DISCLAIMER: If you are a “cat person,” certain passages regarding the effects of poisonous seed steeps on animals are best avoided. The Victorian poetry at the end of this post is also awful.
I decided to write the following in light of the upcoming “Environment(s) in Public?” workshop at the University of East Anglia on November 3rd (http://scienceinpublic.org/environments/), where I will be diving headlong into the extent and complexities of chemical use on nineteenth-century farms. At the 2014 BSHS postgraduate conference I discussed a particular angle of chemically-based pest controls, namely their impact on game birds such as partridges from 1843-1848. This historical controversy highlighted not only the relationship between humankind and the natural world in the nineteenth century, but the relations between various social classes and occupations. Using attitudes to nature as a mirror in which to observe human societies is an old trick (crossing numerous disciplines), but has perhaps persisted thus far because of its functionality.
Partridge from Morris’s British Game Birds and Wildfowl (1855). Morris repeated concerns surrounding the use of poisonous seed steeps and the consumption of those same seeds by birds.
In 1843 the Northern Whig newspaper noted that the partridge population in Ireland had suffered a steep decline. An article on the subject attributed this to the use of blue vitriol (copper sulphate), a toxic chemical used to prevent smut (a fungal disease) in wheat. Similar concerns were soon raised in England. The sporting guide of Peter Hawker (1844) also linked a decline in the number of partridges to farmer’s use of copper sulphate.
Widespread awareness of the problem kicked off in 1848, following the publication of an article in The Lancet which declared that partridges poisoned by seed steeps could constitute a public health hazard, if such birds ever entered the food supply through nefarious means. The author was Doctor Henry William Fuller of St George’s Hospital, who had been presented with ten dead partridges killed by mysterious means. In true Victorian fashion, Fuller tested his initial poison-based hypothesis by feeding one of the birds to his cat. Although the unfortunate pet survived, judging by Fuller’s description of vomiting and convulsions, it may well have wished it hadn’t. Later, chemical testing revealed that both the cat and birds have suffered from arsenic poisoning, arsenic-based solutions being another popular seed steep in the agricultural sector.
Skylarks from J. Lewis Bonhote’s Birds of Britain (London, 1907): 168. These birds became a gourmet food in the London market at the same time that arsenic was being used to deter them from eating grain. See Ian G. Simmons, An Environmental History of Great Britain: From 10,000 Years Ago to the Present (Edinburgh, 2001): 155.
I will be going into the full details in my talk (a summary of which will be posted here), but suffice to say that Fuller’s revelations created a Victorian media storm in the winter of 1848. However, concern, outrage and newspaper columns ultimately did little to alter the situation. Seed steeps were too valuable a tool in the ongoing battle to maintain agricultural yields against a barrage of pests and disease. The first paper submitted to the Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England came from landowner and editor Philip Pusey (1840), describing the poor state of agricultural science in England and the need to control crop losses from disease. The use of arsenic was not only confined to the the agricultural sector, but also appeared in domestic gardens to combat birds.
It was out of this usage that arsenic-laced wheat would claim another victim in 1863. In a letter to the Essex Standard, a correspondent described the sorry state of affairs surrounding the demise of a Colchester cat. Inhabitants of the town were recorded as being in the habit of laying out poisoned wheat in their gardens to kill small birds – quite the reverse of how many gardeners act today. A local cat, described as the “gayest and merriest of her species” ate the deceased birds and died after three days of “intense suffering.” The letter concluded with a heartfelt (if excruciatingly bad) poem:
With kind and sorrowing hand I dug her grave;
And when I placed her in it, sighing said
I knew at least one Puss that had a friend.
“Causes of the Scarcity of Partridges in Ireland.” Northern Whig (Belfast, Ireland) Saturday, October 28, 1843, in William Thompson, The Natural History of Ireland, Vol. 2. (London, 1849).
Fuller, Henry W., “On the Use of the Arsenic in Agriculture-Poisoning by Arsenic, and Symptoms of Cholera-The Possible Effect of the Game Laws” The Lancet 2 (1848): 648-649.
Hawker, Peter, Instructions to Young Sportsmen in All that Relates to Guns and Shooting, 9th ed. (London, 1844).
Morris, Beverley R., British Game Birds and Wildfowl (London, 1855).
Shrubb, Michael, Birds, Scythes and Combines: A History of Birds and Agricultural Change (Cambridge, 2003).
Thompson, William, The Natural History of Ireland, Vol. 2. (London: 1849).