Who poisoned the (Regency) workers’ beer?

bannerIt wasn’t just beer that was adulterated in the Regency-the list is long and depressing, starting with bread and beer( and all alcoholic drinks) , flour and tea, and extending to coffee and tea, tobacco, snuff, mustard and pepper, vinegar and salad oil and what was called ‘catsup’ in the Regency that is ‘ketchup’ today.

Like all adulterations, it took two main forms- the use of harmless substances to eke out a product, which was bad enough as a fraud on the poor; and even worse, the use of poisons to eke out once more and  also create a chemical reaction that mimics a quality to be found in the beer, but at less cost.

The easiest way of adulterating beer was to add stale or sour beer to it.  It was argued in parliament that some breweries actually sold sour beer to publicans, but it is more likely that the innkeepers recycled beer and put it back into the barrel, taking advantage of the ullage- the space at the top of the container that contained no liquid to add more when the barrels arrived from the brewery. Today, most beers come from one tap, but in most of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century your, beer came from a number of different barrels, which was a boon to the adulterator. Despite coming from three places- known as ‘three threads’ or ‘thirds ‘–it was normally called ‘Entire’, and you never knew what was being added to your tankard.

If you ordered strong beer (excise duty 10 shillings a barrel) one third of your drink might be weaker table beer (excise duty 2 shilling barrel).You would, of course, be charged the full price for table beer; you would not notice the reduced strength because it would also have been adulterated with something to make it feel stronger This was another inn keepers trick; although most adulteration took place in the brewery. Brewing beer was a complex operation that passed through many people, unlike most manufacturing and artisan trades, and it was easy to tamper with the product with only  few people being aware

All beer was much stronger in the Regency ( and up to World Was One) – a high 5% alcohol by volume bitter of today would be below average Georgian standards, and brewers were very much aware that their product needed to have an immediate effect- both in taste and intoxication.  The two main ingredients that provide this taste and intoxication were malt and hops, both heavily taxed by a Tory government that abolished income tax in 1816, replacing them with taxes on consumption- so the brewers-both big and small- tried to substitute the two key ingredients  for substances  that were cheaper .

 The taste provided by hops could be replicated with quassia, a South American plant with a bitter bark. It had some mild side effects that could have been put down to the alcohol, but the main advantage to the brewer is that the substance was not heavily taxed.

The brewers loved it, as can be seen in this cartoon by Gilray…THE TRIUMPH OF QUASSIA!(1808)


Multum was a  mixture of liquorice and quassia to economise on malt and hops, which were also taxed, especially the malt.  Coculus  indicus  berries – used legitimately in the dying and tanning industry -were  also used. When ingested it is a poison, but it was added at the brewing stage to give the impression of greater alcoholic strength. The berries were original  placed in rivers and streams in India to stun fish so they could be caught easily, and would have a narcotic effect on beer drinkers that they would assume was caused by alcohol. 

Beer could be made less acidic with addition of an alkaline – marble dust, potash or crushed oyster shells. A little sulphuric acid could make recently brewed beer seem older and fuller. Coriander seed, if treated properly, could replace a bushel of malt but add no nutrition to the product. Sometimes coriander seed was mixed with nux vomica, the latter being related to strychnine.  The consequences for the bowels and stomach would normally be confused with the effect of drinking beer- beer that would taste stronger than it actually was.


An unregulated market in poison 1816  ( above)

Nux Vomica could be purchased in any pharmacy and was normally mixed into a paste with oatmeal to kill rats and mice. All of these ingredients were available legally- however, law merely assumed that if they were found in brewing premises, they were being used to defraud the customer- and more importantly, the customs and excise. Between 1812 and 1819 there were 200 prosecutions of brewers and associated trade for the adulteration of beer. The state was a vigorous defender of its revenues; if you had been sexually assaulted or robbed, you would have to finance any prosecution yourself. 

Some poorly brewed beer would look a little colourless so additives were used. Some   were harmless in themselves, such as molasses and treacle, and orange powder for flavour or gentian for bitterness. Such was the extent of the industry that you did not have to acquire all the separate adulterants   yourself. One  chemist and anti adulteration campaigner ( see below) noticed that the free market could provide a package deal of everything you would need. It was called bittern  and was composed of calcined sulphate of iron, copperas ,extract of coculus indicus berries, extract of gentian root and Spanish liquorice and …alum and green vitriol.

Copperas or Green Vitriol was ferrous sulphate, and was used to give the beer what was called a ‘cauliflower head’, much in demand by the customers. Alum, an adulterant also widely used in bread, was used to speed up the process and save energy.

250px-Thomson_-_Friedrich_Accum_(European_Magazine)Adulteration continued after the Regency period, but it was during the Regency that the first protests were made against it. In 1820, Frederick Accum, a German chemist   living in London produced a key book ‘A treatise on adulterations of food: and culinary poisons ‘ It was very popular with everybody except  the food and drink manufacturers. Accum received death threats and soon after was framed on a trumped up theft charge and consequently left the country �

There was still a long, long way to go before beer stopped being poisoned.



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A nice cup of tea in the Regency? Not always!

61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Tea drinking was universal in Regency Britain. It had reached the poor and could not be dislodged as part of their diet. William Cobbett hated it because of the waste of the working man’s time, the profits it brought to the East India Company, and the replacement of tea for beer. (‘I am for MALT’!) Most of the ruling class had given up weaning the poor away from tea drinking. The Scotsman made this wry comment in 1818; ‘tea is indispensable. Almost every person, notwithstanding the present high prices, is more or less indebted to this Chinese shrub for his daily meals’

The Scotsman was right about the price. The Tory government had abolished Income Tax in 1816 and relied on taxes on consumption, so tea was taxed heavily. It was all China tea, imported by the East India Company and sold as a monopoly from their warehouses with a 96% ad valorem duty which doubled the price as it arrived into Britain. Proper quality tea, with import duties added, would be about seven or eight shillings a pound in Regency Britain and less than half that in France or Belgium. There was extensive smuggling. Smuggled tea from France and Belgium would be half that price and the smuggling industry was so large and popular that it could not be stopped.

Even the smuggled price would be too high for the poor, so a market developed in adulterated tea, which could be hawked from town to town or sold to unscrupulous tea dealers or grocers. It seems that tea that had paid duty was just as likely as smuggled tea to be adulterated, as both were aiming for a lower price that the poor could afford.

How did you adulterate tea? Adulteration was achieved by replacing tea leaves with something cheaper, from the untaxed hedge rows of Britain rather than China. It was an industry almost as big as the drink itself. Tea was sold as crushed leaves and the skill if the adulterator was to replace tea leaves with cheaper ones that looked and smelt like tea. If the resulting brew tasted like tea, then that was a bonus. The poor were not judges of good tea. Most of their consumption was Bohea tea, the lowest grade made from the last crop of the year. So sometimes, adulteration was achieved by mixing leaves with Bohea, but often there was no tea in the mixture at all.

Common leaves were ash, elder, and senna. Senna leaves smelt like tea when boiling water was put on them. None of these were deleterious in themselves, except the most common of the adulterants, sloe (blackthorn) leaves, and these were poisonous. The Norfolk Chronicle gave its readers this advice in 1818, when Regency Britain was in a poison tea panic.

The practice of adulterating Tea by the admixture of the Sloe Leaf, (which being allied to the Laurel, of poisonous quality; is by means new); but as it is to feared that the late detections and punishments will not altogether prevent a repetition of the crime, it may useful describe two leaves, which fortunately have little resemblance to each other. The sides of the tea-leaf have large jags, teeth, or serrations; the leaf itself is long and narrow, and the end or extremity is pointed. The Sloe-leaf is short’ ..and is broad or rounded.— By wetting and spreading out the leaves, any one will easily distinguish the great difference between them.

Producing imitation and adulterated tea was a skilled and labour intensive job, but it was worth it. The high price of the tea that made the complicated and dangerous process worthwhile, as the artificial high price caused by taxation also increased the price they could charge for the forgery. Adulterators were prosecuted (in a haphazard fashion) by the Customs and Excise. Although the protection of health was mentioned in the relevant Act of Parliament (1777), it was largely a revenue protection exercise. The premise- that forged products robbed the Exchequer of money as their sale diminished the consumption of taxed products- seems a bit shaky.Gaol or transportation was not a punishment for those who were caught- the crime was monetary, so the punishment was pecuniary. Some Regency commentators were calling for the use of public whipping or the pillory, but this was never an option.

The prosecution of Whitechapel men Procter and Malins shows the operation in action. First, the production of ‘black tea’. It was essentially a dying process.


Logwood was a South American plant and was normally used a dye for textiles. Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the incident is that Malins ‘did not know’ whether the ingredient was injurious. This was because he did not care.

‘Green tea’ was created in an even more questionable process. Hedge row leaves were boiled and the water removed by pressing. The leaves were them warmed on a copper plate over a fire and often curled by hand to make them look like tea leaves. Then they were mixed with a dye called Dutch Pink, which was cut from a solid block and mixed in. Dutch Pink was an artist’s material used in painting on walls and making wallpaper and was added to the tea mixture with a pallet knife. The next ingredient was the highly toxic verdigris, which in reaction to the copper produced a greenish tinge to the leaves and was a danger to life. The forgers called this ‘adding the bloom’!.The court was shocked when this admission was made; but it was common knowledge. The two men received a fine of £100, the maximum possible.

There was a moral panic in 1818. The East India Company formed a committee to investigate the problem. Long and Company started to sell East India tea direct from the warehouse in sealed metal canisters. The forgers copied the canisters and put their own product in. High class teas dealers swore an affidavit to the Lord Mayor and put the details in the newspapers. The London Genuine Tea company was formed in 1818 and was immediately opposed by some dealers who did not want the size of the problem advertised. The Genuine Tea Company gave this new group the title the ‘ Anti-Genuine Tea Committee’ and had one killer argument. In the last quarter, 300,000 lbs of low grade Bohea tea was bought in London, but nobody seemed to admit to sell it. Where was it? Was it being mixed with other leaves?

The panic spread to Parliament. In 1818, a Parliamentary Committee was reassured by two major London tea dealers that the problem was exaggerated. Good quality tea was very common in London, said one of them, a Mr Twining. However, this was not where the poor bought their ‘tea’.


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