I watched a program on BBC Television last night which tried to recreate a Victorian High Street. Following on from yesterday’s post it was a reminder of how completely unregulated the dispensation of food used to be – and not unregulated in a wholesome way either. Food was quite happily adulterated without much regard for, or perhaps knowledge of the consequences. There were apparently cases of mercury being added to sugar coatings to colour them bright red and similar use of arsenic. It was only in the 1870s that legislators became wise to these practices and put a stop to it.
The boundary between chemists and grocers was not always clearly drawn in the early 19th century. Joshua Harris, who had a grocery on Bury Street, was also a druggist and a member of The Pharmaceutical Association – so he clearly took this aspect of his activities seriously. His successor, John Lepper, who later moved to the Stratford Road was also a druggist. The dispensation of drugs and potions was always under control of grocers in the Middle Ages. In the 15th century more specialized apothecaries emerged and by the 16th century had established their own guild. In smaller communities, such as Wolverton was in the 1840s, the roles were still combined in the 1840s.
This meant that grocers had a ready supply of chemicals on hand. Potassium Permanganate, Alum, Sodium Bicarbonate, Ammonia, Caustic Soda, and various dyeing chemicals all had household uses and would be part of the regular stock. Neither the use nor dispensation were regulated. The situation largely prevailed when I was a boy.