A comment from Mrs P on an earlier post about the City Brewery on the Birmingham Rd revealed another unhappy chapter in the story of Lichfield’s brewing industry.
In 1900, in many towns and cities across the north and west of the country, there was a huge rise in cases of what was originally thought to be alcohol related neuritis. Eventually doctors in Manchester, one of the worst hit places, began to suspect that alcohol may not be the cause. After discovering arsenic in samples of local beer these suspicions were confirmed – people were in fact being poisoned.
There were thought be around six thousand cases of poisoning across the country, of which at least seventy were fatal. On February 15th 1901 The Mercury reported that ninety one cases were discovered in the Lichfield urban district but there were no fatalities.
Samples from the City Brewery on the Birmingham Rd and the Lichfield Brewery on Upper St John St were taken. These tests showed that whilst beer from the City Brewery was arsenic free, the poison was present in beer brewed by the Lichfield Brewery. Along with the other affected breweries across the country, they had been using contaminated brewing sugar from Bostock & Co of Liverpool. The sugar had been produced using sulphuric acid designed for industrial use, rather than of a food grade quality. Bostock & Co blamed their supplier – a Leeds company called Nicholson & Son, whose defence was that Bostock & Co had not specified the need for ‘pure’ acid.
Offices of the former Lichfield Brewery, Upper St John St
Unsurprisingly, the City Brewery and another local rival, the Old Brewery on Sandford St were keen to inform consumers that their beers were arsenic free and took out large adverts in the Mercury announcing this. The Lichfield Brewery used the local press for a damage limitation exercise. On 12th December 1900, they printed the certificate that the public analyst and consulting chemist Dr Bostock Hill had issued to them from his laboratory in the Unity Buildings on Temple St, Birmingham, which included the following statement:
Gentlemen – I beg to report that I have analysed the three samples of Ales, and one of Stout, received from you on the 11th instant and find them to be PURE AND FREE FROM ARSENIC OR OTHER DELETERIOUS MATTER
Dr Bostock Hill’s opinion was also reported in the Mercury – he believed the brewery was not to blame and was instead a victim of circumstance. The report also praises the brewery for their honesty and openness in dealing with the matter noting that,
‘the strain on the executive has naturally been considerable, but it is in process (sic) of being completely relieved, The ordinary shareholders may possibly experience a slight temporary depression in the value of their holdings – nothing more; for the position of the company is now so secure, owing to its large reserve fund that the incident can only have a temporary effect, especially in view of the fact that it is one over which they had, under the circumstances, not the slightest control …despite the loss, the commercial value, importance and position of the Lichfield Brewery Company is quite unshaken’.
It seems the ‘considerable strain’ on the executive was relieved and the Lichfield Brewery continued for another thirty or so years, until Ind Coope & Allsopp Ltd took over the brewery and its 198 licensed houses in 1935. So far, I have not been able to find a report into the strain on the health or livelihoods of those actually poisoned by the arsenical beer.
For a much fuller account of how events unfolded across the country, please read the article ‘Death in the beer-glass: the Manchester arsenic-in-beer epidemic of 1900-1 and the long-term poisoning of beer‘ by Matthew Copping. It also makes some very interesting points regarding how in addition to the complacency of the brewing industry, prejudice and stereotyping of those affected (mainly the working class) may also have contributed to these terrible events.
In the article, Matthew Copping describes the arsenic poisoning episode as a wake up call for those at fault, a phrase that’s has been heard again in recent days, due to the ongoing enquiry into contaminated meat. The timing of this post is actually coincidental (isn’t it, Mrs P?) and I don’t want to try too hard to draw parallels between these two events, separated by over a century. However, I think it is fair to say that, as in 1900, the public has been let down by complacency and broken systems once again.
The Arsenic Century:How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play by James C. Whorton