Sweets that explode in your pocket and hats that make you mad - at Leeds exhibition

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Down the ages people have suffered some strange and unfortunate deaths, as one exhibition at Kirkstall’s Abbey House Museum shows

The phrase ‘mad as a hatter’ is somewhat literal in origin, explains Kitty Ross, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of social history. “They used to use mercury in the hats and mercury being poisonous, over time, it sent hatters mad. Literally.”

Kitty Ross, Leeds Museums and Galleries' curator of social history, with a jar of the 'exploding' sweets

Kitty Ross, Leeds Museums and Galleries' curator of social history, with a jar of the 'exploding' sweets

It’s an interesting aside at one of the city’s more gruesome exhibitions. Danger Zone at Abbey House Museum, part of the Kirkstall Abbey complex, runs until the end of the year and showcases a litany of everyday objects, most of which could be lethal.

What items are on show?

In amongst the various display cabinets, some of which cannot even be opened due to their hazardous contents, are dresses and wallpaper containing harmful levels of arsenic, which was used at the time as a colouring. It was only years later that anyone realised the dangers of wearing these often expensive ball gowns. Not only did the makers sacrifice their health but the wearer, presumably dancing and “whirling along in an arsenic cloud”, which would have affected not only her but all within breathing distance.

There are numerous stories of people burning to death after their highly flammable flannelette nightwear caught on a naked flame.

Some items on display almost beggar belief. One comes in the form of radioactive tableware. Yes, you read that correctly. The glass candleholder in question, which is displayed in a plastic box, inside a glass cabinet, contains uranium and has a certificate to prove it.

“We have had the piece tested,” says Kitty. “The one in the perspex box is about five times the level you should be exposed to. It’s been tested outside the cabinet with a Geiger counter to make sure it’s safe.

“There was also wallpaper with arsenic in it. The paper we have is from Temple Newsam but it’s the same thing which is supposed to have killed Napoleon. He was sent to St Helena, where he had wallpaper with arsenic in it on damp walls which caused mold and the interaction led to the arsenic moving into the air. It wasn’t a deliberate way to kill him, people in Leeds were doing it, which is why we have a Leeds Times from 1880 telling people how to spot whether they had arsenic in their homes. At the time, it was thought decorative, in the same way that in the last century, people looked at asbestos as some sort of wonder material.”

Radioactive tableware anyone?

Once a decorative feature that brightened up a Victorian home, the delicate piece of glassware hides an invisible danger. The 19th century centrepiece has a characteristic green tinge that was common in some ornaments at the time and which helped it stand out in the early evening light. But the effect was achieved thanks to the addition of small quantities of uranium, the radioactive element used to power today’s nuclear submarines. Although the added ingredient certainly made the glassware more aesthetically pleasing, it also mean that if gave off quantities of radiation.

Perhaps even more surprising was that during the 1950s, in the US, some children’s chemistry contained uranium.

More deadly items

There’s also an African drum which is thought to still contain deadly anthrax spores, an electric heat lamp containing asbestos and cough sweets which have the potential to explode in your pocket.

An inquest in September 1950 found that a woman who was vacuuming her house died of strangulation after part of her pinafore was sucked into the machine, causing it to tighten fatally around her neck before she could even switch it off. There are also other stories involving various mishaps, whether it’s tripping in high heels at the top of the cellar steps or dozens of picnic-goers being stung by wasps during the August bank holiday of 1933 at Roundhay Park.

What the experts say...

Kitty explains: “These were pastilles for sore throats which contained potassium chlorate. While this would have had a soothing effect on the throat, it also had the potential to explode under the right circumstances and there was a story about a woman being killed in the 1950s after she used white spirit on a pair of trousers which happened to have some of these sweets in one of the pockets.”

A serious lack of jurisprudence when it comes to health and safety is not something confined to the 19th century, however. Lead water pipes dating from 1150-1400 and found in the grounds of Kirkstall Abbey, also feature in the exhibition. There was an asthma remedy which contained Stramonium, which was hallucinogenic and household cleaners containing minerals which are either radioactive or poisonous. Another object was a fire extinguisher which contained radium, which is carcinogenic.

Kitty says: “In the 19th century, things like radioactivity would have been considered by some as interesting and fun rather than dangerous. There are also stories of people using electric irons and because they were used to old flat irons, of putting them in water to cool them and then being electrocuted.

“The exhibition explores all the unexpected perils not just in Victorian times but today... we’re not trying to scare anyone, it’s more a case of giving people information.”