he idea of introducing a sugar tax, initiated by British politicians in order to improve the health of the nation, is not new. In 1858, a similar proposal from the London government led to a real disaster. Sugar is a very important element in our diet which at the same time can cause many health problems if abused. Many people tend to create an addiction within their diet for sugar, so when sugar is too expensive to purchase, you find alternatives, in this case, such alternatives ended up killing people.
White Gold = Sugar
In the nineteenth century, there were very few sugar factories in England. Moreover, the cost of importing “white gold” had become very high because demand had exceeded supply. For these reasons, the government decided to introduce a tax, without taking into account the effects that would occur later.
The most important consequence of this decision was the event known as “Bradford Sweets Poisoning”. On the morning of Saturday, October 30, 1858, the candy seller William Hardaker, known as “Humbug Billy” (humbug = candy with mint) bought, as usual, sweets for his stand-in Greenmarket. Hardaker normally bought the products from Joseph Neal, a pharmacist who had his lab on Stone Street. He was known to use peppermint oil, gum, and a sugar substitute.
That day, Neal ran out of this ingredient and sent one of his tenants, James Archer, to buy it from a pharmacy that belonged to Charles Hodgson. When Archer arrived at the lab, he found Hodgson sitting in bed, sick, leaving his assistant, William Goddard, to sit behind the counter. As the young man served Archer, he tangled the barrels in which the substances were stored, giving him arsenic instead of sugar.
Hardaker did not check the barrels and used the ingredient received to make sweets. The result was devastating: the children of the city began to die on their heads. That day, 12 people died and many others fell ill. An article in the Bradford Observer reported that “for a short time, in some districts, a terrible plague had befallen us.” It was estimated by historians that over 200 people died due to this event.
The Aftermath of the Disaster
Historians claim that if Neal, Hodgson, or Goddard had made candy with sugar and not a substitute, then the incident would not have happened. In the 19th century, in England, sugar was sold in the form of cones that were by no means stored in barrels.
On December 9, 1858, Goddard was charged with aggravated murder. He was soon followed by Neal and Hodgson. All charges were later dropped. However, the event went down in history only as an unfortunate accident, as the people of Bradford did not react in any way to the misfortune that killed their children.
In 1860, the London rulers approved the “Food and Beverage Counterfeiting Prevention Act”, a first initiative to prevent the recurrence of an episode like Bradford’s. Through this law, fines were introduced for those who tried to contaminate food and beverages with lethal substances. Historians claim, however, that the document was a real failure because many of its provisions were vague and impossible to apply.
The solution came only in 1868 when the British parliament issued the Pharmacy Act. First, this act defined the role of the pharmacist (defined as the one who passed the examinations established by the Pharmaceutical Society) and limited the sales of medicines and poisons to pharmacists. Through this law, the pharmaceutical field in England became an industrialized one.
At the moment, there are rumors that this tragic moment in history highlights the dangers that can arise when governments try to change consumer behavior by taxing raw materials and not by food regulations and reforms.