Archive for March 25th, 2020

Care for a little ginger beer with your lead?

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

This February, 600 Victorian stoneware beer bottles were found under an old cellar staircase in Leeds. They had been carefully stacked under the steps of what was once the Scarborough Castle Inn in the late 19th century. In 1931, the site of the former inn was acquired by the Tetley company and became part of Tetley’s Brewery, an Art Deco factory that is now being excavated in advance of for redevelopment.

The excavation is being undertaken to examine an area spanning the former line of Hunslet Lane on the southern approach to during the medieval and later periods.

Along with the road, there are the remains of the Scarborough Castle Inn, properties along the former South Terrace and workers housing have been targeted for excavation.

This excavation is providing archaeologists with a rare chance to explore the social development of this part of Leeds from the late medieval period through to modern day.

David Williams, at Archaeological Services WYAS, said: “This excavation is giving us a great opportunity to uncover a part of Georgian and Victorian Leeds. The results so far are giving a real insight to the daily lives of the former residents of Leeds during this period.”

Rather perilous daily lives, as it turns out. The bottles appeared to be were mostly ginger beer. Labels indicated most of the bottles were produced by J. E. Richardson of Leeds, although several different local breweries were represented.

NB: The original ginger beer made in England in the mid-18th century, it was not the sweet carbonated soft drink it is today. It was a fermented beverage with the punch of beer but the taste of ginger. Water, ginger, sugar and a combination yeast and bacteria starter culture known as the ginger beer plant (GBP), were fermented to create a bubbly, spicy alcoholic drink. Ginger beer could pack a goodly wallop getting up to 11% alcohol.

Stoneware bottles like the ones in the Leeds find were key to the success of ginger beer as a popular and commercially viable export product. England produced stoneware bottles of such high quality that they could be shipped without catastrophic breakage. Ginger beer got even more popular after 1835 when an improved stoneware glazing process was invented. The bottles, corked and wired like champagne today, lasted indefinitely, the beer inside preserved by the alcohol and natural carbonation.

Some of the Leeds bottles had their corks intact and liquid still sloshing around inside. Two of the bottles that contained liquid were sent to West Yorkshire Joint Services for testing.  The results were surprising.  The alcohol content was a modest 3%. The lead content was an impressive .13 mg/l, making this weak beer but strong poison. According to the World Health Organization, the safeish lead concentration in water is .01 mg/l (it’s zero for children), but really there is no safety to be found in lead ingestion because it accumulates in the body over time and irreversibly damages the nervous system.

The likely source of the contaminated ginger beer was lead water pipes. The water was contaminated before it even made contact with the other ingredients that would make it ginger beer, so the high lead level was present in the drink from day one.

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