Sunday, 25 April 2010

Pure bosh: a media scare

We have a cafe bar in Topsham, Route 2, that serves a very nice toffee-chocolate ice cream called "Topsham Mud".

While Googling it for a shop visitor who asked if it was available elsewhere, I ran into something thematically connected but decidely not nice: the Times Archive Blog report The most disgusting Times article ever?, which reports on Times coverage of what appears to be a 19th century urban myth.

The yarn originally kicked off early in March 1870, when a number of publications reprinted a scare story from the South London Press reporting that fat was being extracted from mud at Battersea, to be processed and sold as butter.

Butter From Mud.
A fortnight ago we (South London Press) mentioned the fact that the butter of South London was adulterated with tallow, starch, manganese, salt, and water. We thought then that we had reached the Ultima Thule of adulteration, but an ingenious individual has since added another sophisticating agent. A friend has in his possession a specimen of a pure white fat, tasteless and perfectly inodorous which has been obtained by a clever analytical chemist from — what do our readers suppose? Simply from a portion of the Thames mud, taken from the river at Battersea! And we are afraid that this new discovery of science is no longer a secret, for the owner of a small wharf on the banks of the Thames had an offer this week from a person desirous of becoming the tenant, and on asking the purpose for which the wharf was required he was told it was to be used for manufacturing butter, to be sold to the poor at a shilling per pound! No doubt it was the intention of this philanthropic individual to have supplied the public with dairy butter fresh from the bosom of old Father Thames.
- reprint in Littell's Living Age, Volume 105, page 720

Punch, March 12 1870, took up the story:


Our candle manufacturers complain that they can't live because their raw material has ran up to such a figure. And their raw material has risen in price because it is wanted for making butter. It is a sober fact. It was but the other day that chemistry taught our manufacturers to consolidate and refine all sorts of oils and greases into the raw material of candles. And now science has gone a step farther, and taught us how to turn that, which has but just been made to take form and pressure as dips and moulds, into "prime Irish" and " best Dorset ! " No wonder stearine is going up: fatty matters rising to the surface. Everything with grease in it is worth putting under process. Science will compel its precious oils, and extort its fatness, ut the last discovery, in this direction, is the grandest. It beats what we had hitherto regarded as the triumph of industrial chemistry— the extraction of Champagne out of petroleum. They have actually found out how to turn Thames mud from Battersea reach into butter! And so the whirligig of time brings about its revenges ! We refused to transmute our London sewage into milk on the Maplin sands, through the purifying stages of rye-grass and mangold, and, lo, our sewage, in payment of our stupidity, is coming back to us, via the Thames, in all its naked nastiness, as butter !

It is only fair of Father Thames. We poisoned him, and he means to do his best to poison us ; or, to put it more pleasantly, we turned our fatness into pollution of his bed, and he is giving us back our filth in fatness, whether we will or no !

Here is a triumph for Thwaites, a chance for the Board of Works, a use for the deposits of Barking, a way of turning to account the hundreds of thousands of tons of sewage now poured weekly from the pumps at Abbey Mills. At present they accumulate as Thames mud, and are complained of as a nuisance. You have but to turn that Thames mud into butter, to extract from it a bonus and a blessing ! Write up over the Abbey Mills pumping station "Bazalgette, Butterman to the Board of Works! " and let Thwaites and the Board bind themselves to use their own extract as "the best substitute for butter at breakfast!," And in honour of that reach of Thames where was made the first find of this'choice delicacy for the breakfast table, let Batter-sеа be re-christened and known henceforth as Butter-mere.

The context is rather interesting, making it understandable why such a story could spring up. Victorian London was rather like a modern third-world megalopolis: extremely dirty, with a variety of scavenging trades recycling a variety of waste. Fat from the Thames was in reality collected and recycled to make low-grade grease for lubricating machinery. This fact, however, seems to have become cross-fertilised with a general (and probably justified) paranoia about food adulteration, and public distaste for inferior butter substitutes - prototype margarines - that went under the generic name of "bosh".

The name "Bosh" derived from "Bosch-butter", referring to the Dutch town 's-Hertogenbosch 1, one place where butter-substitute was made, and many descriptions of it are pretty derogatory. For instance, from Samuel Fallows' 1835 The Progressive Dictionary of the English Language:

Bosh-butter - A kind of butter very poor in quality, made in Hamburg, and shipped to England where it is used for adulterating other butters.

This skates around the actual nature of the product. "Bosh" was made from animal fat: one formulation notoriously involved horse fat, collected in England and shipped to Hamburg for processing before coming back to England. Its sale was legal as long as it wasn't labelled as butter, but it frequently was. Nevertheless, not all bosh was poor quality. Whether under the name Butterine, Bosch, Oleomargarine or Artificial Butter, the better varieties were thoroughly palatable. It seems quite significant that the butter-from-mud story virtually coincides with the first commercial impact of margarine proper, patented in 1869 by the French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriés. It was the start of an era of considerable infighting between butter and margarine lobbies that persisted for at least a century. In Britain, the fraudulent sale of margarine/bosh as butter was a constant issue in the late 19th century (see the many references in Hansard to the Margarine Act 1887, whose chief purpose was to kill the term "butterine" in the UK). Looking further afield, you can gauge the hostility toward butter substitutes from this 1886 US book by TL McAlpine, Oleomargarine and Butterine: A Plain Presentation of the Most Gigantic Swindle of Modern Times (Internet Archive oleomargarinean00unkngoog).

Whatever the reason, the butter-from-mud story trundled on for years. After an initial debunking in 1870, it resurfaced in late 1876 in more detailed form with purported proof: observation of the work of "mudlarks" and their process of collecting river grease, allegedly for processing into butter substitute marketed as "mild Dorset" or best Brittany". This led to an investigation by a reporter for the Sanitary Record, who found that the collection and recycling was perfectly real, but only for the production of inedible low-grade fat.

We obtained samples of the materials from the men, and afterwards operated upon them to extract the fat, with a view to determine how far it was practicable to purify the fat so as to render it fit for use in the manufacture of butter as alleged. We subjected it to various purifying processes, but completely failed in rendering the fat bright and free from offensive and disgusting odor, and we can have no hesitation in assuring the public that there need not be the least apprehension of their breakfast table being supplied with ' best Brittany ' manufactured from fat recovered from Thames mud. That the refuse fat from the millions of kitchens in London may in part be recovered and utilized is beyond a question of doubt; but it is equally certain that the fat so recovered can only be purified to such an extent as to fit it for use in the manufacture of the most common kinds of soap and dip candles.
- Sanitary Record, reprinted in the Times, December 16, 1876

A few years later, William Mattieu Williams summed up the story in his 1883 Science in Short Chapters:, pointing out that the whole story didn't even make commercial sense:

Chapter XXXVI
The oleaginous products of Thames mud: where they come from and where they go

introduction snipped

My readers need not be told that there are soapsuds in London as well as in Yorkshire, and they also know that the London soapsuds pass down the drains into the sewers. I may tell them that besides this there are many kinds of acids also passed into London sewers, and that others are generated by the decompositions there abounding. These acids do the Frenchman's work upon the London soapsuds, but the separated fat, instead of rising slowly and undisturbed to form a film upon the surface of the water, is rolled and tumbled among its multifarious companion filth, and it sticks to whatever it may find congenial to itself. Hairs, rags, wool, ravellings of cotton, and fibres of all kinds are especially fraternal to such films of fat : they lick it up and stick it about and amid themselves ; and as they and the fat roll and tumble along the sewers together, they become compounded and shaped into unsavory balls that are finally deposited on the banks of the Thames, and quietly repose in its hospitable mud.

But there is no peace even there, and the gentle rest of the fat nodules is of short duration. The mud-larks are down upon them, in spite of all their burrowing; they are gathered up and melted down. The filthiest of their associated filth is thus removed, and then, and with a very little further preparation, they appear as cakes of dark-colored hard fat, very well suited for lubricating machinery, and indifferently fit for again becoming soap, and once more repeating their former adventures.

Those gentlemen of the British press whose brilliant imagination supplies the public with their intersessional harvests of sensational adulteration panics, have obtained a fertile source of paragraphs by co-operating with the mud-larks in the manufacture of butter from Thames mud.

The origin of these stories is traceable to certain officers of the Thames police, who, having on board some of these gentlemen of the press engaged in hunting up information respecting a body found in the river, supplied their guests with a little supplementary chaff by showing them a mud-lark s gatherings, and telling them that it was raw material from which "fine Dorset" is produced. A communication from "Our Special Correspondent" on the manufacture of butter from Thames mud accordingly appeared in the atrocity column on the following morning, and presently "went the round of the papers."

Although it is perfectly possible by the aid of modern chemical skill to refine even such filth as this, and to churn it into a close resemblance to butter, the cost of doing so would exceed the highest price obtainable for the finest butter that comes ,to the London market. A skilful chemist can convert all the cotton fibres that are associated with this sewage fat into pure sugar or sugar-candy, but the manufacture of sweetmeats from Thames mud would not pay any better than the production of butter from the same source, and for the same reason.

Mutton-suet, shop-parings, and other clean, wholesome fat can be bought wholesale for less than fivepence per pound. It would cost above three times as much as this to bring the fat nodules of the Thames mud to as near an approach to butter as this sort of fat. Therefore the Thames mud-butter material would be three times as costly as that obtainable from the butcher, While the supply of mutton-suet is so far in excess of the butter-making demand that tons of it are annually used in the North for lubricating machinery, We need not fear that anything less objectionable—i.e. more costly to purify—will be used as a butter substitute.

"Bosh" in the sense of nonsense/humbug is, incidentally, etymologically unconnected with "bosh-butter", pre-dating it by decades. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word comes from the Turkish bosh (= empty, worthless) and got into English via the popularity of James Justinian Morier's 1834 novel Ayesha: the Maid of Kars (Internet Archive ayeshamaidkars00morigoog). I'm not entirely sure I believe this. A look in Google Books suggests there to have been a vogue in the 1830s for Orientalist novels, and the word is used in them for local colour: for instance, the 1835 The Pacha of Many Tales by Frederick Marryat, the 1840 The Cashmere Shawl: An Eastern Fiction by Charles White, and the 1839 The Romance of the Harem by Julia S H. Pardoe. I'm sure they all contributed.
- Ray
1. Yes, the one where Hieronymus Bosch came from.

Addendum, 20th April 2010: following up a couple of spinoffs Dr C mentioned in the comments.

You'd have to be subjected to the I Can't Believe Its Not Butter tyranny to have really appreciated Bosh.

In my late teens and a bit after, the big marketing push for margarine was the "Can you tell Stork from butter?" roadshow headed by Lesley Crowther (see YouTube). The whole Margarine Act infighting was still going on - retreaded as the Margarine Regulations, 1967 - and Stork SB fell foul of it for the implication that "SB" stood for "soft butter" and its adverts with visuals of cows , thus getting into the territory of butter impersonation. See this abstract from the British Food Journal Volume 80 Issue 1 1978.


The name Boche also, of course, refers to the German Army in WWI. This doesn't seem to stem from the village in the Nederlands but it is unclear where it did come from.

General opinion - compiling online references and the OED - is that it comes from French slang alboche: a conflation of Allemand (= German) and caboche (= cabbage).


  1. You'd have to be subjected to the I Can't Believe Its Not Butter tyranny to really appreciated Bosh. BTW, there is another tangent. The name Boche als, of course, refers to the German Army in WWI. This doesn't seem to stem from the village in the Nederlands but it is unclear where it did come from. It is ironic that the fat was processed in Germany and then sent back.

  2. I can't believe it's not butter

    Mentioned in addendum.

    I much prefer margarine; probably a combination of a childhood eating off butter (we had no refrigerator) and finding margarine so handy for keeping in my university room for toast, because anything in the communal kitchen fridge tended to vanish.


    Apparently (going by online sources and the OED) that comes from French slang alboche - some conflation of "Allemande" and "caboche" = German cabbage.