, that this process which did so much damage to the health of the British public was gradually brought under control.

To read or download a copy of Arthur Hill Hassall's Adulteration Detected (1857), click here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tragedy on the Thames

Tuesday, the third of September 1878, was a fine day for an excursion. Around seven-hundred men, women and children took advantage of the weather to cram aboard the saloon steamer, the Princess Alice, for a day on the river. The boat left London about 11.00 in the morning, heading downstream for Gravesend, a distance of thirty-one miles, and from there, on to Sheerness. The trip to Gravesend normally took less than ninety minutes and once there, many of the excursionists went on to one or the other of the tourist attractions, for Gravesend was becoming a popular resort town in the nineteenth century.

A number of those on the Princess Alice had come to Gravesend to spend the day at Rosherville Gardens. A favourite destination for London excursionists, John Marius Wilson in his Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales (1870-72), described it as a

highly picturesque grounds of about 18 acres, constantly open for a small admission fee, and possessing a rich combination of attractions, variously natural and artificial. Tea gardens, taverns, archery grounds, gipsy tents, abundant lodging houses, salubrious air, cheap living, good bathing appliances, the stir on the river, fine rambling grounds in the neighbourhood, and ready communication by steamer and by railway with London, also draw hither a great and constant concourse of visitors. The town is full of these during all the summer months, and absolutely swarms with them on Sundays.
By Tuesday evening the weather had turned “muggy” and tired but happy the excursionists boarded the steamer at Gravesend for the “moonlight” return to London. The Rev. Mr Gill, who had gone to Sheerness for the day, noted that “the passengers on board were a quiet, well-behaved, and respectable company.”

The Princess Alice pulled out of Gravesend and headed back up the Thames at just after 6.00 pm. The passengers, who had paid 2s. for the day trip must have felt that their money was well spent. The weather had been kind although by 7.40 pm, as the boat approached Woolwich, pier to disembark some of the sight-seers, a chill had descended which led the Rev. Gill to go from the front seat of the saloon deck, inside to the saloon cabin where there were about fifteen people. Suddenly there was a crash and William Alexander Law, second steward on board the Princess Alice, said to the stewardess “There’s some barge alongside.” Another crash and Law ran up to the deck where he saw unbelievable carnage.

… amid the confusion and screams of the passengers I heard the water rushing in below, and saw that we were sinking. I then rushed to the top of the saloon gangway and shouted, ‘Come on deck; we are sinking.’
Meanwhile, in the saloon cabin, the Rev. Mr Gill “heard a grazing and grinding of the side of the vessel, then a sudden stop, and then a terrible crash of shivered and splintering timbers.” Running from the cabin to the lower deck on the port side, he saw “the bows of the huge iron-cased ship towering above as high and inaccessible as the walls of a castle.” It was the Bywell Castle, a newly repainted steam collier of 890 tons bound for Newcastle to pick up a cargo of coal for Alexandria, Egypt.

In the ensuing chaos, those passengers who could, rushed to the rear of the steamer. Some threw themselves into the water, others attempted to climb aboard the Bywell Castle, and a great number were trapped below decks when the two boats collided. The Rev. Gill saw that

A few were hanging onto the chain at the bows, but what was one chain for 700 people, most of them helpless women and children, all crowding and trampling one another in a boat which was doomed to sink in a minute or two? The shrieks, ejaculations, prayers, and wails of helpless agony … were heartrending…
William Law, the second steward, ran to a young woman with whom he “was keeping company,” and tried to rescue her, jumping overboard and with her on his shoulders struck out for shore.

But as I was going my poor girl slipped off my shoulders, or was dragged off, and I lost her, although I dived for her. I saw a gentleman … who was sinking, and caught hold of him and held him up till we were picked up.
Although there were a dozen or more lifebuoys on board and several lifeboats, the accident took place with such speed it would have been impossible to organize their use. Although every effort was made to rescue the survivors, there were very few and many died in the weeks following as a result of the terrible and toxic industrial pollution of the Thames. Of the approximately 700 on board the Princess Alice, the best estimates suggest that 600 died either in the crash or as a result of the collision.

Twelve years earlier in almost the same location, a steamer and a collier had collided and while only four lives had been lost in that accident it was probably more good fortune than good management as the excursion steamer, the Metis, ran aground immediately after the collision. Little, if any, change came as a result of the earlier accident, but after the Princess Alice sank with its horrendous loss of life, efforts were made to make the Thames safer both in terms of public health and in terms of safety for navigation.

To see a picture of Rosherville Gardens, click here.
To see a contemporary drawing of the moment the Bywell Castle hit the Princess Alice, click here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Penny Gaffs

The real "Coster's" entertainment was the Penny Gaff, a form of rough entertainment enjoyed by the lower classes. In reality the Penny Gaff was as far removed from the Music Hall as Albert Chevalier, one of the great Music Hall entertainers and the epitome of the stage "Coster" was from the real thing! At mid-century Penny Gaffs were described by Henry Mayhew.
In many of the thoroughfares of London there are shops which have been turned into a kind of temporary theatre (admission one penny), where dancing and singing take place every night. Rude pictures of the performers are arranged outside, to give the front a gaudy and attractive look, and at night-time coloured lamps and transparencies are displayed to draw an audience. These places are called by the costers "Penny Gaffs;" and on a Monday night as many as six performances will take place, each one having its two hundred visitors.
Many of those attracted to the Penny Gaffs were young and poorly educated. James Greenwood notes that there was no reduction in the tariff for children since,
...such an arrangement would reduce the takings exactly fifty per cent. They are all children who support the gaff. Costermonger boys and girls, from eight or nine to fourteen years old, and errand boys and girls employed at factories.
Writing in 1869, Greenwood found the Penny Gaffs both widespread and dangerous, estimating "that within a circuit of five miles of St. Paul’s, at least twenty of these dangerous dens of amusement might be enumerated." The coster lads and lasses who made up the bulk of the attendees, were amongst the roughest in London; always ready for a fight or a frolic. One of them told Mayhew how,
On a Sunday I goes out selling, and all I yarns I keeps. As for going to church, why, I can‘t afford it,--besides, to tell the truth, I don‘t like it well enough. Plays, too, ain‘t in my line much; I‘d sooner go to a dance--its more livelier. The ‘penny gaffs’ is rather more in my style; the songs are out and out, and makes our gals laugh. The smuttier the better, I thinks; bless you! the gals likes it as much as we do.
What was it like to attend one of these Penny Gaffs? The admission was a penny and on entering one might find a place set up where they could buy something basic to eat or to drink. The Penny Gaffs, according to the journalist George Augustus Sala were "abominably dirty," smelling of unclean bodies "and of the shag tobacco they are smoking." Here one might wait until the current house emptied and a new one was formed. J. Ewing Ritchie, who visited a Penny Gaff in 1859, described his experience. After paying his admission fee, he did not gain immediate entry but was forced
...to wait with several others, chiefly boys, very dirty, who regard us apparently with no very favourable eye, till a fresh house is formed. Our new acquaintances are not talkative, and we are not sorry when our turn comes to enter the dirty hole set apart for the entertainment...
When one entered the performance area, there was usually a pit which held approximately fifty people and there might be some wooden benches arranged to form a primitive gallery to hold the overflow. In 1853, Max Schlesinger commented on the practice of men sitting on one side and women on the other and suggested it was because the men "chiefly labourers and apprentices, luxuriate during the representation in the aroma of their “pickwicks,” a weed of which we can assure the reader that it is not to be found in the Havanna."

After a bit of a warm-up by the director, the show begins. It may be composed of a series of vignettes, songs and short sketches. It was common for there to be something of a patriotic - even jingoistic - nature to play on the emotions of the crowd. When Schlesinger attended a performance in 1853, it ended with the mock repeling of an invasion by Napoleon in which
just as the invader has gained the edge of the stage, he is attacked by the sailor, who, applying his foot to a part of the Frenchman’s body which shall be nameless, kicks that warrior back into the pit. The public cheer, Britannia and the Lord Mayor dance a polka, and the sailor sings “God save the Queen!”
Ritchie, on visiting another Penny Gaff in a rougher neighborhood described the proceedings as “indecent and disgusting, yet very satisfactory to the half grown girls and boys present'” while James Greenwood suggested that the police
...be roused to increased vigilance in the suppression, as well as the arrest of criminality, it would be as well if those in authority directed their especial attention to these penny theatres. As they at present exist, they are nothing better than hot-beds of vice in its vilest forms.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Music Halls

The end of the nineteenth and the first two decades of the twentieth centuries was the heyday of the Music Hall. It was in these institutions that one could see the greatest entertainers of the Victorian years; entertainers like Dan Leno, Albert Chevalier, Little Tich, Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. Although the Victorian Music Halls may have declined from the 1920s on, their influence was to be felt much longer. One need only think of great entertainers who carried the tradition forward; entertainers like the indomitable Gracie Fields and the amazing Stanley Halloway! Who hasn’t heard and loved recitations like “Albert and the Lion,” and songs like “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World,” and “Walter, Walter, Lead me to the Alter and I’ll show you where I’m tattooed!”

The Music Hall as we generally use the term can be dated from the first decade of Victoria’s reign. Peter Bailey, one of the best of social and cultural historians dealing with nineteenth century Britain, comments that

“Music hall” refers to both a popular form of miscellaneous entertainment and the institution that housed and promoted it.

The Music Halls fulfilled much of the entertainment needs of the urban population, and particularly the needs of the lower and labouring classes. It was, at least marginally, a safer environment than the Penny Gaffs so beloved of the coster lads and lasses. In the middle years of the century, although still a place for drinking as well as being entertained, Music Halls were becoming establishments in their own right with purpose-built premises. Nonetheless, their clientele, at mid-century, remained largely single young males and some young women.

By the 1870s some of the Music Halls, particularly those in the West End were moving away from their traditional working-class origins. Improved public transportation meant that those in the upper working and lower middle classes, now living in the suburbs of the great metropolis, could come into the West End for a night’s entertainment. Suddenly Music Hall had become family entertainment.

Nonetheless, many such places of entertainment were considered inappropriate for young women of the better classes. Even as late as 1908, the Baedeker Guide To London advised that as far as Music Halls were concerned, “ladies may visit the better-class West End establishments without fear, although they should, of course, eschew the cheaper seats.”

In the multitude of Music Halls, the performances were basically the same and in a large city, like London, it was not uncommon for performers at one theatre to finish their turn and then go to another theatre where they repeated it. Charles Dickens (Jr.) in his 1879 edition of the Dictionary of London, pointed out that it was

undesirable to visit many of these establishments on the same evening, as it is quite possible to go to four or five halls in different parts of the town, and to find widely diverse stages occupied by the same sets of performers.

In the 1870s and ‘80s, if one attended performances at any of the brilliant Music Halls in London, the shows would have been very much the same, differing only in their greater magnitude from those seen in other cities and towns and in the appearance of more illustrious performers. The “bill” would usually include a variety of items including gymnastics, ballet and the always-popular comic singing. In fact, when one thinks about Music Hall, it is this latter “turn” that tends to characterize it for us. We forget the performing animals, sporting celebrities, strong-men, magicians, ventriloquists, and all the other forms of entertainment too numerous to mention.

Raucous, licentious, loud, and fun, can all be used to describe the Music Halls of the second half of the nineteenth century. The music and performances also encouraged a level of Jingoism and patriotic fervour. Much that today would be considered unacceptable made up the pleasures of the Music Hall, particularly for those in the lower and the labouring classes. But the Music Halls presented what the people wanted. And it was what the people wanted that kept entertainers like Marie Lloyd at the top of the bill. Interviewed in the United States by the New York Telegraph she was quoted as saying,

They don't pay their sixpences and shillings at a music hall to hear the Salvation Army. If I was to try to sing highly moral songs, they would fire ginger beer bottles and beer mugs at me. I can't help it if people want to turn and twist my meanings.

It was highly unlikely that audiences had to twist the meaning of lines such as:

“She’d never had her ticket punched before”
“I sits among the cabbages and peas”

when delivered with the fine sense of innuendo that this marvelous entertainer was capable of mustering.

Growing out of the Penny Gaffs and originally an entertainment for the masses, Music Hall soon became the dominant form of amusement in the second half of the nineteenth century. Many contemporary entertainers owe a debt to the great entertainers it produced; carrying on the tradition whether in films, television or on the stage. Surely the goons, Frankie Howard and Charlie Chaplin all owed a debt to Music Hall as, in an even more direct sense did performers of the first half of the twentieth century like Gracie Fields and Stanley Holloway.

Among the many great performers of the Music Halls was Little Tich. I'll say more about him in a later blog, but to see a performance of his famous shoe dance, recorded around 1900, click here.