Cartoon skeleton
Punch, November 1858

The 1858 Bradford sweets poisoning caused the death of twenty-one people in Bradford, England, when sweets accidentally made with arsenic were sold from a market stall; more than two hundred people were affected in total.[1]

Substituting the expensive ingredients of foodstuffs with cheaper alternatives such as gypsum was common at the time, and unregulated. The events in Bradford contributed to the passage of the Pharmacy Act 1868, and legislation to regulate the adulteration of foodstuffs.[2]


William Hardaker, known to locals as “Humbug Billy”, sold sweets from a stall in the Greenmarket in central Bradford (now the site of Bradford’s Arndale Centre).[3][4] 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 sugar and gum.[2] However, sugar was expensive (6½d per 1 lb (0.45 kg)) and so Neal would substitute powdered gypsum (½d per 1 lb (0.45 kg)) – known as “daff” – for some of the required sugar.[4][5][6] The adulteration of foodstuffs with cheaper substances was common at the time, and the adulterators used obscure nicknames (“daff”, “multum”, “flash”, “stuff”) to hide the practice.[7][8]

Accidental poisoning

Pan containing a white powder
Wikimedia Commons

On the occasion in question, Neal sent James Archer, a lodger who lived at his house, to collect daff for Hardaker’s humbugs from druggist Charles Hodgson. Hodgson’s pharmacy was 3 miles (4.8 km) away at Baildon Bridge in Shipley.[9] Hodgson was at his pharmacy, but did not serve Archer owing to illness and so his requests were seen to by his young assistant, William Goddard.[2][10] Goddard asked Hodgson where the daff was, and was told that it was in a cask in a corner of the attic.[8] However, rather than daff, Goddard sold Archer 12 lbs (5.4 kg) of arsenic trioxide.[4]

The mistake remained undetected even during manufacture of the sweets by James Appleton, an “experienced sweetmaker”[2] employed by Neal, though Appleton did observe that the finished product looked different from the usual humbugs. Appleton was unwell during the sweet-making process, and was ill for several days afterwards with vomiting and pain in his hands and arms, but did not realise it was caused by poison.[11] Hardaker bought 40 lbs  (18 kg) of the lozenges; he noticed that the sweets looked unusual, which he used to negotiate a discount from Neal. Like Appleton, Hardaker, also promptly became ill after tasting the sweets.

Hardaker sold 5 lbs (2.3 kg) of the sweets from his market stall that night – reportedly at a price of 1½d for 2 ozs (57 g).[2] Twenty-one of those who ate the sweets died, and a further 200 became severely ill within a day or so.


The first deaths – those of two children – were initially attributed 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.[12] Goddard was arrested and stood before magistrates in the court house in Bradford on 1 November; Hodgson and Neal were subsequently committed for trial with Goddard on a charge of manslaughter.[13] Dr John Bell identified arsenic as the cause, which was confirmed by Felix Rimmington, a prominent chemist and druggist and analytical chemist.[2] Rimmington estimated that each humbug contained between 14 and 15 grains (910 and 970 milligrams) of arsenic, although a contemporary account suggests 9 grains (580 milligrams); half of that amount is a lethal dose.[13] Each lozenge therefore contained enough arsenic to kill two people, and enough was distributed by Hardaker to kill 2000. The prosecution against Goddard and Neal was withdrawn, and Hodgson was acquitted when the case was considered at York Assizes on 21 December 1858.

The resulting public outcry was a major factor contributing to the introduction The Pharmacy Act 1868 which recognised the chemist and druggist as the custodian and seller of named poisons (as medicine was then formally known).[a]The requirement for record keeping and obtaining the signature of the purchaser of “non-medicinal” poisons remains one of the provisions of the Poisons Act 1972. W. E. Gladstone’s ministry of 1868–1874 also brought in legislation regulating the adulteration of foodstuffs.


a The requirement for record keeping and obtaining the signature of the purchaser of “non-medicinal” poisons remains one of the provisions of the Poisons Act 1972.