Hidden Killers Of The Victorian Home

Synopsis: Suzannah Lipscomb takes a tour of the Victorian home and unveils the hidden dangers that posed a deadly threat to Victorian life.
60 min

The Victorian home was a place

of sanctuary from the outside world,

especially in the cities where

dirt and disease hung in the air

and danger stalked the streets.

And thanks to advances in science, a

whole host of products and services

were promising to make life at home

cheaper, easier and more convenient.

But they were also making life

much more dangerous.

For under the guise of

family-friendly products,

mass consumption

was bringing killers

into the very heart

of the Victorian home.

With the aid of modern science,

I'll seek out the deadly assassins

that hid on every floor.

Leaning too close to the fire and,

"Boof!", they burst into flames!

I'll be revealing what

the Victorians couldn't see

inside their homes...

Five grams is sufficient

to potentially kill a small child.

..and showing the terrible injuries

that were inflicted

in the name of progress.

That could completely remove

the skin from the hand and the arm.

Welcome back to the perilous world

of the real Victorian home.

Between 1800 and 1900

the urban population in Britain

increased tenfold.

London became the biggest industrial

city in the Western world.

City dwellers in houses like this

were creating

an unprecedented demand

for mod cons as well as

life's necessities.

They were becoming mass consumers

at the end of a production line.

Supplying the household

with the basic foods

in the newly-expanded cities

of up to 3 million people

was a strategic challenge.

But thankfully,

by the late 19th century,

the staples of bread and milk

had become cheaply available.

To cater for the new demands,

the Victorians pioneered

new food-processing techniques.

This left the consumer at the mercy

of the unscrupulous merchants

responsible for each part

of the food chain.

One thing that the Victorians

loved above all was profit

and the way to make profit,

of course,

is to use the cheapest ingredients

and charge a high price for them,

so adulteration became very popular

throughout the Victorian period.

Some merchants would substitute real

ingredients with cheap alternatives

that would add weight

and increase profit margins.

Food adulteration

had always gone on,

but the new manufacturing process

meant it was now big business.

The food shops themselves

change as well

so you used to have a system

whereby for example, with bread,

the miller was the same as the baker,

was the same as the retailer.

Now the miller mills the flour,

passes it to the baker,

the baker bakes

and the retailer sells.

So you've got divorcing

all the way along the chain.

That de-personalises the food chain.

People don't have the personal

relationship with their customers,

therefore they think

they can get away with it.

Anything that is made, manufactured,

or passes through the hands

of somebody who can adulterate it,

by the mid-Victorian period, the

chances are it will be adulterated.

These additions were astounding -

chalk, iron sulphate

and even plaster of Paris.

But for many, buying processed foods

released them

from the drudgery of baking,

was time-saving

and, above all, was affordable.

Bread was particularly

susceptible to tampering

as many things could be

disguised in it.

The biggest adulterant

at the time was alum

and that's been used

since the 18th century.

It's a whitener.

What it does is it enables you

to take seconds or middlings

or the lower grades of flour

and make them look whiter.

Alum is an aluminium-based compound

often found today in detergent,

but when hidden in bread,

it not only makes it whiter

but retains water,

so the bread feels more substantial.

In theory, the amounts used

were quite small

and in theory they were not

particularly dangerous to health

but when you've got

both the miller adding alum

and then you've got the baker

adding alum as well,

then you start to build up

the dose to levels

where it really will

affect your bowel system.

Food Historian Annie Grey has

prepared three loaves for me,

to illustrate the choice I would

have had as a Victorian housewife.

Whilst one loaf is pure, two of them

have plaster of Paris,

alum and other undesirables

added to them.

And which is which?

Well, you're the Victorian housewife,

so I would say, you're in the baker's

and you're presented with these

loaves, which one would you pick?

Well, they all look very attractive,

which is slightly worrying.

It's really quite dense, though,

isn't it, it's quite heavy.

Listen to that!

This one's still quite dense,

but again looks nice...

And smells really

like rubber or something.

Very odd.

That smells fine.

This is lighter.

Smells more like bread

that I'm familiar with.

So my guess is that

this one is fine?

Yes, it is, although it's interesting

the way that perception plays a role.

Part of the reason that you're

preferring that one, I suspect,

is because we are predisposed now

to like granary breads

and things that look healthy,

whereas with your Victorian hat on,

you should be looking for the bread

that is whitest

and therefore will impress

your dinner guests.

So I would probably be looking

not to go for something wholemeal

that looks healthy today,

but for something like this. Yes.

In the Victorian period people

really want white bread.

The current obsession

with wholemeal, granary,

beautiful artisanal loaves, nothing.

You want white bread.

So alum is the whitener

that's put in.

Which is which, in terms of

these two? Which is the one...

What's got what?

This one is the alum-based one,

and this one is the one with

plaster of Paris and bean flour.

From a baker's point of view, this

one's brilliant because a third

of the dry solids in this

are not pure flour,

so you're making a reasonable saving

on even the sort of low grade flour

that you're using.

But this housewife's choice had

dire consequences for the consumer.

If you were a worker eating

two pounds of bread a day

and not much else, when you consider

that a third of what you're eating

just won't benefit you at all, you

can see why chronic malnutrition

is such an issue, and when

your adulterants are things like

plaster of Paris and alum, you can

also see why chronic gastritis

is a problem

in late Victorian England.

If you're in a workhouse

and you're a three-year-old,

you're going to start off

with constipation.

You're then going to have

irregular bowel movements,

and that will lead to diarrhoea.

And if you are a three-year-old

in a workhouse,

and you have got chronic diarrhoea,

then that will lead to death.

Another reason for adulteration was

a desire to make food

more attractive and appealing.

Colour was a key component.

And so there were

things like colourants.

You might have something

like lead chromate,

which is a very vivid yellow colour.

In fact, it's the yellow

that's used in the paint

of American school buses.

It's that really bright yellow.

And that was put in things like

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Suzannah Lipscomb

Suzannah Rebecca Gabriella Lipscomb (born 7 December 1978 in Sutton, London) is a British historian, academic and television presenter who has written and appeared in a number of television and radio programmes about British history. more…

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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