The extract below is from my monthly blog for the History Girls - new topics on the 22nd of every month
A Sweet Case of Adultery
I'm currently having a bit of an Annie Grey fan moment having just read The Greedy Queen (a fabulous account of Queen Victoria and food) and watched her recent BBC series The Sweet Makers which plunged four chefs back into the world of British confectionery production from the Tudors to the 1930s.
There were all kinds of wonderful nuggets in the series. I loved the
concept of a Tudor sugar banquet - basically the dream 'pudding
dinner' my kids always longed for - and the weird Georgian jellies
but what intrigued me most was the Victorian muddling of sweets
and poison. We bandy the word poison about a lot when it comes to
food and, ironically, it's currently sugar that is only permitted a place
at the Devil's table. This is neither the time nor the place to rant
about clean-eating (although the news that coconut oil is basically
lard had me in fits of joy for a week) and nuts and additives are a
minefield for those with allergies, but at least they're not arsenic.
Yes arsenic, just one of the jolly compounds accidentally or intentionally used in food manufacturing in nineteenth century Britain. Fancy some more? What about copper sulphate used in bottled fruits and pickles or red lead for colouring Gloucester cheese or perhaps a tasty drop of strychnine in your rum or beer? If you're not in the mood for those, how about setting the breakfast table with a jug of chalk-filled milk, a nice loaf of bread with added plaster of Paris and a pat of butter brightened up with copper. Pop Tarts suddenly don't sound quite so bad after all.
Adulteration in food is nothing new. In the middle ages, costly spices were often bulked out with ground nutshells or pits or even stones and dust and bread flour was regularly mixed with sand and sawdust. Laws to try and regulate price, weight and quality of foodstuffs such as bread and beer began in 1266 and were heavily enforced by trade guilds. These laws, however, were to protect the market not the consumer and were patchy in their application outside towns and cities. Fast forward to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the mass move towards urbanisation, and adulteration becomes the rule rather than the exception across pretty much all food and drink sectors and one of the worst offending culprits was the confectionery trade.
Access to sugar democratised in the mid nineteenth century as
prices fell sufficiently for sweets and associated items (such as
cakes and biscuits) to come within working class budgets. A cottage
industry grew up to feed the nation's new sweet tooth, particularly
round the production of boiled sweets. However, this was also a
period of intense competition as technological innovations in
processes and packaging (and the growth of the advertising industry)
opened the market to entrepreneurs such as Fry, Rowntree and
Cadbury whose interest was not tiny kitchens but large scale
manufacturing. Profit became king and corners were not so much cut
by the smaller producers as rampaged round. Potentially lethal
chemicals were used for colouring, especially to make the sweets attractive to children, eg: mercury sulphide (red), lead chromate (yellow), copper sulphate and good old arsenic (blue) and copper arsenite (green). Sugar was bulked out with plaster of Paris and limestone. Very often the hapless consumer could not tell the difference - as the sweet makers demonstrate in the programme when they compare adulterated and non-adulterated toffee.
To find out more - including some rather nasty poisonings - click here
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Welcome to my website which is mostly about the writing and a little bit about me. I have been writing on and off for far too long but finally got serious when the youngest was not so young anymore - a familiar tale.
I was first published in 2014 (a short story), my debut novel came out in 2016 (Blood and Roses - if you've missed the name, I'm not doing this site right) and, with a fair wind and my agent's sprinkling of fairy dust, another novel should come... I have a passion for history, for writing, for loud indie music and for the darker side of the human pysche. Hopefully some of that will strike a chord...
Talking about Writing... In a listening mood? Here's my interview with Booked on Pulse, Pulse Radio's Sunday bookshow about the experience of writing my first novel: Mixcloud
Twisted Short Stories... As well as historical fiction, I write short stories which have been published and won competitions - they are darker and more contemporary than the novel but also tend to feature women behaving in ways society would perhaps prefer they didn't. You can read a couple of examples at
Stolen Moments - Scottish Arts Club Finalists 2015
Requiem - Henshaw Press Finalists 2017