Hidden Killers Of The Victorian Home (2013) Movie Script

The Victorian home was a place
of sanctuary from the outside world,
especially in the cities where
dirt and disease hung in the air
and danger stalked the streets.
And thanks to advances in science, a
whole host of products and services
were promising to make life at home
cheaper, easier and more convenient.
But they were also making life
much more dangerous.
For under the guise of
family-friendly products,
mass consumption
was bringing killers
into the very heart
of the Victorian home.
With the aid of modern science,
I'll seek out the deadly assassins
that hid on every floor.
Leaning too close to the fire and,
"Boof!", they burst into flames!
I'll be revealing what
the Victorians couldn't see
inside their homes...
Five grams is sufficient
to potentially kill a small child.
..and showing the terrible injuries
that were inflicted
in the name of progress.
That could completely remove
the skin from the hand and the arm.
Welcome back to the perilous world
of the real Victorian home.
Between 1800 and 1900
the urban population in Britain
increased tenfold.
London became the biggest industrial
city in the Western world.
City dwellers in houses like this
were creating
an unprecedented demand
for mod cons as well as
life's necessities.
They were becoming mass consumers
at the end of a production line.
Supplying the household
with the basic foods
in the newly-expanded cities
of up to 3 million people
was a strategic challenge.
But thankfully,
by the late 19th century,
the staples of bread and milk
had become cheaply available.
To cater for the new demands,
the Victorians pioneered
new food-processing techniques.
This left the consumer at the mercy
of the unscrupulous merchants
responsible for each part
of the food chain.
One thing that the Victorians
loved above all was profit
and the way to make profit,
of course,
is to use the cheapest ingredients
and charge a high price for them,
so adulteration became very popular
throughout the Victorian period.
Some merchants would substitute real
ingredients with cheap alternatives
that would add weight
and increase profit margins.
Food adulteration
had always gone on,
but the new manufacturing process
meant it was now big business.
The food shops themselves
change as well
so you used to have a system
whereby for example, with bread,
the miller was the same as the baker,
was the same as the retailer.
Now the miller mills the flour,
passes it to the baker,
the baker bakes
and the retailer sells.
So you've got divorcing
all the way along the chain.
That de-personalises the food chain.
People don't have the personal
relationship with their customers,
therefore they think
they can get away with it.
Anything that is made, manufactured,
or passes through the hands
of somebody who can adulterate it,
by the mid-Victorian period, the
chances are it will be adulterated.
These additions were astounding -
chalk, iron sulphate
and even plaster of Paris.
But for many, buying processed foods
released them
from the drudgery of baking,
was time-saving
and, above all, was affordable.
Bread was particularly
susceptible to tampering
as many things could be
disguised in it.
The biggest adulterant
at the time was alum
and that's been used
since the 18th century.
It's a whitener.
What it does is it enables you
to take seconds or middlings
or the lower grades of flour
and make them look whiter.
Alum is an aluminium-based compound
often found today in detergent,
but when hidden in bread,
it not only makes it whiter
but retains water,
so the bread feels more substantial.
In theory, the amounts used
were quite small
and in theory they were not
particularly dangerous to health
but when you've got
both the miller adding alum
and then you've got the baker
adding alum as well,
then you start to build up
the dose to levels
where it really will
affect your bowel system.
Food Historian Annie Grey has
prepared three loaves for me,
to illustrate the choice I would
have had as a Victorian housewife.
Whilst one loaf is pure, two of them
have plaster of Paris,
alum and other undesirables
added to them.
And which is which?
Well, you're the Victorian housewife,
so I would say, you're in the baker's
and you're presented with these
loaves, which one would you pick?
Well, they all look very attractive,
which is slightly worrying.
It's really quite dense, though,
isn't it, it's quite heavy.
Listen to that!
This one's still quite dense,
but again looks nice...
And smells really
like rubber or something.
Very odd.
That smells fine.
This is lighter.
Smells more like bread
that I'm familiar with.
So my guess is that
this one is fine?
Yes, it is, although it's interesting
the way that perception plays a role.
Part of the reason that you're
preferring that one, I suspect,
is because we are predisposed now
to like granary breads
and things that look healthy,
whereas with your Victorian hat on,
you should be looking for the bread
that is whitest
and therefore will impress
your dinner guests.
So I would probably be looking
not to go for something wholemeal
that looks healthy today,
but for something like this. Yes.
In the Victorian period people
really want white bread.
The current obsession
with wholemeal, granary,
beautiful artisanal loaves, nothing.
You want white bread.
So alum is the whitener
that's put in.
Which is which, in terms of
these two? Which is the one...
What's got what?
This one is the alum-based one,
and this one is the one with
plaster of Paris and bean flour.
From a baker's point of view, this
one's brilliant because a third
of the dry solids in this
are not pure flour,
so you're making a reasonable saving
on even the sort of low grade flour
that you're using.
But this housewife's choice had
dire consequences for the consumer.
If you were a worker eating
two pounds of bread a day
and not much else, when you consider
that a third of what you're eating
just won't benefit you at all, you
can see why chronic malnutrition
is such an issue, and when
your adulterants are things like
plaster of Paris and alum, you can
also see why chronic gastritis
is a problem
in late Victorian England.
If you're in a workhouse
and you're a three-year-old,
you're going to start off
with constipation.
You're then going to have
irregular bowel movements,
and that will lead to diarrhoea.
And if you are a three-year-old
in a workhouse,
and you have got chronic diarrhoea,
then that will lead to death.
Another reason for adulteration was
a desire to make food
more attractive and appealing.
Colour was a key component.
And so there were
things like colourants.
You might have something
like lead chromate,
which is a very vivid yellow colour.
In fact, it's the yellow
that's used in the paint
of American school buses.
It's that really bright yellow.
And that was put in things like
to give it an authentic
mustard colour
without having to actually include
too much of the real ingredient,
which is expensive.
Tea is adulterated with everything
from iron filings, to dust,
to used tea leaves, then black lead
to make it look black.
Green tea has Prussian blue in it.
I mean, they're pretty lethal.
Sir Arthur Hill Hassall,
a London-based physician,
identified adulteration
in 2,500 products
and published his results
in the Lancet.
This led to the first wave
of legislation in 1868.
The food adulteration laws
were not very strong
when they were initially put in,
and they were not particularly
effective either.
People simply continued
because it was very difficult
to police,
it was very difficult to prove.
And even after it is known about,
even after Ackham and Hassall
start to publicise food adulteration,
people just simply don't know what
adulterated food looks like
versus non-adulterated food.
So you might know that your bread is
probably adulterated,
but either you don't have a choice
or you just assume blithely
that it happens to other people.
Bread adulteration might ultimately
kill you
because of malnutrition,
but there was a greater,
more immediate danger that was
part of every child's diet.
For the Victorians, milk was a cheap
and important source of calcium.
A healthy food, it was thought.
However, in 1882,
20,000 milk samples were tested
and revealed that one-fifth
had been adulterated.
A clue as to what was going on
came from the domestic goddess
of her day, Mrs Beeton.
The Victorians sought advice
on all manner of things,
and when it came to food,
Mrs Beeton was their guru.
According to the 1888 edition of
her Book Of Household Management,
"Milk", she said,
"could be purified by preparations
"of which the principal constituent
is boracic acid,"
and she adds, "It is said that most
of the milk that comes to London
"is treated in this way."
She concludes,
"Fortunately for the consumer,
"it is a quite harmless addition."
But was it as harmless
as Mrs Beeton believed?
Microbiologist Matthew Avison
has devised an experiment
that tests Mrs Beeton's advice.
Boracic acid was a component
of a product called borax,
an alkali which was used
during the Victorian period
to prolong the life of milk.
This milk doesn't taste very nice,
so you would throw it away.
The Victorians would say, "That's
a waste, so let's do something to it
"that removes the sour taste",
and what they would have done
is added alkalis.
When fresh, milk has a neutral
pH measurement of around seven,
but over time, as it sours or spoils
and becomes contaminated
with bacteria,
it becomes more acidic
and its pH measurement drops.
So the Victorians worked out,
probably by trial and error,
that if you add alkali to this,
it would neutralise the acid
and I've calculated that that will
neutralise the acid in this milk,
so just give it a bit of a shake
and then we'll show, hopefully,
that it gives a pH closer to neutral.
So you can see this has gone back to
6.6, which is approximately neutral.
It's neutralised the acid, it's now
made this milk palatable again.
This new wonder alkali,
sold in the shops as borax,
was so popular it became
a staple of the Victorian larder.
But alarmingly, borax wasn't
only used to treat milk -
it was also marketed
as a wonderfully versatile product,
as I found when I read
the journals of the time.
I'm just looking at these ads
and there's a sketch from 1893
and there's this absolutely
extraordinary one-page ad -
"Californian Household Treasure."
It says, "It's absolutely pure
and absolutely safe.
"It possesses qualities
that are exceptional
"and unknown to any other substance
and it purifies water,
"destroys bacilli..."
It promises everything.
In fact, borax promised too much -
as well as "purifying" milk,
it was brilliant at cleaning
your bath and your loo.
So what happened when borax
ended up in the body?
borax, or sodium borate,
if inhaled or ingested,
can cause severe irritation.
So if it's swallowed, it can cause
abdominal pain, nausea,
vomiting, diarrhoea.
If you have a large amount of it,
it will start to affect
other organs,
like the brain and the kidneys.
And if you have enough,
it can prove fatal.
But just how much borax is harmful?
I've added a small amount of borax
to neutralise the acid in this milk,
but of course, if you had a pint
of milk you'd need more borax,
so I calculated that you need
this much borax to neutralise
a pint of milk that has gone sour.
This is five grams
and, according to some people,
five grams is sufficient
to potentially kill a small child.
So the addition of borax was not
as harmless as Mrs Beeton suggested.
Enough of it could kill.
But by reducing the acid
in the spoiled milk
and disguising the sour taste,
borax was concealing
another deadly threat.
The real problem is, it doesn't
get rid of the bacteria,
the underlying cause of the acid,
and those bacteria could
still kill people.
Bacteria like brucella,
which causes undulating fever,
it's a nasty fever that can
go on for weeks at a time,
that's not particularly lethal,
but what would be lethal would be TB.
The bovine TB bacterium
is present in cow's milk
and this is what was able
to flourish undetected in the milk
with devastating effects.
Bovine TB, it's not the same TB that
would cause the coughing symptoms
that we associate with TB,
but what's called non-pulmonary TB,
which spreads out
into the extremities,
includes damage to internal organs,
damage to the bones, and particularly
problematic in children.
What other effects could
drinking milk contaminated
with the bovine TB bacterium have?
Bovine TB could also cause damage
to the bones in the spine.
For example,
it could cause an abscess
in the bones of the spinal column
which would soften the bone,
which would then collapse
to form a wedge shape.
And if several of these vertebrae
collapsed at once,
it could cause
massive deformity of the spine.
This woman was actually particularly
lucky because her TB damaged
only the bones of the spine
and not the spinal cord itself.
If the abscess had tracked and burst
backwards into the spinal column,
it would have compressed the spinal
cord and caused paralysis at best
or death at worst.
Effectively, purifying this according
to the standards of Mrs Beeton
is like removing the bio-hazard tape
and now, it's basically pot luck
as to whether we have something that
is contaminated and could kill us
or something that is not contaminated
and is safe to drink.
Adding borax to milk allowed bovine
TB bacteria to grow undetected,
exposing a generation
to a lethal infectious disease.
It's estimated that virtually
all children were exposed to
Bovine TB at some time during
their upbringing, and it's known
that many of those children
succumbed to that infection.
So you're saying that
hundreds of thousands of people,
mostly perhaps children,
died as a result of that?
There are many studies, one of which
was a series of post mortems
done in London in the 1890s,
and they did postmortems
on 1,300 children who had died.
30% of those children had died as
a result of TB - non-pulmonary TB...
Almost certainly that came from milk.
If we extrapolate that up,
it's considered likely
that half a million children
died of TB from milk
during the Victorian era.
Despite these horrendous deaths,
the purification of milk with alkali
was not banned by legislation
in the Victorian period.
And the problem of
adulterated food continued,
until gradually, consumer pressure
led manufacturers
to advertise their wares as
"pure" and "unadulterated".
The next hidden killer lies
not in the room,
but between the levels
of the Victorian house.
The dangers weren't just the result
of products introduced
into the home,
they were built into the very fabric
of the new Victorian houses.
One of the most common death traps
was right under their feet.
Stairs have always been dangerous.
Even with today's
building regulations,
at least 300,000 accidents occur
every year in the UK.
But in Victorian times
it was even worse.
There's numerous accounts of people
falling down staircases
and breaking their necks
or breaking their legs
and dying later of septicaemia.
Why were there so many deaths
and injuries from stairs?
The finger points to
the urban population boom.
The number of Victorians
per square mile
increased from 390 in 1871
to 558 by 1901.
Houses were thrown up
and packed into smaller plots
with little concern about
regulation or standardisation.
The problem was is the way
that the house styles changed.
Houses become very much more narrow.
So what you've got is
very high ceilings, 10-11 feet,
with a very narrow frontage.
It's a straightforward
geometrical problem
because if you've got 11 foot
and only a very short space
to get into it,
the staircase has to be steep.
In middle-class homes, the stairs
that were most likely to be
cheaply constructed, to be
the steepest and the narrowest,
were those that led
to the servant quarters.
Upstairs/downstairs came
from the difference in staircases
from the decorated staircase
which was the main one
in the house which was there
as a show of wealth.
It was a...
It was a statement to say, "Look,
this is how much money I've got."
As you came through the front door,
there's these wonderful double
bullnose stairs, highly decorated
with spindles and volutes
and balustrades and goosenecks.
You had people spending
thousands and thousands
and thousands of pounds
on these staircases.
And then the downstairs staircase
was for the servants.
It was built out of the cheapest soft
wood that you could possibly buy.
You'd be lucky if there was
handrails and spindles.
Rises of nine, ten, 12 inches.
Safety really wasn't high
on the agenda.
Tragic really,
because by 1847, visionary builder
Peter Nicholson had calculated
how to build a safer staircase,
transforming the art
of stair-building into a science.
He came up with a mathematical
formula for working out
the rise and go of a staircase.
He worked out that
if you went up a certain height,
you could travel a certain distance
with great ease
and he developed
a formula around that.
Nicholson's formula considered how
someone could take a normal stride
yet still allow them to rise
six to eight inches with every step.
Until you get those factors right
then the stairs is always
going to be a dangerous place.
There is a science to stair building
but in the rush to throw up houses,
it was a science that was
often overlooked
in the late Victorian period.
I've come to Manchester
Metropolitan University
to see what modern science
can tell us
about the dangers
of the Victorian stairs.
I've been wired up to
a motion-capture device which will
track every step I take to find out
how my body adapts to the stairs.
Professor Costas Manganaris...
OK, I'm just going to clip you
into the harness.
..and Professor Neil Reeves are
experts in biomedical research
and are going to demonstrate
two staircases.
We'd like you to go
to the top of the staircase,
stand facing this way
and just walk down
at your own comfortable speed
as you would normally.
This first staircase has been set
to dimensions similar to
a main Victorian staircase,
following Nicholson's principles.
The going, or width, of each step
has been set to 11 inches
and the height, the rise,
to 12 and a half inches.
Well, apart from all the get-up,
it felt pretty easy
coming down those stairs.
I'd be happy running up and down
those, no problems at all.
Now they set the stairs
as they might have been
in the servants' quarters.
This definitely breaks
Nicholson's formula.
With the going narrower
and a steeper rise.
Can you walk down
as you would normally?
Predictably, this is not comfortable
at all.
In fact I'm really having
to slow down,
change the way I take
each step and hold the handrail.
Imagine if I had to carry
a tray or the linen,
and couldn't see where my foot fell
because of a long skirt.
If we measure your foot,
this is about 26 centimetres,
which is much larger than the 17.5
centimetres room you had.
I had to turn it sideways.
You had to turn your foot sideways.
Well, otherwise...
Otherwise, what will happen is
an important part of the foot
will come out of the edge
and then you would have an increased
likelihood of encountering a slip.
Yes, yes, and I have
fallen down the stairs before
so I was very conscious of
not wanting to do it. Absolutely.
From the data input,
the scientists reveal
that on the servants' staircase,
we are six times more likely to fall
than on the grand one.
It may seem obvious that a steeper
staircase would be more dangerous,
but there was another
hidden danger -
many Victorian homes were built
with non-uniform steps.
This video of a New York subway
stairs illustrates what happens when
one stair out of 16 is a fraction
of an inch higher than the others.
Professor Jake Pauls,
a specialist in stair safety,
studied the stairs
and worked out that this tiny change
has a dramatic impact on the misstep
and fall incidents that is not
equated to any other stair defect.
In other words,
you're more likely to fall
if the stair is not uniform
than for any other reason.
What is it about that video?
What does it tell us?
Well, I think what it tells us
is that people get used to
a very regular stair pattern
very quickly, so after a few steps.
And if, all of a sudden,
there's a step that's very different,
it poses a difficulty to people.
This is why it's more likely
for someone to have an accident
or slip on that irregular step.
If you had given me
two that were the bigger ones
and then a smaller one, I almost
certainly would have fallen down.
Exactly. Thank you
for not doing that!
By disregarding Nicholson's formula,
the Victorians' new staircases,
installed in many of these
narrower houses, had unwittingly
combined high rises, narrow goings
and uneven steps to create
a grave hazard for the servants.
With the extra weight
of carrying trays and food,
there's no way they could get up
and down those stairs in one piece.
Total death traps.
Absolute death traps.
Stairs remain one of the most
common sources of accident
and death in the home.
To understand our next
set of dangers,
we need to appreciate
one of the major preoccupations
of our Victorian forbears.
It was at this time that cleanliness
was becoming powerfully linked
to ideas of morality
and respectability
and this was reflected
in the literature of the period.
Charles Kingsley's novel
The Water Babies epitomises it
because it suggests you can take
a dirty boy off the street
and transform him
into a model gentleman,
through the cleansing power
of water.
It sums it up in the last lines.
They say,
"Meanwhile do you learn your lessons
and thank God that you have plenty
"of cold water to wash in - and wash
in it too, like a true Englishman?"
The Victorians were totally and
utterly obsessed with being clean.
For them, the idea of cleanliness
was truly next to godliness.
They were setting themselves
against the 18th century,
which was a time of dirt,
a time when the upper classes,
that perfume was used
to disguise dirt.
The Victorians believed
that a clean heart, a clean body,
meant a clean soul.
It was this desire for cleanliness
that would lead the Victorians
to embrace a whole new range
of potentially deadly innovations
and products.
One of the rooms that
the Victorians can claim
to have invented is the bathroom.
And what surer sign of progress
than a private room
in which to carry out
one's ablutions?
The bathroom really appears
because running water comes
into the home for the first time.
So if you can actually
bring water into the home,
it becomes more practical to have
a room dedicated to its use.
Until the mid-Victorian period,
hot tubs for bathing had stood
next to the fire
in the front room or kitchen,
where water had to be warmed
and poured into them.
This means that servants no longer
have to be sort of traipsing
up and down the back stairs
carrying large amounts of water.
I think this is when the bathroom,
as we know it,
as a sort of separate, private,
lockable space,
away from the rest of the house,
really starts to take shape.
What the Victorians hated most of
all was the idea of bodily fluids,
the kind of smells they made,
the kind of traces they left.
They wanted to expunge them
entirely from the body,
so that no-one can smell
the traces of these fluids
that link you
to the working classes.
And what happened in this private,
lockable space could be
incredibly dangerous.
I've come to Blaise Castle
in Bristol
to meet curator
Catherine Littlejohns.
I want to get some idea
of the inventions available
to the Victorians who sought to meet
these new high standards
of cleanliness.
Oh, wow.
We're just going to look at some of
the baths in the collection.
I'm going to show you
one of my favourite things.
It's actually a gas-powered bath.
So if we have a look
at the underneath here,
you can see where
the gas went in the front here.
And then just around by you,
there's a little door, which is
where you would light the gas.
OK, so here you would put in
your lighted match or whatever.
Yes. Gosh, so that's actually
ridiculously dangerous, isn't it?
Doesn't it mean that you can
boil yourself in your bath?
You very probably could do.
The instructions, the guidance
always says.. They're very careful
to point out you don't want
to actually start turning the gas on
until you've got some water
in the bath
so you don't boil it dry.
They don't really make a mention
of making sure you don't
get into the bath
while the gas is on.
The desire to be clean
meant that the bath's popularity
outpaced any concern about
the dangers, which were significant.
The papers regularly reported
cases of scalding
so serious they resulted in death.
It wasn't until the invention
of the thermostat,
safer gas and its installation
that these risks would be addressed.
This new room,
with its cutting edge innovations,
would bring
even more killers into the home.
I think they were trying
to understand the dangers
of electricity and water and gas,
and all of these new services
coming into fairly small,
confined areas,
without really understanding
the dangers of how they actually
interact with each other.
What could be better
or more desirable
than having a loo that flushed?
But its introduction was not
without problem.
The first danger
lay in the plumbing.
Early plumbing in Victorian houses,
the sewer systems
didn't efficiently
drain away the waste.
Gases such as methane
and hydrogen sulphide
emanating from human waste
would not be able to escape
and would build up in the sewer.
Both of these gases
are not only flammable,
but they're also explosive.
What always used to happen was
the sewerage outlet
would get blocked
and somebody would have to go
and figure out how to clear it,
to get it to actually run away free.
At the time,
there wasn't electric batteries,
torches and stuff like that, so
the only way you could actually go
and investigate it was unfortunately
with a...a naked flame.
Not only could gas
collect in the sewer,
methane could actually leak back
into the house itself.
It was a quite common occurrence
for outlets of toilets
to spontaneously combust.
And that was really where the drive
towards improvements in draining
actually came from -
they needed to stop methane
getting back into the houses.
And it was one of Britain's most
famous inventors that helped
put a stop to this potential killer
with one small
but crucial component.
Thomas Crapper, even though
he gets a lot of good press
about inventing the toilet, he
actually invented the siphon valve,
which is actually a water trap
and a valve flap which actually
stops methane coming back into
the property, so it couldn't ignite.
It didn't stop the problems
down in the main sewers
but it stopped it actually affecting
the people who lived in the house.
Not only were Victorian bodies
subject to a new regime
of washing and scrubbing,
but what they put on them was too.
Wealthy Victorians -
both men and women -
could change their clothes
up to five times a day.
By the late Victorian period,
laundry had become a huge operation
because clothing was not simple.
There was an extensive amount
of clothing, even for a child,
and certainly for a woman.
She wore a lot of underclothing,
a lot of linen
and these had to be changed
The Victorian mistress had
a constant battle against
her greatest enemy, which was dirt.
The Victorian house could not escape
the pollution of the time.
In London, for instance,
the manure of
the 100,000 working horses,
the pervasive smog
and the smoky gas lamps in the home,
all took their toll.
Victorian wash day was
quite a mammoth task -
you washed the clothes
on the Monday, you dry them
on the Tuesday and you would be
ironing them on Wednesday.
So a large part of your week
would be taken up by the wash.
Doing the laundry was
an expensive business
and a major part
of the household budget.
For those who could afford it,
a laundress could be hired in
by the day.
It was a military-style operation.
Every Victorian middle-class woman
came to her marriage
with great trunks full of
white clothing, linen,
and her big job throughout
her marriage was keeping those
just as brilliantly white.
And what she used in this endeavour
was soaps, disinfectants,
and, most of all,
she used the mangle.
So I've just fed this in
from the back here.
And you have to get it
so that it's between the rollers.
'Wringing out heavy fabrics
sodden in boiling water
'became easier
with the arrival of the mangle.'
It's not too heavy
because of the gear system
and of course this is dry...
So if you were doing it
with wet clothes...
But of course
this brought its own perils.
But why is it so dangerous?
It seems really quite solid.
I think it's probably like
a lot of Victorian contraptions
where, yes, it is very solid,
but you've got exposed gear wheels
and things. And obviously
you have to feed the clothing in.
And what you have to remember is
that the lady of the house
would have been doing this
with young children around,
her daughters would have been
watching her because they needed
to learn how to work these things
and often,
probably, in quite a confined space.
Ooh, the dangers of little fingers.
The injuries incurred by washday
mangle accidents were horrific
and sometimes fatal.
Oh, a mangle could do
an awful lot of damage,
particularly to a child.
It was typically children
who would put their hand,
out of curiosity, into the mangle.
Obviously the hand, the arm,
and it typically was the upper limb
that was caught, would be compressed
and everything in it
would be squashed.
And a significant proportion
would have fractures of the bones
as well as damage
to the soft tissue.
There was sheering force,
where you're pulling the skin
in opposite directions
and that could completely remove
the skin from the hand and the arm,
and tear it all away to reveal
the muscles and tendons underneath.
The dangers of the mangle
might seem obvious to us now,
but our next hidden killer
was impossible to see,
both then and now.
Things couldn't just look clean,
the new science of germs
and microbes was changing
ideas of cleanliness -
from tackling the visible
to the invisible.
Dangerous germs, they feared,
could lurk hidden from sight
and needed to be eradicated.
Until the late Victorian period,
many believed that diseases were
caused and carried by bad air.
But with improvements in technology
and the emergence of high-powered
bacteria began to be identified
as the cause of disease.
But this science was brand new
and not easily understood
by the general public.
There are various theories
around the origins of disease
at this point,
they're quite confused about it.
They've started
to be aware of germ theory,
but this isn't fully understood yet.
What they did understand was that
there were microbes all around -
invisible to the eye but everywhere.
And this made the Victorians
disproportionately fearful
and easily spooked.
Some mothers didn't want
to kiss their children
because they thought
it would spread germs.
This is very real and comes up
again and again in diaries,
the fact that people were afraid
of each other because of germs,
which is a horrific thing
when you think about it.
As this climate of fear escalated,
so people became
increasingly alarmed about
all manner of little things.
One of the most important things,
apart from germs, were flies.
The great fly scare of the 1890s.
The great fly scare
was caused by the public awareness
of the speed with which
flies could spread germs.
Flies were everywhere,
living off the horse manure,
and trampled into the home.
Once scientists identified flies
as carriers of disease,
the public reacted.
They realised that one of the main
communicators of germs were
probably flies, with their little
sticky feet walking over everything.
And once you started
to look at flies like that,
they became objects of horror.
The terrors of insects and moths
and caterpillars that need to be
sternly exterminated
because they just show the natural
world coming into your perfect home.
Also skirts. Not strictly speaking
anything to do with flies,
except if you noticed as you
walked around with a long skirt on
that you'd be brushing up
against the faeces,
horse manure and everything else.
And that was likely to bring
fly eggs in, or anything,
so skirt lengths went up to ankles.
Once skirts went up, the shutters
came down on flies in the home -
with a variety of products
invented to stop them.
You'd have fly screens.
You have little lace doilies
over your milk jugs.
You have little lace doilies
everywhere really.
You cover your curtains with lace
to stop flies coming in,
not really
so that you cannot see out.
All of these things were partly
to do with the fly scare.
But the fight against germs would
require more than beaded doilies.
The Victorians needed to believe
that these germs were being
eradicated by newly invented
products that would kill
all known germs...dead.
Many claims were made
in the name of science
before all these items
could be vigorously tested,
making the late Victorian home
a very scary place to be.
And the Victorians
worshipped science,
they worshipped invention,
so they would do anything
to make things cleaner, even if
that meant using dangerous chemicals.
But as the incredible
cleaning powers of these new items
became more potent, so
the dangers in the home increased.
The problem was that many
cleaning products are toxic
and they have to be, that's how
they have their cleaning effects.
But they were stored and sold
in very similar packages.
So you would go to the shop
and get a box that contained
something like baking soda,
which we would use to bake bread
or cakes and is perfectly harmless.
But it may look very similar to the
box of caustic soda, which of course
is very corrosive and would do
a huge amount of damage to the body.
Dangerous chemicals such as caustic
soda and carbolic acid were now
in the cupboard next to the flour,
and sugar - and were easily muddled.
The opportunity for mistakes and
mix-up between products was huge.
Drinking bleach or carbolic acid,
for example,
would lead to an agonising death.
The first thing that would happen
would be a burning sensation
in the oesophagus, because
it is directly corrosive
to anything
that it comes in contact with.
And so that would go down into the
stomach and cause abdominal pain.
In the early stages,
if the person survives
and they don't go into renal
failure, they may develop
strictures because of scaring of
the oesophagus, meaning that they're
unable to swallow any food, and
of course, that could prove fatal.
This lack of distinction in bottles
and packaging of toxic
cleaning materials
and dangerous substances didn't just
confuse the Victorian at home.
There were cases where
even professionals made mix-ups
with disastrous consequences.
On one occasion in Bradford,
a chemist mistakenly mixed
arsenic into his lozenge recipe -
killing 12 people
and rendering
a further 78 seriously ill.
And so it was this problem
with the packaging that really
forced legislation to make packages
much more distinct -
different shaped and sized and
coloured bottles and boxes, so that
you couldn't reach for the flour
and pick up the arsenic, for example.
But it wasn't always an accident -
lethal poisons
of all descriptions were
easily and readily available
over the counter.
With this lay a new temptation,
because poisoning could go
The Victorian age was
the age of the poisoner -
the rise of arsenic was
to many people a great opportunity.
Previously, if you wanted
to murder somebody, you had to
use your brute strength, you'd have
to stab them or strangle them.
When arsenic became widely available,
there was a lot of comment
in the newspaper saying,
well, women can just slip it
into their husband's tea.
So why wouldn't they?
They were absolutely afraid that
all the women in Britain
would turn poisoner
because why would you
not murder your husband
and go off to be a merry widow?
Why not?
People bought poisons
for things like rat poisoning
and fly papers, so you could easily
just go and buy them
for completely legitimate reasons.
The other reason was
this is a time when life insurance
became available. So you could
take out a life insurance policy
on one of your family members.
And then, if they die,
you could claim the money.
And there's evidence of quite a lot
of unscrupulous people
who took out large policies
before people mysteriously died.
There were many poisons around,
things like arsenic, but probably
the worst and the one that caused
the most awful death was strychnine.
Strychnine could be used
both as a medicine
and in the garden as a pesticide.
A white odourless powder,
it was like so many other items
in the cupboard.
It has very immediate
and unpleasant effects.
First of all, the muscles of the head
and the neck would start to contract
and then spasms would spread
to all the muscles of the body.
The person would start to convulse
and at its worst,
the muscles of the body would be
so contracted that the person
would be resting on just their heels
and their head with their back bowed
in the middle and unable to move.
Death would follow rapidly,
either because of paralysis
of their respiratory muscles,
which meant they couldn't breathe,
or exhaustion following
all these awful convulsions.
Demand had never been higher
and manufacturers had never sold
so many poisonous products.
It would take a long time
for that to change.
It wasn't until just after
the Victorian Age, in 1902,
that the Pharmacy Act required
that bottles of disinfectant
be distinguishable by touch
from bottles in which
ordinary liquids were contained.
In order to find the next hazard,
we must first understand
the temptations on offer
to the middle-class Victorian.
Could this be a hidden killer?
Manufacturers began to woo
a burgeoning mass market.
This was the first age
of mass advertising.
Back in the 1850s and 1860s,
it had been thought ungentlemanly
to advertise.
Now, for the first time, advertising
became powerfully visual -
photography and art were used
to sell goods, advertising agencies
were founded, and celebrities
started to endorse products.
There's an expansion
in print culture.
There are more newspapers,
there are more magazines.
But there are also new technologies
and ways of producing images
and putting them in them.
For example, photographs appear
in magazines from the 1890s onwards.
And this really means advertising
takes on a new visual form
at this point.
And I think it becomes
more persuasive and more powerful.
The power of advertising put
new pressure on Victorians
and would lead to increased risks.
These advertisements
are particularly aimed
at the upper-class
and the middle-class woman.
And what they're trying to say is,
if you don't buy our products,
if you don't use our products,
you will be a failure
as a housewife, as a woman.
So they really
played on insecurities.
And what they did was
they got everyone to buy all kinds
of dangerous substances under
the guise of perfecting your home.
And the perfect Victorian home
wouldn't be complete without
a dangerous new material,
which they inadvertently
welcomed into their homes
in an amazing array of objects.
The man who invented it
was so famous at the time,
a letter bearing just name and city
would get to him.
Mr A Parkes, inventor of Parkesine,
Birmingham. And it got there!
Birmingham, dubbed
"the city of 1,000 inventions",
had become a magnet for scientists
and it was here that Parkes
developed his revolutionary idea.
He took cotton wool,
ordinary cotton wool,
which he combined with acids
and various things,
and he discovered how to convert the
material into a mouldable material
which we today would call plastic.
So we reckon he is the father
of plastics.
We've sort of forgotten about this
great British inventor, haven't we?
I know, he was a great inventor too.
He had something like
90 patents to his name
but he wasn't
a very good businessman,
his company folded
about two years later.
But his idea was so good,
it was picked up in the States
by a guy called Hyatt. And Hyatt
gave it the name celluloid.
And from then on,
we have known it as celluloid.
We've forgotten Parkes, but we all
know celluloid as an early material.
It was the Americans who developed
it into a business success -
and started something
of a revolution.
It wasn't until 1885 that the world's
first really successful
plastic product hit the streets.
And it was something quite unusual -
it was a celluloid collar and cuff.
And there is a sociological reason
for it, of course.
The clerks sitting at those
high desks, writing on their ledgers
all day long, and they wouldn't
be allowed to have scrap paper
for calculations so they made
calculations on their cuffs.
Now they couldn't afford
a clean linen collar and cuff
every day, like their bosses.
And they couldn't afford to launder
them, so by the end of the week
they must have been chaotic
with numbers all over them.
Then along comes celluloid.
You can do all the numbers you want
on your cuff during the day,
take it home at night,
put it under the tap, rinse it,
shake it dry
and put it on again in the morning
looking pristine, just like the boss.
And it was an amazing sociological
success all over the world, 1885.
For as these affordable celluloid
products found their way
into items all over the house -
a terrible discovery was made.
It's a wonderful material
but it's not a perfect material
because it's inflammable, it burns.
it's very similar to gun cotton
and gun cotton we know
is an explosive material.
So cellulose nitrate, Parkesine,
celluloid, it burns very fiercely.
Ignoring its flammability,
celluloid was such a useful material
that canny manufacturers saw
numerous opportunities to produce
those must-have items.
When the invention of plastics
allowed brooches, hair combs
and mirrors to be as ornate
and attractive-looking
as the much more expensive ivory,
they were eagerly swept up.
The middle-classes wanted to look
wealthy and modern
and these products allowed them
to look just that.
This Victorian evening bag,
for example.
This looks like a piece
of hand-carved ivory, but it's not,
it's a piece of pressed celluloid.
It wasn't a real ivory comb,
it was made of celluloid
and it wasn't a real wooden bath,
it was painted like wood
and that's
because the Victorians were
so delighted by innovation
and by science,
and they loved the idea
of tricking themselves,
and also they loved the idea
of a cheap bargain.
Maybe not such a great bargain.
I want to find out just how
flammable celluloid really is.
This is a ping pong ball from China.
It's one of the few products in
the world that you can still buy
that's made of celluloid.
Assisting me is Martin Shipp from
the Building Research Establishment.
Martin, the flame please...
Wow! A surprisingly fierce flame -
definitely not something
to try at home.
Martin estimates that celluloid
is five times more flammable
than plywood.
Celluloid's chemical composition
meant it could not only
go up in flames easily, but it was
also unreliable in other ways.
Over time, it degrades.
Light and chemicals can cause it
to gradually break down,
And in that breakdown process,
it releases camphor
and it releases alcohols
and other things that are flammable.
And those flammable gases in
the atmosphere can then be ignited
by a spark or a flame,
without anybody igniting
the celluloid itself.
That's what made celluloid
so dangerous.
And there were other problems too.
Celluloid items could also
spontaneously combust,
as this cartoon of the time
And billiard balls -
traditionally made of ivory -
were now made from
the cheaper celluloid -
until it was discovered
that they would explode on impact.
This is an example of
one of the very first billiard balls
made from cellulose nitrate.
And the inventor
of this billiard ball
had a letter from a Colorado
saloon keeper, that he didn't mind
when the balls crashed together
and you got a mini-explosion,
because it's an explosive material,
but what he did object to
was that every man in the room
turned round and pulled out a gun!
But even worse was to come.
Celluloid was so versatile,
it replaced materials like ivory
and bone, in clothing - items
like corsets and lace, brooches,
bracelets, and all sorts
of accessories were either made of,
or featured celluloid -
without concern for
the accumulative effect.
This is a hair comb
used in the 1890s.
And the fashion and the style
was to have a hair comb
pushed in the back -
not just one but several.
But when you consider this is
a highly flammable material...
There were reports of people
passing too closely to gas lamps
or leaning too close to the fire,
and...BOOM...they burst into flames.
There were terrible tales
of misadventure,
like the woman who failed to notice
a cigar roll
under her celluloid-enhanced dress
until it was too late.
She immediately ran outside to try
and get away from the smoke.
that change in conditions
from fairly restricted
within a small area in a home,
to outside where there was
a lot of oxygen and some wind,
the skirt started to burn
with flames.
And she was immediately
engulfed in flames.
In her pursuit of cut-price fashion,
the Victorian woman had been
transformed into
a walking fire hazard.
Although in 1922 there was an act
enforcing better safety in premises
where raw celluloid film was stored,
there was never any legislation
to stop the use of celluloid in
fashionable items and in clothing.
It was only over the course
of the 20th century,
as more improved, less flammable
plastics were invented,
that the use of celluloid declined.
But while its introduction
had been a dangerous one -
it developed into a far safer
product that is still with us.
One that a British inventor
had been responsible for.
I think you can look around today
and virtually everything
you look at, touch, control,
everything you do, involves plastics.
It controls our lives today,
which you may think is a good thing
or a bad thing, but it does,
we can't avoid that.
He set the wheels in motion
for all that.
He laid the foundations
for a massive industry
that controls and affects everybody's
lives throughout the world.
From the food they ate, to the
clothes they wore, and the gadgets
and products championed by the new
exciting advertising campaigns,
Victorian homes were brimming
with killers.
They lay dormant
until scientific progress,
consumer concern
or a brave new pioneer
raised their voice above the clamour
and forced a change for the better.
But the Victorian ideal of "safe as
houses" was never really fulfilled.
Many of the domestic fatalities
of late Victorian Britain can be
explained by middle-class desires
to make their lives easier,
cheaper and more convenient,
and to conform to ideals of morality
and respectability.
But we mustn't forget
that they were pioneers,
and progress always comes at a cost.
As the century reached its close,
Britain was leading the world
and was on the verge of a golden age
in which scientific advances
would really start to make
a difference.
But would the Edwardian home
be any safer?
Next time, I'll be discovering
how a new century, a new monarch
and extraordinary new inventions
would have an impact
on the Edwardian Home.
She covered her face in poison.
Absolutely lethal.