Rural History

Research Article

The Pure Beer Campaign and Arsenic Poisoning, 1896–1903

Jim Phillipsa1 and Michael Frencha2

a1 Department of Economic and Social History, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK.

a2 Department of Economic and Social History, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK.

In the 1880s English farmers and their political representatives began a long campaign for tighter control of beer ingredients. The chief aim of the campaign, which continued intermittently until the 1920s, was to increase demand for English barley and hops. The proposed measures were variously introduced in Parliament by farming MPs as ‘Beer’, ‘Pure Beer’, and even ‘British Beer’ Bills; each sought to limit, or in some cases prohibit, the use of sugar, rice and all other ‘substitutes’ for barley and hops. These proposals were given a serious hearing only twice, in 1896 and 1901, the latter following an epidemic of arsenic poisoning, traced to contaminated brewing sugar, which had killed at least seventy beer drinkers in northern and central England. Farmers exploited this crisis by introducing a Pure Beer Bill that was only withdrawn after the government had appointed a Royal Commission, chaired by Lord Kelvin, to study beer materials and the wider question of arsenical contamination of foods. To the relief of the brewers' national organisation, the Country Brewers' Society, Kelvin exonerated the trade generally and did not recommend statutory control of brewing ingredients.