Climate change by any other name

Global warming started early — 1869 in fact — but our foolhardy ancestors denied the obvious signs of climate change… Capture

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Feelin’ alright? Not Feelin’ too Good Myself

Ailments can so easily be politicised. Where there is any kind of pain or suffering, weasel politicians smelling blood gravitate to the scene like the hyenas you always knew they were.

It was so back in history when the British confected a case for conflict over the detached organ of an unfortunate sea captain and so the War of Jenkins’ Ear was born. Google it, why don’t you?

So it is now. For many reasons, the small islands making up the countries called the UK have 65 million souls by the official count, but that is a nearly 20 per cent population increase since 1990.

Many services provided by the state have become overwhelmed by this fact. Revenues into the state  have not commensurately increased in purchasing power terms. So there is a war to be fought over this latter day ear in a jar.

The Hiroshima target is Britain’s free health service. The National Health Service has been adopted by those who are not in government like some duffle-coated Peruvian orphan bear. It is no longer the NHS but it has become our NHS (though there is much anecdotal evidence that there are many from outside the UK who fly in to take advantage of the lackadaisical failure to check entitlement).

It is worth reminding ourselves that the UK has a tradition bordering on obsession of the ritual celebration of events. It’s plainly ‘bread and circuses’ to distract the populace from moaning about hyena politicians and the NHS. Usually these are sporting triumphs, or oftentimes disasters. The calendar runs  Cheltenham winter race meeting full of drunks and the Irish, then the Grand National horse race of death (everyone is temporarily an expert of horseflesh and the jumps), followed by Ascot (ditto for racing without jumping) The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, Wimbledon (Come on Tim! or someone else whose certainly destined to lose — and everyone for a two week period knows their backhand lob from percentage first service faults), then it’s the cricket and so on to take up more time until attention turns from sport to the celebration of Christmas – a festival which now begins in retail terms in late August – I kid you not.

In parallel we talk endlessly and amaterurishly of the weather, in a country where 72F is perceived as a stultifying heatwave and 31F is Arctic chill. Each and every winter the conversation turns to disease. Yes folks it is the “flu season”. And guess what happens? Our NHS gets a bunch more customers with respiratory disease blocking further the already creaking conveyor belt of “get ’em in, get ’em well, get ’em out.”

And of course circling politicians make much of this. But here’s the thing. There have always been winter crises in the NHS. Even before there was an NHS there were winter crises. Flu epidemics – or should that be pandemics? —  like the poor, have always been with us and have overwhelmed the health systems of the world.

Most are familiar with the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 that is said to have killed 50 million. Right now it’s Aussie Flu, but bird flu, Hong Kong Flu and Asian Flu have all had their day in the sick beds of the world.

Even the years when there wasn’t a plague, there was enough sickness to stop the buses and the postal service. People expected it. Here’s what was happening in Britain during January 1933 when there was a mini pandemic:-


It wasn’t that we had to find someone to blame for death and disease back then. Here are the sage thoughts in a song by lesser known Texas blues singer Ace Johnson and his take on its inevitability and universality  of flu, from 1939.

Influenza is a disease, makes you weak all in your knees

’Tis a fever everybody sure does dread

Puts a pain in every bone, a few days and you are gone

To a place in the ground called the grave

Of course you could always rely on advertisers to come up with a cure. This is from that same January back in 1933.


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This time it’s the gabby cabby

By coincidence another cab-related case from 1862 that I just had to share. This time it seems as if the boot is on the other foot. There is more than a hint of irony that after driving like a crazy and not knowing the way to King’s Cross, Sam Simmons started abusing poor Mr Keith for his offered two shillings fare payment, not realising that the other man in the cab was none other than a plain clothes cop.

For Mr Keith it seemed the end of a pretty bad day, having already been robbed once.

I bet that Simmons was one of those cabbies that never went ‘sarf of the river’.insolent cabman

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It’s the rich wot gets the pleasure

And the poor knew their place.

This is the story from the Bow St Magistrate’s Court in 1862. It’s the tale of a cheapo toff who was embarrassed when a short-changed cabby chased him and shouted at him in the street for underpaying. Using his position in society the man turned the tables on the cabman by dragging him to court.

Putting two and two together and making five, the ‘gentleman’ who brought the charges against the cabby could have been the cricketer and cleric Edmund Henry Lacon Willes, (Winchester and Oxford, fast bowler for Kent and Hampshire). I only say that as one of his stops he made was at the newspaper Sporting Life. If not then I defame the memory of Willes, but you know what they say about fast bowlers…

The poor cabby knew he would never be believed, even though his story sounds like the truth. On the balance of probabilities he is unlikely to have done what he did unless he knew that Willes was in the wrong. Victorian sense of place was not to be on his side, however…it's the rich

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Let them eat paint!

Around the end of the Napoleonic War, there was a rich gentleman on business in the West Country. As he was rich, he stayed in a nice hotel.  He liked a snack for his supper if he arrived back from business late in the evening .

He particularly liked the local cheese known as Double Gloucester, which is a reddish coloured hard cheese. In the summer the colour in the cheese comes naturally from the amount of carotene in the cow’s diet. At other times — and this was a practice dating back to the middle ages — a natural food dye known as Anatto was added to Gloucester cheese to convince buyers they were getting the real thing and top quality cheese at that. This practice was copied by other dairies around the country which produced their own such as Red Leicester and Scottish coloured Cheddar.

The gent had eaten cheese on toast at home for years  without any digestive problem. But that one night after the snack in his hotel he was beset with terrible abdominal pains. He recovered, but the next time he ate cheese at the hotel the same thing happened. The cheese was further implicated when a kitten was violently ill after eating a bit of rind cut from the cheese. The hotel — being posh — had ordered the cheese not from a local farm, but from a “respectable shop” in London. The gentleman inquired of the shop what might have been added to their cheese to make him feel so unwell. Yes, they conceded,  they had added Anatto to the cheese, but they got this Anatto from their usual supplier with whom they had traded for years.

Further enquiries ensued. “Well maybe…” said the cheesemaker. Maybe the Anatto had been of “defective and inferior quality” and hadn’t produced an orange enough colour for our liking. So, yes, we did add a little vermillion to the mixture — but we got it from a reputable wholesale chemist.

Trouble was that they had not told the chemist that they were adding the vermillion to food. The chemist usually sold vermillion  as a pigment for house paint. To boost the red colour in red paint he naughtily but routinely added the very poisonous red lead to his vermillion, certain that no-one would be so foolish as to eat paint.

So while most adulteration of food and drink was almost certainly deliberate in the 19th century, once in a while there was a chain of events, each link innocent in itself,which led to disaster. Nowadays chains of this nature leading to catastrophe are usually contained the text of air accident reports and the like.

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“Man of God, there is death in the pot!”

Ever wondered how an old timey cup of coffee tasted?

What was it really like to take that first sip, on a day some hundreds of years before intensive farming methods, fancy new coffee plant varieties, modern methods of drying, roasting, grinding and so on? Well, wonder no more. Was it wonderful, like nothing you’ve ever tasted? Yes and no, The ‘no’ was that it mostly wasn’t wonderful and the yes — it was like nothing else, but it must have tasted irredeemably foul.

It wasn’t the fault of the beans though. In the early nineteenth century it was consumerism. The new middle classes took to the rich taste of coffee favoured by richer folks the century before. They liked convenience and so bought ready ground coffee, not beans. As it was said at the time, those who sold ground coffee recognised that “no article presents greater facilitation for adulteration than coffee”. And adulterate they did. About 36,000 lbs of genuine coffee was imported into the UK each year but it was boosted by 18,000 lbs of something else.

Adding roasted chicory was the most common of harmless extenders in coffee. That started out as a tax avoidance scheme. The UK government had thought that taxing imports of coffee was a nice little earner.  But then the pesky Dutch and later the French took up the habit of adding roasted chicory to their coffee at the very start of the 19th century because, unaccountably, they liked the taste. Britain took up the fashion. His Majesty’s government plugged the potential revenue loophole and slapped a tax on imported chicory too.

Then came what economists nowadays call incentivised import substitution. Farmers in Yorkshire and East Anglia particularly found that they could grow chicory at home. And of course domestic chicory could not be taxed like imports. ‘Aha’ thought the legislators, to get around this we’ll make it an offence for anyone who has anything to do with coffee to have roasted chicory on the premises. So an Act of Parliament  in 1822 – An Act to regulate the Manufacture and Sale of Scorched or roasted Corn, Beans, Peas, Beans or Parsnips – included a £100 fine for anyone using any vegetable substance “prepared or manufactured in imitation of or in any respect to resemble coffee or cocoa”.

And many did get caught — and fined the huge amount of £100, which in those days was enough to bankrupt a substantial business. Those critical of food adulteration were named and shamed. Take Mr Chaloner for example, who put burnt pea flour and sand in his coffee when he bothered at all, though 17 lbs of what he was selling as coffee had no coffee in it whatsoever.

Dare I go into what else got sold as coffee? Yes I will. Dried used coffee grounds were often added and, distasteful as the practice might have been, it was not so utterly disgusting as the other common adulterant.

Horses were as common as cars and trucks — in fact they were cars and trucks, or at least their engine. So just as today there are breakers who recycle old vehicles there were obviously knackers and horsemeat traders mopping up the dead and decrepit horseflesh.

But what to do with all those horse livers they ended up with? Some bright spark had the brainwave that if you slowly baked them until they were dry and crumbly you could add the powder to… yes, you’re ahead of me… coffee.

coffee pic

How it was in France. Would you like some soap with your skinny Latté

Though Starbucks and the rest have re-educated our tastebuds for ‘real’ coffee’, those cocktails of coffee and roasted roots still exist. There is a coffee and chicory brand called Camp Coffee which has been on sale in Britain  since 1876. And there are other brands around Europe which use roasted barley, roasted dandelion root, roasted chickpeas as well. The Germans even have a word for these caffeine-free coffee substitutes, but someone should really tell them, as that word is ‘muckefuck’, which would make a practitioner in the art of caffeine-free coffee a muckefucker, I guess.

coffee pic 2

(The headline by the way is from 2 Kings v 38 — but you knew that already — and it’s one of those Old Testament recipe fails, only saved in the nick of time by part-time fine dining chef and full-time prophet, Elisha).

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“Died from excessive tobacco smoking”



Nearly 100 years before Sir Richard Doll’s proof that smoking and cancer were linked and way before the tobacco lobby cranked up its PR campaigns, a scientist in 1855 studying the adulterants and poisons that went into commonplace foods sold in England also looked at what went into tobacco. While he was describing the effects of the growing craze for smoking on the human body, he observed this… who knew? Well, they seemed to.tobacco

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Brits have always hit the Yuletide bottle

The British malaise, getting publicly legless over the holidays, seemed like a recent phenomenon until I saw this from the New Year, 1865…

christmas drunk

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Those weren’t the days my friend

For the last act in an operatic tragedy that was real life in the 19th century read this story from March 1888 of a husband, a wife and a business failure.

The welfare state was brought into being by stories such as this, in the same way that Factories Acts sought to stop workers dying from falls, unguarded machinery or poisons used in manufacture. Road, maritime and rail safety came about because, before the laws were introduced the situation was intolerably bad. Clean water and sewerage the same.

There is a case to be argued that  society nowadays does not properly know where the line between state guardianship and mollycoddling lies, hence social welfare, charity and ‘caring’  becoming industries in themselves,  mis-identification of any and every aspiration as a “human right” and acceptance that minorities must be more powerful than majorities, while the shrill cries of “political correctness gone made” are reviled.

Anyway, it isn’t going to bring back Mr and Mrs Joseph Profaze.


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Those were the days, my friend

Reviewing a bankruptcy of a Birmingham umbrella manufacturer in 1862 (as you do), I came across this eye-watering indicator of the relative economic strengths of John Bull and Uncle Sam back then .


Hand over $17,300 and they gave you £1,862. Oh yes and a shiny silver half crown, as 2s 6d (or two shillings and six pence) was known.

Now that’s an exchange rate…

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