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Hundreds of bottles of poisonous beer have been found at the site in Leeds, England. Source: Archaeological Services WYAS

Hundreds of Toxic Beer Bottles Found Under Old English House


Digging at the site of an old Victorian brewery in the city of Leeds in the northern English county of Yorkshire, archaeologists discovered 19th-century bottles of beer neatly stacked under a staircase leading to a cellar. A spokesperson for Tetley Brewery told The Drinks Business that the bottles were found beneath the remains of what used to be the Scarborough Castle Inn. But nobody will be sampling the ale because this is poisonous beer which contains “dangerous concentrations of lead.”

The Tetley name, according to the company's website, represents one of Leeds' oldest brewing dynasties, which for nearly 200 years has greatly added to the social, industrial, and historic significance of Leeds. Tetley’s beer brewery in Leeds was founded by Joshua Tetley in 1822, and his son, Francis William, became a partner in 1839, creating the brand “Joshua Tetley and Son.” Building works for a new brewery began in 1852 and by 1860 Tetley was the largest brewery in the North of England, with annual beer production peaking at 171,500 barrels by 1875.

A Tetley bottle found at the site. (Archaeological Services WYAS)

A Tetley bottle found at the site. (Archaeological Services WYAS )

Poisonous Beer from Polluted Pipes

According to a report in the Yorkshire Evening Post , English archaeological services company WYAS were investigating this area of Leeds as property developers prepared to construct new residential homes when they discovered the hidden bottles in February this year. David Williams is a senior project manager for WYAS and he told reporters at The Drinks Business that a variety of brands were identified, but most were labelled J. E. Richardson of Leeds” - which tells them the beer was bottled in the 1880s.

A bottle of the poisonous beer found at the site. (Archaeological Services WYAS)

A bottle of the poisonous beer found at the site. (Archaeological Services WYAS )

A post on the group’s  Facebook page in February said many of the bottles still contained liquid, which archaeologists initially assumed was ginger beer. But samples were sent to West Yorkshire Joint Services for analysis and the results determined it was beer containing exceptionally high levels of lead. Measuring “0.13 mg/l,” against the maximum acceptable level of “0.01 mg/l” established by the World Health Organization , the group wrote on social media that this beer would have been "detrimental to health,” and that the water used to make the beer had been polluted by fragments of lead coming from pipes.

Hundreds of bottles of poisonous beer have been found at the site in Leeds, England. (Archaeological Services WYAS)

Hundreds of bottles of poisonous beer have been found at the site in Leeds, England. ( Archaeological Services WYAS )

The Toxic History of Food and Drinks

So what would happen if one were to guzzle a bottle of the lead beer? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( CDC) warn that the consumption of high quantities of lead can cause major health problems depending on age. In children, learning difficulties can be caused by lowered IQs, while hyperactivity, slowed growth, and anemia are all common symptoms.

And adults consuming lead suffer “cardiovascular problems, weakened kidneys, and fertility problems in both women and men,” and in pregnant women lead can affect the development of the fetus and cause birthing complications.

According to a paper written by Dr. Herbert L. Needleman titled, “ History of lead poisoning in the world humans have mined lead for over 6000 years, predating the Bronze or Iron Ages, with the earliest recorded lead mine in Turkey about 6500 BC. Lead’s toxicity was recognized and recorded as early as 2000 BC and its widespread use caused “endemic chronic plumbism” in several societies throughout history.

In 250 BC, the Greek philosopher Nikander of Colophon reported on the colic and anemia resulting from lead poisoning, and later, during the Roman period , gout was prevalent among the upper classes of Roman society - this is believed to be a result of the enormous lead intake from contaminated foods and wine.

Lead water pipe, Roman, 20-47AD, with owner’s name cast into the pipe - ‘ The most notable lady Valeria Messalina’ (third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius). (CC BY 4.0 )

Lead Poisoning Today’s Children for Profits

But don’t for a second think lead poisoning is a historic problem, for mass lead poisoning still occurs . In 2009, reports say that in China 15,000 people were relocated from Jiyuan in central Henan province to other locations after 1000 children living around China's largest smelter plant, operated by “Yuguang Gold and Lead,” were lead poisoned.

And according to a 2010 BBC report, in Africa the Zamfara State lead poisoning epidemic occurred in Nigeria in 2010; and as of October 5 that year at least 400 children had died from the effects of lead poisoning.

It is for these reasons that the hundreds of bottles of unopened poisonous beer discovered beneath the staircase in Leeds will be displayed at the site of the former Tetley s Brewery, and not for sale on the open market.

Top Image: Hundreds of bottles of poisonous beer have been found at the site in Leeds, England. Source: Archaeological Services WYAS

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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