This article was originally written in December 2022, but has been republished. 

ON the morning of Sunday, October 30, 1858, two young boys were lying dead on the floor of their home in Bradford. Close by, their parents were seriously ill.

Their sudden deaths were reported to the police and at first it was thought the nine and 11-year-olds were victims of the squalid conditions they lived in.

The children could have died from cholera because their symptoms were vomiting, abdominal pains and diarrhoea.

Many people in Bradford suffered appalling living conditions in the 1840s and 1850s. The Bradford Observer on October 16, 1845, referred to it as ‘wretched hovels, unfurnished and unventilated, damp, filthy, surrounded by stagnant pools, human waste, everything offensive and disgusting to sight and smell.’

The Bradford Beck, the canal, referred to as ‘River Stink’, and slaughterhouses contributed further to the poor quality of life. Infant mortality was high, with 50per cent of children dying before the age of five. The cholera epidemic of 1849 was responsible for 420 deaths, mostly from city centre slums. So it was quite understandable that sudden deaths were attributed to environmental conditions. That is until Orlando Burran, five, and his three-year-old brother, Joseph, of Jowett Street, were also found dead. More cases followed all over Bradford. In all there were to be 21 deaths and over 200 seriously ill.

By Sunday evening a number of police officers were deployed to ascertain the cause. It transpired the victims had all eaten peppermint lozenges, bought from the stall of William Hardacre, known as ‘Humbug Billy’, in the Green Market where Rawson Market was. Felix Rimmington, a chemist, tested samples and discovered that most of the sweets contained nine grains of arsenic (half this dose was considered lethal), some containing 16 grains.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Rawson Market in the 1990sRawson Market in the 1990s (Image: Newsquest)

So why were traces of arsenic found in the peppermint lozenges? Further investigations revealed that Humbug Billy bought his stock from a local confectioner, Joseph Neal, who bought his ingredients from Charles Hodgson, a druggist on Baildon Bridge, Shipley.

His shop displayed numerous jars containing various ingredients of the druggist trade - camphor, balsam, medicinal leeches for bleeding, tobacco, laxatives and tablets made to his own recipes.

On the counter were scales and a pestle and mortar. For customers who could afford it, the druggist made up special remedies, but poisons were freely available, some used in medicines.

Sugar was expensive, but the price of sweets was higher because of a Sugar Tax. An adulterate called ‘daft’ - powdered gypsum, plaster of Paris, also used to decorate walls - was added, bringing the cost down to 8d a lb.

Joseph Neal was a respectable wholesale confectioner who lived in Stone Street, off Manor Row. A grocer’s assistant, he became a successful sweet maker. Humbug Billy’s sweets from Joseph Neal, were made by his assistant, James Appleton. Hardaker sold the lozenges at one and a half pence for two oz.

Peppermint lozenges were popular; taken for throat and chest infections caused by air pollution and damp housing. To make them he used 40lbs of sugar, 12lbs of daft, 4lbs of gum and a drop of peppermint oil.

Appleton was running out of daft so he sent Neal’s lodger, James Archer, to buy some more from Hodgson. This is where things started to go tragically wrong.

Charles Hodgson was ill in bed, and left his assistant, William Goddard, who’d only been working for him for two weeks, to mind the shop. He went upstairs to ask Hodgson where the daft was kept, but Goddard selected the wrong cask, and instead of handing over 12lbs of daft he gave Archer arsenic.

Appleton made up the sweets and started to feel unwell. They were a slightly different colour and Humbug Billy, receiving the delivery, complained and negotiated a discount. He set the sweets out on his stall, and many people purchased them.

On Fridays and Saturdays customers came from all over Bradford and outlying districts. William Hardcastle liked to sample his products, but late afternoon he began to feel unwell and left his assistant to run the stall.

Next day, the consequences of this terrible mistake hit the headlines. The Bradford Observer reported names of some of the dead and ill. Other newspapers covered the ‘Bradford Sweet Poisonings’, including The Times.

It was not uncommon to read about cases of arsenic poisoning. Most Victorian houses had tins, often unlabelled, to destroy rats, lice etc and arsenic was readily available. It was used in murder as it could be slipped into tea.

Arsenic powder was used to whiten skin as a cosmetic, and combined with medicines to treat asthma, typhus, anaemia, even cancer. It was an additive in babies’ talcum powder, causing many infant fatalities. It was used in wallpaper dye and fabrics.

After police investigations, householders were warned about the peppermint lozenges, and notices were displayed in and around Bradford. Prompt action, it was believed, saved many lives. Humbug Billy estimated he’ d sold enough humbugs to kill about 2,000 people.

Charles Hodgson, druggist, Joseph Neal, sweet maker, and William Goddard, Hodgson’s assistant, were charged with manslaughter as a result of negligence. Neal and Goddard went free.

After a short trial, Hodgson was found not guilty. There was sympathy in the press for the hapless Humbug Billy, who continued on the market until his death in 1866, aged 61. He was buried in Undercliffe Cemetery. His son, James, took over the business until the end of the century. Joseph Neal continued to make confectionary. By 1863 it appears he left the area, as did Charles Hodgson.

The Bradford poisoning case led to important legislation. The Pharmacy Act 1868 required that all sales of poison should be recorded by a chemist, and that products should be clearly labelled.

* Originally from Halifax Antiquarian Society journal, Transactions