Arsenic In The Beer Scandal 1901

One of the biggest disasters to befall Groves & Whitnall was the 1900/1901 poison beers scandal. The Salford Reporter of 1st December 1900 records "The discovery that poison lurks in one of the most popular of the nation's beverages has been a rude shock to the inhabitants of Salford and neighborhood".

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It went on "For about 4 months, the medical men of Salford have been called upon to deal with a considerable number of cases in which the complaint has been weakness and pains in the limbs like "pins and needles" in the hands and feet, general numbness and rheumatism all over. In more advanced cases they declared themselves paralysed and quite unable to get about. Both men and women have sought medical advice and in all cases they were beer drinkers. The cases were first thought to be caused by over indulgence, but then the medical men thought that there was some "vile beer" on the market".

At a special meeting of Salford Health Committee on Monday 26th November, Dr Tattersall, Medical Officer of Health for Salford, presented a preliminary report. He said that during the last four months a total of 41 people have died due to peripheral neuritis, multiple neuritis or alcoholic neuritis. He said that in the same period 66 deaths were due to alcoholism compared to 22 deaths in the first 7 months of the year. The symptoms suggested poisoning by arsenic so he had called an urgent meeting with the Manchester Brewers Association and beer was analysed. The analysis found that indeed, traces of arsenic were present. At first it was thought that the arsenic was from the sulphur that was used to treat the hops to prevent blight. But then they had found arsenic in sugar used for brewing. Owing to a shortage of sugar, the brewers had purchased sugar supplies from a Liverpool company named Bostock's, but how did arsenic get into the sugar?

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During processing, sugar is stripped from the cane by sulphuric acid. The acid is usually made from pure sulphur, but due to the increased cost of sulphur, Bostock's had used pyrites (iron sulphide) to make sulphuric acid. The arsenic was in the pyrites, which was transferred to the sugar. On Tuesday 4th December an Inquest into the death of Alice Booker was held at the Langworthy Hotel, Langworthy Road, Pendleton. Alice was a 54 year old widow who had lived in Ash Street, Seedley and died on 27th November. She had been complaining of pain and weakness for 6 months. About 3 weeks previously she had had some beer and was unable to walk and lost the use of her wrists. Although her death certificate said that the cause of death was peripheral neuritis, the Inquest was adjourned sine die. She was interred in Weaste Cemetery on 1st December 1900.

On Monday 10th December, the Inquest into the death of Ellen Maddox was held at the Bulls Head Inn, Hampson Street, Salford. Ellen was 47 years old and had lived at 58, Hampson Street, Salford. She had suffered from bad health for about nine months. She enjoyed a glass of beer with her dinner and supper. She had been in bed for 9 weeks and had no use in her hands and feet. Death was recorded as peripheral neuritis and this Inquest was also suspended sine die. Ellen was interred at Weaste Cemetery on 11th December 1900.

An interesting development was recorded in the Salford Reporter of 22nd December 1900 concerning the position of the Coroner, Mr A Holmes. As he was also Solicitor of the Salford Licensed Victuallers Association, he felt there was a clash of interests, so he resigned from that position.

There were further reports of Inquests in newspapers including that for Maria Weaver, aged 36, of Ellesmere Street who died on 17th December. She had drunk beer at the Globe Hotel on Regent Road, although a witness saw her in the Old House at Home. She had one eightieth part of a grain of white arsenic in her liver and a trace in her kidneys and spleen. The jury reached a verdict of "death due to peripheral neuritis due to arsenical poisoning, but we cannot locate the blame".

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On Friday 22nd February 1901 a Royal Commission was opened in the Westminster Palace Hotel, London. Dr Tattersall, Salford's MOH was first to give evidence. He described the events and said that there had been 115 deaths: 28 male and 87 female. Also giving evidence was Mr J.G.Groves, MP for Salford South and Chairman of Messrs Groves and Whitnall Brewers of Regent Road Brewery and Alexandra Brewery, Manchester. There was evidence to suggest that heavy beer drinkers were not affected as much as casual drinkers. The beer was found to contain arsenic in the region of 2 - 4 parts per million. Not in itself, high enough to kill people, (e.g. epileptics were given 10 times the amount). One of the Commission's conclusions was that "alcohol predisposed people to arsenic poisoning". (A more modern view is that arsenic predisposed susceptible persons to alcoholic cardiomyopathy).