When 56 year old, Robert Haworth, a tobacconist residing at a place called Church, near Accrington sadly passed away on Wednesday, 7th February 1906 – the fears of Dr. Fox and Dr. Greenhalgh as well as local government officials became all too real.
What was originally thought to be cases of isolated food poisoning that had struck the residents within a small catchment of Accrington at a place called Woodnook, it would quickly transpire that the numbers were much higher than originally thought and to the horror of the authorities and public alike, it wouldn’t just be Accrington that would be affected.
The first reported cases of ptomaine ‘food’ poisoning appeared in the Manchester Evening News on the 3rd of February when it appears a large number of sufferers had been medically treated in the town of Accrington, more specifically, the Woodnook district.
The Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Greenhalgh, had visited all those affected and it seemed they all had one thing in common. Upon investigating further, all those who had become ill had consumed locally bought tinned ‘potted meat’, which in this case was pork. Being an affordable source of meat which was already precooked, it had a long shelf life, making it suitable as an emergency food supply should families struggle long term financially, as it can be bought and the stored for when needs must.
What at first seemed to be a straight forward case, Dr. Greenhalgh, having soon identified the cause of the wholesale poisoning to that of the potted meat, it didn’t take long for him to find the source of the supply.
However, many more people would soon become ill, with entire families suffering from the effects. In the family of James Annis there were four sufferers; the mother and three children and even the family cat which had been fed some of the meat suffered the same fate! All of them were suffering from distressing stomach pains which were accompanied by vomiting and diarrhea.
Mr. William Parkinson, a weaver living on Nuttall Street, Accrington, along with his four children and wife all suffered from the effects of ptomaine poisoning as did the Tapper family – with each complaining of great pain and severe sickness.
By Monday, 4th February, over 40 cases had been reported with several of them being severe, and whilst the source of the poisoning had been quickly identified, authorities had become worried just as to how many households still had the contaminated meat on their premises.
The effects of the poisoning varied, with some becoming ill within an hour or so of eating the meat; whilst in others a much longer time period had elapsed.
Meanwhile, investigations where still ongoing as to the origin of the contamination. Dr. Greenhalgh had managed to identify the store from which the meat had been purchased, and it appears it came from the Woodnook butchering branch of the Accrington and Church Co-Operative Society.
The meat, which was boiled down by the society themselves, and was placed inside tins for the distribution to several branches was quickly withdrawn by store manager, Mr. Holmes as well as the foreman of the butchering department.
Analysis of the meat would later reveal the presence of a germ, but the source of contamination could still not be found, and one theory was that it was already present in the tins before the potted meat was placed inside them and rumours soon circulated that it may have been perhaps, the washing liquid used to clean the tins that was the cause of the poisoning. However, this was never determined.
Professor Delepine, from the Manchester University, along with Dr. Greenhalgh visited the society’s premises and confirmed that the cause of poisoning was indeed a germ, and that the quality of meat and not the condition of the tins used to store the meat had been the route cause, with the pork being used being perfectly fresh prior to it being placed inside the tins.
By Saturday, 10th February, cases had multiplied and doctors had been called to patients in Nuttall Street, Clement Street, Royds Street and Napier Street as well as many others within the Woodnook district, but by now, people within the towns of Huncoat as well as Church had begun to fall ill.
As for poor Robert Haworth, he would be the only recorded case of death occurring from the poisoning.
The inquest into the death Mr. Haworth had taken place on Wednesday, 7th February. It was reported that Mr. Haworth, a tobacconist and newsagent of 11 Blackburn Road, had, along with other members of his family, eaten some potted meat. Around midnight he had begun to complain of pains in the stomach and began vomiting. Dr. Fox was called for and he would attend to him up until his death.
His youngest son, Robert, aged 14 years, also suffered in a similar manner but fortunately he managed to recover but interestingly, it seems that his wife as well as another son who had also eaten some of the food, suffered from no ill-effects!
By the 17th of February, no new cases had been reported and those that had been affected had begun to recover from their ordeal.
However, the whole affair had caused quite a sensation in the town, leaving a lot of people anxious, especially those who were in the habit of eating potted meat. Both children and adults had suffered immensely, as had cats and dogs from eating the scraps of meat that had been thrown to them on the floor.
Whilst the authorities could never guarantee it, it was hoped that by quickly removing the contaminated meat from the shelves, it had possibly saved the lives of others and had prevented much higher cases from occurring, but they didn’t know exactly how much of the tainted meat was still in circulation.
The ptomaine poisoning cases over in nearby Huncoat had meanwhile risen to just over twelve and it was eventually proven that the source was that as the same over in Accrington. Luckily, none of the cases developed into anything more than stomach pains, vomiting and diarrhea. Dr. Dean, medical officer for Burnley, after investigating the cases would later announce all those affected had made a full recovery.
On Saturday, 28th July 1906 – the Haslingden Gazette published an article where it was asked by Councilor Horrocks if the Clerk could write to the Accrington and Church Industrial Society, asking them if they could provide the Council with a copy of the report into the reported poisonings and if they had taken any steps to prevent any reoccurrences.
The Clerk replied, saying he had received a reply from Mr. Greenwood, secretary of the Co-operative Society, saying that only two copies of the report submitted by the public analyst had been prepared, one of which had been sent to the Co-operative Union and the other having been submitted to the borough authorities at Accrington where the Co-operative Society’s works were situated.
With regards to if any preventative measures had been put into place, the Clerk produced a letter stating that Mr. Reddish could reassure the Council that the Society were doing all they could in the matter and that the society were as anxious as any other person could possibly be.
Councillor Muirhead would seemingly go on to both criticize and praise the Society at the same time, asking; “Do you consider that satisfactory? Does it comply with the wishes of this Council? It seems a strange thing to me that six months after this incident has happened that we should have to approach the society for information of this kind.
“Details have appeared in the Press, the public analyst’s report has been published, and the society has settled the matter amicably by paying £464 13s to the sufferers, around £36,507 in todays value. I take it that we, as a Council, have been trying to admonish the society, but I think their attitude in the whole affair is worthy of the highest commendation.”
However, Councilor Horrocks asked; “Is our medical officer perfectly satisfied with the statement given by the Co-operative Society? He doesn’t know how it occurred yet; it may occur again for anything he knows. Do you think if it had been any other person we should have allowed the matter to drop? The society has notified the authorities in Accrington, but not the authorities in Church. So far as the Medical Officer is concerned, and he is the person most interested and ought to know how it occurred, the reason, and the why and wherefore of the case, he doesn’t know anything at all about it.”
The Clerk responded by saying; “They don’t refuse to furnish us with a copy of the report, but they haven’t a copy.”
Alas, it seems that no report would ever be made public, which, considering over 200 people would suffer from chronic food poisoning, it seems amazing that this story would, in a way, be seemingly brushed under the carpet. I’m not saying the Co-operative or Accrington Council never got to the bottom of where the contamination came from, but the lack of information anywhere does seem to indicate that after a long absence of further outbreaks and in such large numbers, this case would simply fade away, unforgotten but still very much lurking in the darkness.
Other individual ptomaine cases would be reported in the coming years, and whilst a few would make the newspapers, it was a common occurrence back in the early part of the 1900s for the lower classes to suffer from such cases.
Ellen Lightbown, 1909; Mary Pilling, 1911; James Rawcliffe, 1911 and Selina Cavanagh, 1914, are just four prominent cases that were investigated by officials and who had all perished from ptomaine poisoning.
Interestingly, a report appeared in the Haslingden Gazette on Saturday, 9th March 1912 where it was reported that many claims had been made against the Accrington and Church Co-operative Society in regards to food poisoning with many instances of blackmail cropping up from time to time. To try and defend itself, the society tried to warn all its members, saying it was imperative that they take advantage of the Federation Insurance Scheme, which was around £1 per year.
Was the Co-operative Society trying to cover its own back, worried that another outbreak of ptomaine, just like the one that took place back in February 1906, could possibly make a return?
Sources used in this story;
Haslingden Gazette – Saturday 07 July 1906
Burnley Gazette – Saturday 10 February 1906
Preston Herald – Saturday 10 February 1906
Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser – Friday 09 February 1906
Lichfield Mercury – Friday 09 February 1906
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