The Dangers of Eating Buns: A Delicious Delicacy

Although there were dangers in the Victorian Era and Georgian Era, some people claimed there were dangers in eating buns, at least that was what some newspapers thought in the mid-nineteenth century. These delicacies were delicious treats that people loved for breakfast or for afternoon tea. However, on 31 December 1859, an article previously published in the Times appeared in the Portsmouth Times and Naval Gazette about the dangers of eating buns.

The article questioned the safety of buns and mentioned that Englishmen might be being poisoned by dishonest bun traders. If such allegations were true the paper wondered what an appropriate form of punishment might be and what should happen to those potentially causing harm to bun eaters. Here is that article verbatim:

“Why should we not set up the pillory again? It is an institution which seems to have found much favour in the eyes of ancestors as we find in the pages of the Liber Albus and elsewhere. In a review entitled Medieval London, which we published yesterday, we explained that the pillory was the great instrument employed by our ancestors for the suppression of the tricks of medieval trade. Butchers, bakers, alewives, millers, all persons who adulterated their wares, all who sold with defective measures, all who used short weights, met in the long run on that useful but infamous platform.

dangers of eating buns

A girl, sitting on a rock, is approached by a well-dressed girl who offers buns from the basket in her hand. Color wood engraving after H. Tidey, 1867. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

The pillory was the leading article of those days. It was the only means known to our ancestors for the exposure of fraudulent practices. To them the maximum of ‘Caveat emptor‘ was unknown; or, if known, was held to be insufficient for the suppression of fraud. They may fairly have supposed that the machinery of the law should be enlisted in behalf of the honest buyer, and that where so many advantages lay on the side of the dishonest vendor it was but fair that Justice should step in and equalize the chances of the scale. They carried out their theory in practice to its fullest extent; we, on the other hand, rush into the opposite extreme, and leave the buyer entirely at the mercy of the seller.

The modern view of the case is, that the grocer who sands his sugar, the spirit merchant who waters his rum, the baker who ossifies his bread, and the milkman who adopts his wares to the palate of the urban consumer, will, in the long run, find their custom fall off. By a strange inconsistency, we take care that articles of silver plate shall be marked with a hall-mark by public authority; that firearms shall, in the same way be tested before they are handed to the purchaser; that poisons shall not be dispensed save upon the requisition of properly qualified persons; but on the other hand, we take no measures to prevent our retail tradesmen from handing across their counters articles of food adulterated with compounds calculated to injure and shorten life.

If the old practice of the pillory still prevailed among us, many of our retail tradesmen might at one time or another hold themselves out on its platform to the particular remark and veneration of their fellow-citizens. The manner of the age scarcely admits of the introduction of so stringent a remedy, even if we suppressed its ornamental adjuncts. It might, however, be well to consider that ― these additions apart ― the essence of the pillory was exposure. The misales [sic] were but the outward and visible signs of the laudable and natural emotions of the crowd. It may be that the end arrived at by means of the pillory is to be obtained by a simple exposure of fraudulent practices in trade. It is not necessary in the year 1859, as it was in the year 1359, to expose the petty cheats and knaves of commerce in their own proper persons to the indignation of the mob; but it may be the question whether it might not be sound policy to devise some new mode of stopping these iniquities.

It is not so long since the case of the Bradford lozenges attracted a large share of public attention. Another story of the like kind has just occurred in the neighbourhood of Clifton. Not quite a fortnight ago, a confectioner at Redland exposed for sale on his counter a tray of Bath buns.* A parcel of schoolboys from a Clifton school, rushed into the shop with pence in their pockets, and set to work upon the buns. They were soon down. Within half-an-hour after eating the buns, they were seized with a horrible sickness, and other symptoms of irritant poison. Emetics were throw in, and other means adopted to clear the stomachs of the children of the dainties they had swallowed, and in all the cases save one relief was soon obtained. The one case was that of a greedy little boy, who had either possessed more pence or less self-restraint than his fellows, for he had actually made away with three of these dangerous delicacies. He remained writing in agony for a number of hours, and fell into a state of collapse.

Punch cartoon November 20, 1858 related to the Bradford poisonings and titled “The Great Lozenge-Maker.” Public domain.

Nor were these the only cases; a publican named May had also eaten some of the buns, and likewise suffered horrid tortures. When he got better he went to the Magistrates for advice and assistance, but they told him, as he had not been poisoned outright, he had no case; if he had been dead he might have had his remedy. Numbers of other persons were affected in similar way, for the confectioner seems to have driven a thriving bun-trade. The end of it was that some of the buns were sent to Dr. Frederick Griffin, the Bristol School of Chemistry, for analysis, and it was found that the colouring matter in them was pure orpiment, or yellow sulphide of arsenic, in the proportion of six grains to each bun.

Example of a Bath bun. Author’s collection.

What had taken place was this ― Two doors off the confectioner lived a chemist. The confectioner went to the chemist and said, ‘Give me some colouring matter.’ The chemist replied, ‘Yes, I will; here it is;’ but he gave him some poison by mistake, and wrote upon it ‘Chrome yellow’ (chromate of lead), though it proved, on analysis, to be yellow arsenic. Now, as Dr. Griffin very properly says, the druggist must have known very well that his neighbour was a baker and pastrycook, and therefore must have been well aware of the purpose for which the poison was wanted. The confectioner wished to impart a rich, luscious appearance, to his buns. Under such circumstances, what, we ask, would have been the fate of this confectioner and this druggist in the year 1359?

So far of this particular instance; but Dr. Griffin goes on to tell us, ‘that many of the obscure chronic and dyspeptic complaints now so prevalent are due to the systematic adulteration of articles of food with unwholesome or slowly poisonous materials.’ It is only when the customer is poisoned outright and off-hand that any fuss is made about the poisoning. Dr. Griffin’s suggestions by way of remedy is, that there should be a health-officer in each of our large towns, whose duty it should be to take care that the public are not poisoned, either quickly or slowly, for the benefit of pastry-cooks, spice-sellers, and others. This is, after all, pretty much to prevent to the practice of our ancestors. A publication of the names of all persons indulging in rech [sic] practices would probably put an end to them. At any rate, it might be worth a trial.

It will no doubt be, urged on the other hand, that this kind of trade surveillance is opposed to the custom of modern commerce. We answer so it is, save in the exceptional cases of silver plate and human life. If the Legislature takes precautions that British subjects shall not be slaughtered by the bursting of gun-barrels, why not also take care that they shall not be poisoned? After, all, a man would rather prefer that a gun-barrel should explode in his hand than an arsenicated [sic] Bath bun in his stomach. The chances of mutilation of death in the first are less than the chances of agony and death in the second instance. It should also be remembered with regard to poisoned food that, in a public sense, the occasional slaughter of a dozen or a score of persons is of much less moment than the steady continuous process of poisoning a nation gradually by slow doses on the Borgia principle, and deteriorating the vitality and vigour of a race.”[1]


* Supposedly the city of Bath, which was the same city where the novelist Jane Austen lived for a time and her cousin Eliza de Feuillide visited, became the home of the Bath bun, a sweet bread bun, that was composed of plain brioche or a rich egg and butter dough. It supposedly originated with an 18th century Bath physician named William Oliver, who gave them to his patients when they visited the Roman Baths in the city. His tasty Bath buns consisted of a lump of sugar baked onto the bottom, crushed sugar sprinkled over the top, and frequently raisins or currants inside.

References:

  • [1] Portsmouth Times and Naval Gazette, “The Dangers of Eating Buns,” December 31, 1859, p. 3.

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