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Arsenic and the Bradford poisonings of 1858

The Pharmaceutical Journal Vol 265 No 7128p938-939
December 23/30, 2000 Christmas miscellany

By Ian F. Jones, PhD, FRPharmS

In the mid 19th century, death from poisoning appeared prominently in the mortality statistics. Arsenic appeared to be frequently implicated as the causative agent, although other equally toxic materials such as nux vomica, ergot, oxalic acid and opium were becoming increasingly available and undoubtedly involved in poisoning episodes. Although the Pharmaceutical Society was concerned with the unregulated supply of poisonous substances, it is probable that the educational and parliamentary ambitions of Jacob Bell and the Pharmaceutical Society at the time (late 1840s and early 1850s) were deemed more important. However, the then newly incorporated Pharmaceutical Society, together with the doctors, had lobbied for the government to introduce legislation on this subject.
The Arsenic Act 1851 resulted and was the first measure introduced in an attempt to control the sale of any poisonous substance. A record of the transaction was to be made in a book which both vendor and purchaser would sign. The Act applied only to arsenic. Sales were not restricted to premises occupied by the newly emerging chemists and druggists and it appeared that any trader could sell it, provided a record was kept. Arsenic which was not used in medicine was to be distinguished from other white powders by being coloured with soot or indigo.
The Act, which lacked detail of enforcement, was in retrospect wholly inadequate. Holloway gives a comprehensive account of the availability of poisons to the public and quotes: ”… it was possible to purchase arsenic as easily as Epsom Salts.”1
Indeed, chemists and druggists were sellers of arsenic and other substances newly emerging in the marketplace as medicinal products of the day. Information relating to toxicity was not well-known or even established. That such sales appeared to be made indiscriminately had not escaped the attention of some critics. The Reverend Robert Montgomery,2 writing in the Times at the time denounced chemists as “venal poison mongers … who traffic for pence in murder.”
Despite its shortcomings, the Act was an important one in the history of pharmacy in Britain for a variety of reasons. The need to make a start on legislation to ensure the proper control over the sale of “poison”was one. This in turn was further prompted by the continuation of poisoning incidents, not least the infamous incident which took place in Bradford city centre on Saturday, October 30, 1858.
The detail of the Bradford poisonings was not well known to me until the subject was researched for a lecture to a course in medical history promoted by the Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds. What was a surprise was that these poisonings were not well-known either by local pharmacists or local medical historians; hence the reason for this article. One of the misconceptions about the incident was that the Arsenic Act followed the tragedy at Bradford. Clearly the Act came first, the tragedy highlighting the inadequacies of the legislation.

The story


Perhaps the best comprehensive account is to be found in Sheeran?s book ?The Bradford poisoning of 1858?.3 Sheeran based his text on newspaper reports of the day and, in particular, those in the Bradford Observer (currently the Bradford Telegraph&Argus). The story in the following paragraphs refers to this book, to newspaper articles at the time and since and to my recent research.
The story centres on a sweet and confectionery seller, William Hardaker, known locally as “Humbug Billy”. He operated from a stall in the Green Market located in central Bradford. The photograph depicts the scene of the Green Market at the time. (Green Market no longer exists, the business of it probably having been incorporated into the nearby Rawson Market. The site is now covered by the modern, commercial Arndale Centre.)
Hardaker made his purchases of stocks from a wholesale confectioner, Joseph Neal, who had premises in nearby Stone Street, Manor Row, where the sweets were made. The sweets (often referred to as lozenges) contained peppermint oil incorporated, theoretically, into a base of sugar and gum. Sugar was expensive and it was the custom of the time to adulterate the sugar (and generally many other foodstuffs) with an inert substance known locally as “daft”(also known as “daff”, “duck”, “duff”, “stuff”, and “derby”) which was cheap. The precise identity of “daft”appeared variable: plaster of Paris, powdered limestone and sulphate of lime had been reported. Neal was to make a batch of peppermint sweets for Hardaker and by way of coincidence a lodger at Neal?s house, James Archer, visited a chemist and druggist, Charles Hodgson, in Baildon Bridge ? some five miles away ? on Neal?s behalf to acquire a quantity of “daft”.
On the day of the visit the proprietor (Hodgson) was ill (but on the premises) and Neal?s lodger was attended to by a young assistant (William Goddard) who was to ask his master where the “daft”was to be found. It is at this point where the mistake was made. In a stock room where a number of items were stored including the “daft”the assistant, having taken advice, weighed out a quantity of powder (12 lbs)4 from a receptacle. Unfortunately it was the wrong one. Arsenic trioxide, not “daft”, was weighed out and supplied in error.
The mistake remained undetected even during manufacture of the sweets. James Appleton was, by reputation, an experienced sweetmaker and employed for the purpose by Neal. In the subsequent preparation of the sweets it was reported by him apparently that the “daft”and the resulting sweets looked unusual, and Appleton was reportedly suffering symptoms of illness during the manufacture of the lozenges. Humbug Billy, who subsequently sold the sweets and who was one of the first to taste a sample of the new batch (and was promptly ill) had negotiated a discount from Neale because the batch appeared different to others previously made.
The mischief was done. The sweets were sold reportedly at the rate of three-halfpennies for two ounces and the result was that some 20 people, including some young children, died and around 10 times this number showed symptoms of severe illness ? arsenic poisoning ? within a day or so. The first fatalities, of two children, were thought to be due to cholera but then it was found that these plus other casualties that day had purchased the lozenges from the Green Market.
The prompt action of the constabulary traced the source of the mischief to Hardaker?s sweets, to Neal and then to the chemist and druggist in Baildon Bridge. Goddard was arrested and stood before magistrates in the court house in Bradford on November 1. Subsequently Hodgson and Neale were committed for trial with Goddard on a charge of manslaughter.
Arsenic was identified in subsequent investigations by Dr John Bell, whose name was later to be associated with the founding of the Bradford eye and ear hospital. His findings were confirmed by Felix Rimmington, a prominent chemist and druggist and analytical chemist. (The current business of F. M. Rimmington Ltd remains to this day as a prominent city centre pharmacy.) A quantitative estimate provided by Rimmington showed each lozenge to contain between 11 and 16 grains of arsenic.5 (The dose for arsenic BP 1953 was one-sixtieth to one-twelfth of a grain.)
But for the prompt action by the police and the publicity drawing attention to the mischief, the death and injury toll could have been more substantial. For the record, all three accused were discharged when the case was considered at York Assizes in December, 1858.

Conclusion


When tragedy strikes the public outcry is that such a thing must not happen again. The Pharmacy Act 1868 was the eventual result, although it took 10 years from the tragic event for the reform to reach the Statute Book. This delay was due to other, essentially political, matters ongoing at the time and these in turn were undoubtedly affected by the early and untimely death of Jacob Bell in 1859. The 1868 Act recognised the chemist and druggist as the custodian and seller of named poisons. The requirement for record keeping ? perhaps the only useful feature of the Arsenic Act ? and the requirement to obtain the signature of the purchaser were retained, as they were with the subsequent Pharmacy Act 1908, the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933 and currently the Poisons Act 1972 for “non medicinal”poisons. As most pharmacists are aware, the classification of medicines as “poisons”continued until 1968 and the Medicine Act ? legislation which followed another crisis caused by the teratogenic abnormalities that resulted from the use of thalidomide.
So the Bradford poisonings have their place in the history of pharmacy. While this tragedy led to new poisons legislation and established new monopoly powers for the chemist and druggist, the event also led to new and urgent measures to control the adulteration of food and food products.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I am grateful to Mr George Sheeran, whose text is mentioned in this article, and also to Mr Alan Magson, history researcher, Bradford Telegraph&Argus, for considerable help and advice in pursuing this research.

References

  1. Holloway SWF. Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain 1841-1991. A Political and Social History. London: Pharmaceutical Press: 1991. pp221-30.
  2. Montgomery R. Letter to the Times cited by Holloway. Op cit. p221.
  3. Sheeran G. The Bradford Poisoning of 1858. Halifax: Ryburn Publishing Ltd; 1992.
  4. In the grip of poison. Bradford Telegraph&Argus, February 18, 1998.
  5. Wholesale poisoning by arsenic at Bradford. Pharm J 1858; 18:340-43.

 

 

Professor Jones is professor of pharmacy practice, school of pharmacy and biomedical sciences, University of Portsmouth. Illustration by Michaela Stewart

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 20003896

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