I’ve been thinking about arsenic a lot lately. It’s not just the gloomy weather that’s made me think of poisons and violent death; I’ve been fiddling about around this for a bit.
It all started with a brief reference I came across – a nineteenth-century shepherd’s wife had accidentally poisoned her husband when she mistook some ‘white powder’ (settle down) for baking powder and made a cake with it. It was dried sheep dip – and it was lethal because of the arsenic it contained. At first I put this down to stupidity because she’d found the dried powder in a trough; quite why she thought anybody would put baking powder in a trough I don’t know but I guess it must have been a small one that could have been mistaken for something culinary. Then I discovered that there were many similar incidents. And all of them accidental (allegedly).
Of course sheep have been dipped for years and years and years, as this painting (Landscape with Picnic and Sheep Dipping, C. 1590, in the style of Jacob Grimmer, from the National Trust’s Art Collection) shows; you’ve got to do something about all the beasties that see sheep as a special treat. Dipping them in running water was an early approach, but it wouldn’t have been very effective.
Arsenic, when it became generally available, must have seemed like a godsend – it worked – though there were alternatives: carbolic acid, tobacco, mercury salts, a sulphur mix. But arsenic did the job the best. It did it so well, in fact, that it was extremely difficult to persuade people to stop using it once the dangers became apparent.
The first mentions of arsenic in dips that I’ve been able to track down come from the 1800s, and the general assumption seemed to be that it was safe because it worked. This is the time when flocks were becoming larger and larger, and the need to control parasites became more and more urgent.
Everything came together, really, and contemporary developments in chemistry have been described as ‘driving innovations’ – innovations which unfortunately had terrible side effects. Some of the side effects came about through legitimate use, and some – scarcely side effects, really – through carelessness and stupidity.
Take another shepherd’s wife, this time making batter cakes with what she thought was rice flour. It was arsenical sheep dip; her husband was storing it in the same cupboard and in the same kind of tin as the flour. She died, and many of her neighbours were made seriously ill as a result. Another shepherd needed a new bucket for his well, so he used one he’d been mixing sheep dip in, giving it a quick rinse first. (That did for him, and also for his wife and three children.) But of course there were also hazards when it was used as intended.
In Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay by George Ewart Evans (the guru of rural oral history), there’s a lovely account of ‘ship-dressing’ in Suffolk at the beginning of the last century.
The ‘sheep dresser’ (that was dipping; he described shearing as ‘undressing’) had a special dipping wagon. This carried his tub, which he used to fill with his secret recipe dip. A sheep was lifted into the dip, allowed to stay in for a minute or so (struggling the while) and then sent up a ramp at one end of the wagon. The other end was barred until excess dip had dripped off the sheep back into the tub, and then it was allowed down. It must have been an arduous, sheep-by-sheep process – and one which would have ensured that the sheep dipper came into considerable contact with the dip. There were other arrangements, of course, like the one in the ad above from the George Peabody Library, but they generally operated in broadly similar ways. However sheep were dipped, nothing prevented the dipper from coming into some contact with the dip.
The height of the ‘innocent’ use of arsenical dips was the middle of the nineteenth century. William Cooper, a vet, developed his experimental dips combining arsenic and sulphur between 1843-52, and they really took off. Large-scale production began in 1852 (interestingly, it’s noticeable and not surprising that many of the family members who were involved in making the dip died in their 30s and 40s), and the first reports of skin effects appeared in the Lancet only five years later.
But the dippers already knew that there was a problem: one physician reported that the men who worked with the sheep ‘all have a salutary dread of the arsenical dipping liquor’. It was the exposed areas of the body, obviously, which suffered the most – hands, arms – but another notoriously susceptible area was the scrotum.
Many dippers therefore wore leather aprons – as near to waterproof as was practical – and also washed themselves carefully when they finished work. If they didn’t, they could be crippled only a few days later, unable to walk because – no, it’s too disgusting. Let’s just say it was an extremely good idea to wear that leather apron, even on a hot day. Even so, serious skin irritation was normal.
And the sheep often suffered as well, of course; sometimes to the point of death. This could be the result of them being kept in the dip too long or not being rinsed on removal, but in at least one case in 1851 it was down to the manufacturer putting too much arsenic in the dip in the first place (‘many animals died … the dogs and the flies would not touch them’). One of the farmers sued and won his case, receiving compensation. Another case, a few years later, resulted in the death almost an entire flock – only 19 sheep surviving out of 869 – and compensation was £1400, a substantial amount. And sometimes the poisoned sheep found their way into the food chain, too.
What about the wool from sheep treated in arsenical dips? Eventually there was an enormous debate about this, but the arsenic was so tightly bonded to the fibres of the wool that processing – from washing to dyeing – could not dislodge it, and it was felt that it was therefore unlikely to be dislodged in use (of course, that didn’t preclude the use of arsenic in dyes), as a Lancet report of 1899 revealed. Nonetheless, it was gradually recognised that arsenical dips were more trouble than they were worth and they began falling out of use in the first part of the twentieth century – though there were 91 still approved for use in 1935. Of course, they had to be replaced by something. Organochlorines and organophosphates, generally, which had problems all of their own…
Note: as a spinner, on a personal level, I wouldn’t care to spin with a fleece from a recently dipped sheep, and there’s been some debate about this recently on Ravelry. Happily most farmers aren’t so flash with the cash that they dip their sheep immediately before shearing (what a waste that would be), and I don’t care for spinning raw fleece much. I just hope that the 1899 Lancet report applies to modern dips as well!