Sweets Poisoned with Antimony: Kendal 1878

I was fascinated to read about the poisoned Bath buns, described by Michelle Higgs in the recent  British Newspaper Archive blog.


It reminded me of a case from Kendal that was similarly shocking. At the horse fair in November 1878, ‘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. The girls were retching for at least an hour, the youngest falling unconscious for forty minutes, but all three made a full recovery within hours.

I have not been able to find any press reports (other than from the Lancet) of this poisoning case. Accidental poisoning was not an unusual occurrence, so did not merit much attention in the newspapers. Shortly before the fair, the local press reported a ‘strange case of poisoning’ at a Kendal lodging-house. Two lodgers had made some soup using some oatmeal they had found in the house. More than fourteen residents fell seriously ill, for the oatmeal was contaminated with rat poison.  Even this case only merited one short report.[1]

In the case of the lozenges, the local doctor suspected metal poisoning and took the remaining sweets to David Page, the Medical Officer of Health for the county of Westmorland. He was able to prove that they contained an oxide of antimony, a deadly heavy metal. Page wrote the article in the Lancet which detailed how he proved the composition of the lozenges.[2]

Lancet article

He said in his article 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.[3] Page surmised that the poison had been added accidentally. His article mainly presented the chemical techniques by which he had established the composition, and only mentioned that the sweets had been bought from ‘an itinerant vendor of confectionary’ of the type that was commonplace at nineteenth century fairs.

Where this Kendal case is quite different from the poisoned buns of Bristol is in the reporting and in the subsequent action by the authorities. There was no apparent action to find the person responsible. In the Bristol case, the case was brought before the magistrates, but it was clearly a private action, for the report in the Western Daily Press said that it came before the Bench ‘directly after the disposal of the regular police business.’ The victims in the Bristol case were boys, ‘six young gentlemen’,  at a boarding school and a publican. The families of the Kendal victims, and those poisoned in the lodging house, may not have had the resources to bring a case.


[1] Lancaster Gazette 6 Nov 1878 p6

[2] David Page, M.D., F.I.C.  ‘On a remarkable instance of poisoning by means of lozenges containing antimony’  The Lancet, V. 113, Iss. 2907, 17 May 1879, p699 (Originally published as V. 1, Iss. 2907 ) There was something of a ‘poison panic’ mid-century, with several articles appearinging the Lancet. See Judith Flanders,The Invention of Murder, Pp182-3, 230-47, 267.

[3] Barceloux, D.G., 2012, Medical Toxicology of Natural Substances: Foods, Fungi, Medicinal herbs. (Wiley)

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  1. Pingback: “Death from Eating Poisoning Mushrooms” | Victorian Domestic Dangers

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