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1858 Bradford sweets poisoning

The 1858 Bradford sweets poisoning was the accidental arsenic poisoning of more than 200 people in Bradford, England, in 1858; an estimated 20 people died when sweets accidentally made with arsenic were sold from a market stall. The event contributed to the passage of the Pharmacy Act 1868 in the United Kingdom and legislation regulating the adulteration of foodstuffs.[1]


William Hardaker, known to locals as "Humbug Billy", sold sweets from a stall in the Green Market in central Bradford (now the site of Bradford's Arndale Centre, then named Kirkgate Market). Hardaker purchased his supplies from Joseph Neal, who made the sweets (or "lozenges") on Stone Street a few hundred yards to the north. The lozenges in question were peppermint humbugs, made of peppermint oil incorporated into a base of – in theory – sugar and gum.[1] However, sugar was expensive and so Neal would substitute a cheaper, inert substance known as "daft" for the sugar. The adulteration of foodstuffs with "daft" was common practice at the time. Ian Jones reports that "the precise identity of 'daft' was variable: plaster of Paris, powdered limestone, and sulphate of lime had been reported."[1]

Accidental poisoning

On the occasion in question, Neal sent the lodger who lived at his house – James Archer – to collect daft for Hardaker's humbugs from druggist Charles Hodgson, whose pharmacy was located at Baildon Bridge in Shipley. Hodgson was at his pharmacy, but did not serve Archer owing to illness and so his requests were seen to by William Goddard. He went to Hodgson as he was unclear on where the "daft" was to be found, and was told that it was in a cask in one corner of the cellar.[2] However, rather than "daft", Goddard sold Archer 12 pounds of arsenic trioxide.[2]

The mistake remained undetected even during manufacture of the sweets by James Appleton, an "experienced sweetmaker"[1] employed by Neal, though Appleton did observe that the finished product looked different from the usual humbugs; reportedly, he was suffering symptoms of illness during the sweet-making process. Reportedly, Appleton mixed the 12 lb of arsenic with 40 lb of sugar and 4 lb of gum to make the sweets. Forty pounds of lozenges were sold to Hardaker[2] who also noticed the sweets looked unusual and used this to obtain a discount from Neal. Like Appleton, Hardaker, as one of the first to taste the sweets, also promptly became ill.

Regardless, Hardaker sold 5 lb of the sweets from his market stall that night[2] – reportedly at a price of three halfpence for two ounces.[1] Of those who purchased and ate the sweets, around 20 people died with a further 200 or so becoming severely ill with arsenic poisoning within a day or so.


Originally the first deaths – those of two children – were thought to be owing to cholera, a major problem in Britain at the time; but the growing number of casualties soon showed that the purchase of lozenges from Hardaker's stall was the cause, and from there the trail led to Neal and Hodgson. Goddard was arrested and stood before magistrates in the court house in Bradford on 1 November with Hodgson and Neal later committed for trial with Goddard on a charge of manslaughter. Dr John Bell identified arsenic as the cause, and this was confirmed by Felix Rimmington, a prominent chemist and druggist and analytical chemist.[1] Rimmington estimated that each humbug contained between 11 and 16 grains (0.713 and 1.037 grams) of arsenic, though a contemporary account suggests 9 grains (0.5831 grams), with 4.5 grains (0.292 grams) being a lethal dose. As such, each lozenge would have contained enough arsenic to kill two people, and enough distributed by Hardaker in total to kill 2,000.[2] The prosecution against Goddard and Neal was later withdrawn and Hodgson was acquitted when the case was considered at York Assizes on 21 December 1858.

The tragedy and resulting public outcry was a major contributing factor to The Pharmacy Act 1868 which recognized the chemist and druggist as the custodian and seller of named poisons (as medicine was then formally known). The requirement for record keeping and the requirement to obtain the signature of the purchaser is currently upheld under the Poisons Act 1972 for "non-medicinal" poisons. W. E. Gladstone's ministry of 1868–1874 also brought in legislation regulating the adulteration of foodstuffs as a result of the events.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Ian F. Jones, Arsenic and the Bradford poisonings of 1858
  2. ^ a b c d e Contemporary newspaper report, presumably from The Bradford Observer (now The Bradford Telegrapgh and Argus), 1958. Retrieved from here, retrieved 18 February 2007


  • Holloway, S. W. F. (1991). Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain 1841–1991. A Political and Social History. London: Pharmaceutical Press. pp. 221–230. ISBN 0853692440. 
  • Jones, Ian F. (2000). "Arsenic and the Bradford poisonings of 1858". The Pharmaceutical Journal 265 (7128): 938–993. 
  • Sheeran, G. (1992). The Bradford Poisoning of 1858. Halifax: Ryburn. ISBN 1853310336. 
  • "Wholesale poisoning by arsenic at Bradford". Pharm J 18: 340–43. 1858. 

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