John Postgate FRCS
This Brief Biography is by John R Postgate, an un-sung hero who campaigned against the widespread practice of mixing food with all sorts of things to increase profits. It seems incredible that anyone would object to John’s efforts to stop the practice but it was a long hard journey and we owe him a lot.
Buried Warstone Lane – The Headstone Reads:
In memory of John Postgate, Surgeon. Sometime Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at Queen’s College, Birmingham. Author of the legislation against the adulteration of food and drugs who for twenty five years of his life without reward and under heavy discouragement laboured to protect the health and to purify the commerce of this people and sacrificed to this object his private comfort and professional advancement. Born October 21st 1820, died September 26th 1881. “Haec seges ingratos tulit et feret omnibus annis.” Horace. Also of Mary Anna Langdale daughter of the above and Mary Ann Postgate who died December 14th 1857 aged 2 years and 3 months. Also of Mary Ann Postgate wife of the above born November 22nd 1816 died April 11th 1899. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”
Campaigner For Unadulterated Food
In Victorian Britain adulterated food was an everyday hazard of life. In her famous Book of Household Management (1861) Mrs Beeton warned her readers, “Sugar is adulterated with fine sand and sawdust’ and again that, “This rage for white bread has introduced adulterations of a very serious character…”. She mentioned alum and bone dust as “far from harmless” additives.
Bread seems to have been especially vulnerable: in addition to alum it might contain potato flour, bean meal, bone ash or meal, chalk and slaked lime. Sugar was usually poorly refined as well as including her adulterants. Pepper might have gravel, leaves, clove dust or twigs added to make weight. Mustard would be diluted with wheat flour, pea flour, radish seeds or cayenne pepper. Tea might include used and dried tea leaves, or dried and crumbled leaves of local plants; lead salts would be used to clarify wine, though the fact that they are poisonous had been known for several centuries.
Honest grocers sometimes employed ‘garblers’ to remove gross foreign matter, such as stones and dust, from spices. Curiously, a few additives, at first regarded as adulterants, later became established components of prepared foods (hops in beer, for example, or chicory in coffee) but the majority were simply fraudulent: cheap additives intended to inflate the vendors’ profits or to improve the appearance of dubious products, and often they were dangerous.
Legislation against such practices, with sometimes gruesome penalties, had in fact existed for centuries, but it was blatantly ineffective. However, as the 18th century progressed some determined Victorian reformers set about forcing Government to take its responsibilities in this area seriously.