HL Deb 04 June 1857 vol 145 cc1091-6

Order of the Day for the House to be put in Committee read.


said, that in moving that their Lordships do go into Committee on this Bill, he would briefly state the object and provisions of the measure. The object of the Bill was twofold—to prevent, if possible, the sale of poisons for the commission of crime on the one hand, and the occurrence of accidents by the sale of poisons by mistake on the other. These were objects, the importance of which all their Lordships would admit, whatever difference of opinion might exist as to the manner of carrying them out. There could be no doubt that too great facilities were given for the sale of those deadly substances, and owing to the present state of things, there was very great difficulty in tracing home to the real murderer the purchase of the poison. Another fact was equally certain, that owing to the careless, slovenly, neglectful mode in which poison was kept in and dealt out of shops, mistakes, causing fearful accidents and death itself, frequently occurred. The 3rd section of the Bill gave a general definition of "poison," and a schedule was added, which contained a list of the poisons which were found by experience to be most habitually resorted to for improper purposes. Another schedule excepted from that list such preparations of sale poisons as were rendered inoperative or innocuous, or as were made up according to the Pharmacopæias of London, Edinburgh, and Dublin. The poisons subjected to restrictions, and mentioned in the schedule, might be added to by an order of Her Majesty in Council, and the same authority might also modify the schedule exempting certain compounds from these restrictions. The fifth clause contained a provision by which poison could only be sold to a person of full age, in the presence of a witness of full age, and that on the production of a certificate by the purchaser, signed by a legally qualified medical practitioner, a justice of the peace, or by the clergyman of the parish, and to that it was proposed to add, by any two resident householders. The sixth clause provided that the seller should make an entry in a book of each sale, stating the date of sale and of the delivery, the name and address of the purchaser, the name and quantity of the poison sold, and the purpose for which it was stated to be required. The existence of this book would, it was believed, be an important element in the prosecution of criminal cases from poisoning that might arise, and would, at any rate, prevent the present malpractice of selling poison to children who were now frequently made the innocent means of accomplishing the purpose of the murderer. The next clause referred to the covering of the bottles, &c., used in the sale of poisons, and provided that all poisons sold should have a covering of tinfoil distinctly labeled with the address of the seller and with the word "poison" moulded on the bottle. Another provision of great importance was to the effect that no colourless poison should be sold in a solid state unless it was mixed with a proportion of soot or indigo; and that in the case of colourless liquid poisons they should be mixed with a certain quantity of the solution of archil. These colouring articles had been fixed on as being in their nature cheap, and easily found in any part of the country; but the necessity for this admixture was dispensed with where the certificate stated that it would render the drug unfit for the purpose required. Then came a very important clause, providing that where medical prescriptions were given these formalities might be dispensed with, and that they should have no application to the sale of poisons by wholesale to retail dealers, or when they were required for lawful use in the ordinary purposes of trade or lawful occupation. There were at present 16,000 people engaged in the sale of poisons, without any restriction whatever as to the part of the premises in which those poisons should be kept, and without being required to keep them separate from other articles, or under lock and key—a state of things which had led to many deplorable accidents and mistakes. There were 500 cases every year of deaths from poisoning, either intentional or unintentional, and there was reason to believe that not more than one case out of three or four that actually occurred came to the knowledge of the Registrar General. To avoid, as far as possible, the sale of poisons by mistake, it was provided by the Bill that they should be distinctly labelled and kept apart from other articles in the shop or dispensary. The last clause imposed a penalty of £20 for the first offence, and £50 and disability for the second, on any person, whether seller or purchaser, offending against the provisions of the Act. He did not think this was a perfect Bill, nor, indeed, did he believe it possible to legislate so as entirely to prevent intentional and unintentional poisoning; but he thought the very reasonable and moderate restrictions laid down in the measure would, in the main, tend in a very simple way to diminish the number of deaths that were now occasioned in this unhappy manner.

Moved, "That the House do now resolve itself into a Committee upon the said Bill."


entirely concurred with his noble Friend that great evils arose from the facilities at present given in obtaining poisons, and he rejoiced that the subject had been taken up by the Government. There was no doubt poison given with intent to murder could be obtained with the greatest possible ease. He owned the subject was one of difficulty, but he was strongly inclined to think that the Bill would do much towards preventing the sale of poisons for improper purposes—indeed, so far as he could see, all that legislation could do; and he tendered his warmest thanks to the noble Earl, and would give the Bill all the support in his power. He would now call the attention of their Lordships to another kind of poison that was sold to the public—moral poisons, as destructive to the mind as these were to the body—he meant the sale of indecent publications and prints—an evil which he grieved to say was greatly on the increase. He trusted something would he done to check so flagrant an evil. On that very day he had presented a petition to their Lordships from the Society for the Suppression of Vice, praying that this hideous abuse might be put a stop to.


gave an explanation respecting a case which he had brought under the notice of the House in the last Parliament, when he stated that poison had been dealt out by two striplings. The chemist wished him to state in his place in Parliament that one was an assistant and not a stripling, and he now complied with that request.


thought, from the tone of the noble Earl (Earl Granville) in stating the details of the Bill, that he was rather doubtful of its success, and he (the Earl of Hardwicke) doubted whether any form of words would perfectly accomplish the object at which the Bill aimed. The present measure certainly would materially affect the interests of the chemists of this country, and would, he was assured, if passed, compel the closing of two-thirds of the druggists' shops throughout England. He was informed that poisons were so commonly used in trade and manufactures that even if the Bill passed there would still remain facilities for those who desired it to obtain them. Among other things mentioned in the Bill was antimony; but antimonial wine was known as an emetic in ordinary use; but if the Bill passed that medicine could not he sold without the risk to the seller of incurring the penalties prescribed in the Bill. It was the same with sal ammoniac and oxalic acid, which were both used extensively for many purposes, and he was reminded by a noble Friend that the latter article was requisite for cleaning boot tops. If this Bill passed, it could not be sold without an admixture of soot or indigo, and he should like to see how the gentlemen of the Leicestershire hunt would look with their boot tops cleaned with a mixture of oxalic acid and soot. Chloroform would be prohibited, and the sale of patent medicines, many of which contained preparations of opium, and other drugs which the Bill would make poisons, almost annihilated. The noble Earl had stated that all poisons should be vended only in square bottles; but in many medicines prescribed by physicians poisons formed ingredients, and under the proposed law the patient, upon seeing the square bottles, would know that they contained poison, and might naturally be disinclined to take the medicine. There were many other matters of detail upon which grave objections had been made, and he hoped that before the Bill was finally disposed of the noble Earl would receive the benefit of the suggestions which a deputation from the Pharmaceutical Society were anxious to offer him.


said, that better means might he devised to attain the object of the Bill. He thought that a good example had been set by Ireland in that respect. He found that many of the clauses in the Bill were taken from the Irish Apothecaries Act of 1791—an Act which had been found most beneficial, and of which no one had complained. One evil which existed which would interfere in the working of this, or any other similar measure, was the difference between the Pharmacopœias of the three kingdoms, and it would be a great advantage if those distinctions could be abolished. He thought also that the chemists and druggists of Ireland held a higher status than those of England. In the Bill an attempt was made to define poisons, which he thought was most dangerous, and would suggest that no definition should be given; for if certain articles were stamped as poisons it would stimulate the discovery of other substances having the same effect. He would also suggest that there should be greater facilities for prosecuting apothecaries for selling poison improperly. He believed that in Scotland, where there was a public prosecutor, there was not the same safeguards against poisoning as existed in the other divisions of the United Kingdom. The Sheriffs in Scotland possessed the authority of coroners; but inquests were of very rare occurrence, and he was satisfied that many cases of poisoning escaped investigation. He regretted that it was proposed to exempt druggists and chemists from the operation of the Medical Bills now before the House of Commons; and, he trusted, that an attempt would be made to elevate their status as in Ireland, and that a law would be enacted to prevent persons not properly qualified from selling drugs.


would suggest to the noble Earl (Earl Granville) whether it would not be better that this Bill should be referred to a Select Committee, considering the difficulties of the subject, and the very small amount of information which their Lordships had upon it. It would be most absurd first of all to put forth a long list of poisons which should be prohibited to be sold, and then, in order to suit the requirements of trade, to make out a list of exceptions almost equal in length to the prohibitory list.


admitted that there was great difficulty in legislating on this subject; but it must be remembered that legislation had been successful in other countries, and he had little doubt that, after the investigation which the subject had undergone, the present Bill, if it did not fully meet, would very much diminish, the evil. It would not be forgotten that the Bill did not interfere either with medical prescriptions, or with the sale of chemicals largely used in trade. He believed he was correct in stating that the College of Physicians in the three countries of the United Kingdom were at the present moment in communication with reference to a revision of these different Pharmacopœias, which was a most important point, because, in consequence of the various strengths of drugs referred to in those Pharmacopœias, the quantities, prescribed by one would be sufficient to poison, if administered according to the strength indicated by the other. He only mentioned this as an instance of the necessity of having one general and well-under-stood Pharmacopœia. If it were thought that further investigation of the subject would be productive of a better measure, he had no objection whatever that it should be referred to a Select Committee.


said, that one of the chief causes of accidents from poison arose from the doctors making a mystery of their prescriptions by writing them in bad Latin instead of in plain English. The Latin language was one which apothecaries' assistants knew little of, and this was a most fruitful cause of accident from poison.

The said Motion (by leave of the House) withdrawn; and Bill referred to a Select Committee to consider and report.