Dr Guy Woolnough, historian of crime and policing, researching 19th century Cumbria, who lives at Burton-in-Lonsdale, recalls cases of food poisoning in Victorian England

Adulterated food was commonplace in Victorian England.

There were no regulations until the 1870s, and even then the laws were vague enough to be ignored by the unscrupulous.

Most adulteration was not too dangerous. For example, bread was often adulterated with alum, which I believe posed little risk.

Accidental poisoning was not an unusual occurrence and did not merit much attention in the newspapers.

In 1878 the local press reported a ‘strange case of poisoning’ at Troughton’s Lodging house in Kendal. This is the building now occupied by WH Smith.

Troughton’s was a common lodging house, where a bed for the night cost three old pence. Two lodgers had made some soup using oatmeal they had found in the house.

More than 14 residents fell seriously ill, for the oatmeal was contaminated with rat poison. It was feared that some of them might die, but the press did not follow up this story, so perhaps they did recover.

Sometimes serious poisons were introduced into children’s food. In Kendal a shocking case of poisoning occurred at the horse fair in November 1878 where ‘a young girl engaged in the service of a gentleman’s family’ bought some lozenges which she shared with two friends, aged three and five.

Within a quarter of an hour, the girls were violently sick. They were retching for at least an hour, the youngest falling unconscious for 40 minutes, but all three made a full recovery within hours.

I have not been able to find any local press reports of this poisoning case, but it was reported in the Lancet (May 1879), the medical journal which had first taken up the campaign against adulterated food in the mid-century.

Kendal doctor Walter Illife suspected heavy metal poisoning and took the remaining sweets to David Page, the Medical Officer of Health for the county of Westmorland.

He proved that they contained an oxide of antimony, a deadly heavy metal.

Page wrote the article in the Lancet, detailing how he proved the composition of the lozenges and the main point of his article was the chemical techniques he used to identify the poison.

Page gave over just a few words to the question ‘why?’ He wrote that the lozenges were colourless, which surprised me as I assumed the only reason for adding antimony could be for colouring, for which purpose it was sometimes used.

Page surmised that the poison had been added accidentally. He only made brief mention that the sweets had been bought from ‘an itinerant vendor of confectionary’ of the type, commonplace at nineteenth century fairs. There was apparently no action to find the person responsible.

I came across a similar case of poisoned buns in Bristol. The case was brought before the magistrates, but it was a private action, not a police prosecution, and it was not successful.

The families of the Kendal victims may not have had the resources for a case, but even if they could afford a legal representative there was no one identified whom the children could bring to court.