Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Odd People in Odd Places, by James Greenwood, [1883] - Veiled Mysteries

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VEILED MYSTERIES.

The sausage of the past and the present - The great Epping sausage forgery case - The spy, the waggon, the fraud brought to light - Horseflesh in sausage material - The pork butcher of Leather Lane - Popular prejudice and suspicion - The blindfold horse lowered into the cellar - The sausageshop stormed - The mistake discovered - The sausage-maker of Old Ford gives me some information that the reader may find useful.

WITH a liking for the sausage, home-made as well as imported, there has always been present to the mind of the consumer an uncomfortable suspicion respecting the bond fides of the veiled delicacy. Indeed, from time to time, so rudely has the confidence of the sausage-eater been shocked, that it would not have been surprising if he had sternly resolved to have nothing further to do with the doubtful envelopment.
    A quarter of a century since, as now, the sausage commanded a large share of popular patronage, and in poor neighbourhoods the commoner sort, known as "best beef," and retailed at four-pence or fivepence a pound, was exhibited in rosy strings, and served as the useful and ornamental festooning of the shops of many cheap butchers. But then, as now, there were fastidious folk who turned in dismay from the "veiled mysteries," and marvelled how it was that their unrestrained consumption was not signalized by a marked increase in the death rate in those localities where the demand for them was greatest. Not that they - the fastidious ones - were so deeply prejudiced as to avoid all prepared meats assuming sausage shape. If they could be quite sure as regards the origin of the article, they could enjoy a sausage as well as any one. It was all right, for example, if it could be warranted as coming from Epping. The simple-minded country people dwelling in that rural district knew nothing of the villanous devices of the unscrupulous skin-stuffers of the slums of London. Their pigs were pastured in the leafy glades of the great forest near at hand, and the pork they yielded was of the luscious beech-nut flavour so much admired by the consumer.
    It must have been owing to this natural advantage that Epping became famous for its pork sausages. No one could in any [-215-] other way account for the proud distinction that attached to the little village in question. It is nothing uncommon for a place otherwise insignificant to become noted on account of some special production. Everton boasts of its toffee, Banbury is world-renowned for its cakes, and Stilton makes a stand on its cheese, and is in no danger of being dislodged from the proud eminence. Epping was famous for its sausages. True, they were somewhat expensive, but then they were genuine. There could be no question as to that. They were forwarded to London daily by waggon - a broad-wheeled wain, with a russet-coloured awning, a pair of farm horses in the shafts, and for a teamster a pippin-faced countryman, in a snowy smock-frock, and with turnpike tickets stuck in the band of his battered old beaver hat. The quantity of sausages he brought away each morning from Epping was limited. It was never more than about seven or eight hundredweight, and unless shopkeepers ordered them beforehand they could not be supplied. So matters continued to the satisfaction of all concerned, until it occurred to an individual of an inquiring turn of mind to go down to Epping and view the famous and extensive factory from which the sausages came. No one in the village, however, could give him any information on the subject. The village pork butcher was in the habit of making a few pounds twice a week, but they were commonplace, mottled-looking affairs, and no more to be compared with the delicate dainties forwarded to London daily by the waggon than chalk is like cheese. It was a mystery, and the man with the inquiring mind resolved to sift it. He took lodgings within a mile or so of rural Epping, and he waited for the waggon. At last it appeared, pippin-faced teamster, russet awning, and all, jogging Londonward; but when the inquisitive one peeped in over the tailboard, lo! the vehicle was empty!
    He kept it in sight for a few miles, until it halted at a wayside inn where there was a stable-yard, and already there awaiting was a London cart, harnessed to which was a good horse that looked as though, early as it was, it had made a long journey and drawn a heavy load. There was the load in the cart, packed in scrupulously clean wicker baskets, each one lettered on the lid "Warranted genuine Epping sausages." While the waggoner and the cart-driver were busy transferring the freight from one vehicle to the other, the inquirer glanced at the name on the [-216-] shaft of the London cart, and made it out to be that of a notorious cheap sausage-maker whose business premises were situated in Smithfield. Seeking further information, he discovered that for years past the cart and the waggon had met every morning at the same spot, the latter to "load up," the former to be unladen. I do not for a moment desire to insinuate that Epping was in the least responsible for the barefaced imposture; indeed, I am informed that really excellent sausages may be obtained there. I am speaking of what happened five and twenty years since. Never again after that startling discovery was that white-smocked waggoner seen in the early morning urging his jog-trot team towards London, and for a long time afterwards "real Egging sausages" were a drug in the market.
    There was nothing in the incident, however, calculated to interfere with the demand for the common sausage among its more humble adherents. It was no news to them that the chief centre of sausage-making was Cow Cross, or that the meat used in the manufacture was not of first-class quality. That, however, was of no great consequence. All that the consumer stipulated for was that the materials should be derived from the ox, the sheep, the calf; or the pig, and that on no pretence whatever should equine meat be allowed to mingle with it. They were always scrupulously particular on this point, and at that time more so than at present, if possible. It is curious the unconquerable repugnance even the very poorest of the lower class have for horseflesh, and how quickly their fury is aroused if they have cause to suspect that the same is being foisted on them for ordinary beef.
    It was some time after the Epping exposure that a respectable pork butcher, whose business premises were in the neighbourhood of Leather Lane, Holborn, narrowly escaped serious damage, without in the least deserving it. The worthy tradesman had a large concern in the cheap sausage line of business. He had succeeded somehow in exactly hitting the taste of the inhabitants of the crowded locality, and the low price at which he supplied the savoury food caused his shop to overflow with customers. The demand was so great that the day was never long enough to prepare a supply, and from midnight until morning the gas was seen burning in his underground cellar, where was kept the chopping machine, the clattering of which was [-217-] unceasing. It was too large a machine to be kept in motion by means of manual labour, and it was customary for the pork butcher to employ his horse for the purpose ; but that animal falling sick, he was glad to borrow a horse for the purpose of any neighbour who would kindly lend him one. The only way by which bipeds and quadrupeds could descend from the back shop to the cellar was by the use of an inclined plane of planking, to which were nailed cross-pieces for the sake of firm foothold, and it was by this means the borrowed horse was lowered to the scene of its nocturnal labour.
    But soon an ugly rumour got abroad. It was whispered that Blank, the butcher, used horseflesh in making his sausages. A dozen witnesses were ready to take oath, if necessary, that returning home late at night, and passing through the alley at the rear of Blank's premises, they had seen a horse being smuggled in - a strange horse, and not in the least like Blank's own. They had seen it blindfolded and dragged down to the cellar, where, without doubt, it was slaughtered, and its carcase disposed of in a way that was too obvious to be for a moment questioned. One witness had seen a grey horse being dragged to its doom, another a roan, a third a brown; but he whose testimony created the greatest amount of indignation and horror - though it would be difficult to tell why - was a man who was prepared to make solemn affidavit that, on the Wednesday night previous, he had spied a bony old jet-black horse, that had evidently seen long service in the funeral carriage line of business, being dragged to death, with a view to mincing its flesh to fill sausage skins. When it came to this the appalling whisper rapidly grew to an ominous growl, and it was privately planned that Blank's place should be watched that night, and that an attacking force should be awaiting in readiness to inflict summary vengeance against the rascally sausage-maker if the heinous offence he was charged with could be proved against him.
    The scheme was followed out. Two trusted conspirators were posted at a window overlooking Mr. Blank's back premises, and about one in the morning they hurried to their friends with the intelligence that another horse had been consigned to the cellar for sacrifice. A white animal this time, and one to the skin of which they could swear in the event of their arriving too late to discover it whole and alive. An exasperated com-[-218-]pany of women and men, armed with bars and bludgeons, and thirsting for vengeance, hastened to the pork butcher's premises, and storming the cellar door, burst in on the amazed sausage-makers, and on the old white horse, who, attached to the shaft of the chopping machine, was slowly performing the task it was hired for. On which, without staying to explain or apologize, the mob beat a hasty retreat, and, excepting that there was a pair of hinges and the lock of a cellar door to make good, no one was the worse; for what threatened to be a serious riot ended in a joke. The various animals seen descending had merely taken their turn at working the sausage machine.
    Nevertheless, and although the pork butcher of Leather Lane was able so convincingly to refute the wrongful suspicion that was roused against him, the public mind was not then or since set at rest as to the possibility of the flesh of the horse finding concealment beneath the integument that professed to enwrap only wholesome sausage meat. The moment there gets abroad a rumour that such an outrage against popular prejudice has once more been attempted, then, at least in the lower circles of society, the matter is as eagerly discussed as though the most diabolical attempt against the public health had been discovered and frustrated.
    It was so quite lately, where a tradesman, residing at Old Ford, and professing to be a manufacturer of "breakfast sausages," was pounced on in the midst of his alleged iniquity by the sanitary inspector, and accused of introducing horse meat into his mincing mill. A veterinary surgeon was present in court, and proved to the magistrate's satisfaction that the material objected to was of equine origin, and a fine of twenty pounds was inflicted on the concoctor of matutinal dainties, who, with his son and several workmen in his employ, denied on oath that the meat in question was other than ox beef; and though possibly "poor" in quality, yet not unfit for human food. The evidence was conflicting: on the one side it was broadly insinuated that persons engaged in the defendant's trade commonly used horseflesh, as being cheaper than any other; whereas on the other side it was declared that, even if it would be of any pecuniary advantage to the manufacturer to use horseflesh, he could not do so, in the first place because of the objectionably high colour of the meat, and, in the second place, because it was peculiarly "shy" of [-219-] taking salt, and no material that would not do so freely was of the least use to a dried sausage-maker. A third reason might have been given, but it was probably thought not worth while to mention it in open court, viz,, that the diet on which the "harmless necessary cat" feeds is worth more in the way of legitimate trade than is obtainable for much of the meat that the sausage-maker may use with impunity.
    This is not a savoury subject, but it is one in which a great many people take a curious interest, while many others who have a partiality for the sausage, British or foreign, would be glad to learn whether their confidence in it has really been abused, or whether they may without danger continue to indulge with impunity in their favourite delicacy. It occurred to me that it would not be time thrown away to proceed to the neighbourhood of Old Ford, where many sausage-makers have manufacturing premises, and make some inquiry into the matter among those who would be most likely to know all about it.
    I am glad to be able to state that - having spent several half- hours in the company of as many separate witnesses, all of them employed at different manufactories of "germans," "collared head," and "spiced beef;" chiefly for supplying shops situated in the poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods - as far as I can make out, there is at present no danger that our feline pets will go hungry because of the wholesale conversion of their favourite food into sausages. The many employés I interviewed were encouraged to speak plainly and without reserve; and, unknown one to the other, they all agreed in the assurance that to their knowledge the "gee-gee" dodge, as they called it, was seldom or ever practised by their masters - the main safeguard for the public being that it was impossible to bargain with any one for a regular supply. Horse slaughterers, according to the terms of their licence, are strictly prohibited from permitting the meat to leave their premises in an uncooked state, and already prepared as feline or canine food, and in that condition it was of not the least use for any purpose an Old Ford manufacturer might feel disposed to put it to. The only men he could deal with were the "flying knackers" or horse-butchers in a small way, who now and then, and at uncertain intervals, buy a horse for killing or already dead. I was further informed that it wou1d be no "catch" for those who "got up" the cheap [-220-] "germans" if they were permitted to use horse meat, since the wholesale price of it was a shilling per stone of eight pounds; while "very good stuff for the purpose," and that to which no sanitary inspector would be legally justified in objecting, could be purchased for a very few halfpence per stone more. And when I ventured to remark that it seemed impossible that meat wholesome and uninjurious could be bought at such a price, I was coolly told that "anyhow, all the actual meat there was in say half a pound of cheap German sausage, couldn't do any one much harm if it was ever so 'dicky.'"
    "'Tain't as though it was all meat. Only enough meat is used to give the stuff a foundation," explained a hoary-headed "machine-man" of many years' experience. "There's lots of things besides meat - meal and all manner, and then there's the 'colouring' and the spice."
    "What kind of spice?" I inquired; and his reply reminded me immediately of the confidential revelation made by the street pieman to Mr. Samuel Weller, in "Pickwick."
    "That entirely depends on what name your sossidge is going under," said he. "It is one spice for one sort, and another for t'other. It is all the same meat, don't you know; but the spice regulates it to the palate."
    "What I wish chiefly to know," I remarked, "is, whether the ingredients used for the purposes we are speaking of; and in a general way, are any of them injurious to health?"
    "All I can say, in answer to that," said he, "is, that I have been a machine hand going on now for seventeen years and under eight or ten different makers, and I never knew one that used horse meat or turned out goods that I myself could not sit down and cheerfully eat a slice off 'em."
    I was glad to hear such favourable testimony from such a source. If that old machine-man spoke the truth, the sausage-eater may take heart and continue to munch his "german" with a relish.