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New hidden killers. The Victorian home.

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About this work


The first in a further two-part series of Hidden Killers, in which historian Dr Suzannah Lipscomb explores the deadly must-have items of the Victorian and Edwardian eras in Britain. The first programme focuses on the late Victorian period when cities were expanding and mass consumerism took hold. The domestic horrors of home life in the 19th century are laid bare, revealing how the Victorian ideal of 'safe as houses' was far from the reality. The Victorians pioneered new food processing techniques, leaving consumers at the mercy of unscrupulous merchants at each stage of the food chain. Historians Kate Williams and Annie Gray describe how food adulteration proliferated in this environment, with devastating consequences. Bread was particularly susceptible, with additives such as alum and plaster of paris regularly substituted for flour to whiten the loaf. Overconsumption of these products led to chronic gastritis and, eventually, death. Poisonous colourants such as lead chromate were also used to make food appear more attractive. Milk was potentially even more lethal, with one in five samples adulterated with Borax, an alkali which neutralises the taste of spoilt milk. Ingestion of Borax in sufficient quantities could kill in itself. But as microbiologist Matthew Avison explains, the primary danger was in its ability to disguise harmful bacteria in milk, including bovine tuberculosis. Up to half a million children may have died from the disease in the Victorian era. The programme then explores death traps in the Victorian home, beginning with staircases. Overcrowding led to the construction of cheap, narrow staircases, particularly in the servant quarters. Lipscomb visits Manchester Metropolitan University, where she uses motion capture software to demonstrate the differences between safely constructed and overly steep staircases. To worsen matters, servants’ staircases were often uneven, dramatically increasing the chances of slips and falls. The Victorian obsession with cleanliness presented another host of dangers. At Blaise Castle, Bristol, curator Catherine Littlejohns demonstrates lethal Victorian inventions including the gas-fired bathtub, exploding toilet and finger-trapping mangle. Thomas Crapper, the aptly named plumber, invented the syphon valve to prevent the issue of explosive methane re-entering the house. Killing all known germs meant filling the Victorian home with toxic substances, from arsenic to strychnine – all easily purchased over the counter in packaging indistinguishable from harmless household products, as consultant pathologist Suzy Lishman explains. The ready availability of toxic substances also led to a rise in deliberate poisonings, particularly after the introduction of life insurance policies. Another largely forgotten inventor is Alexander Parkes - the inventor of celluloid. The highly flammable plastic was used to fashion small products such as jewellery and hair combs that were extremely popular with the middle classes, as they passed for more expensive items worn by the aristocracy. Unfortunately, celluloid has the potential to spontaneously combust, with lethal consequences. Progress, Lipscomb concludes, always comes at a cost.


UK : BBC4, 2013.

Physical description

1 DVD (60 min.) : sound, color, PAL


Broadcast on 10 December 2013.

Creator/production credits

Produced and directed by Suzanne Phillips: A Modern Television production for BBC Four

Copyright note

Modern Television



  • English

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