A Pernicious Custom
18th Century Radnorshire

Update: 13 August 2008


From the "Gloucester Journal"
Monday, November 29, 1784

To the Printer:


Having failed, by private communication, to put a stop to a custom, which has produced fatal effects, I must beg the favour of you to insert the following facts in your paper.

The custom, to which I allude, prevails in several parts of Radnorshire, but is chiefly confined to the banks of the Wye, between Rhayader and the parish of Abereddow. That neighbourhood produces an acid fruit, which, in the language of the country, is called Merchin (kernel-fruit), and which the inhabitants use in the following manner: Having bruised the fruit, they put the must into a large earthen jar, where it is infused in water for several days, when the liquor is drawn off, and drank as small beer. These jars are lined, or glazed, with potter's lead, which readily dissolves in the sour juice of the merchin, and converts it into a certain poison. It produces obstinate costiveness, excruciating pains of the bowels, palsy of the extremities, vomiting, convulsions, apoplexy, and death. The first person whom I saw afflicted in this manner, was a farmer in the parish of Abereddow. I was soon convinced that his disorder was occasioned by lead; but there was some difficulty in discovering the means by which it had been taken. After much enquiry, I learnt, that he and all his family had drunk the juice of the merchin, prepared in wooden vessels, for twenty years, without any bad effect; and that this year they had, for the first time, made the infusion in a large earthen jar, the glazing of which it had almost entirely dissolved. His son and daughter were ill of the same disorder; and not one of the family, who had drunk the liquor, escaped without some of its symptoms. This happened in the year 1774: since that time, I have been called to a great number of people afflicted with this disease, which, in every instance, had been brought on by the same means. This was evident from the symptoms that took place in every patient; but, that no doubt might remain of the cause of the disorder, I made several experiments on the liquor, which, on every trial, contained a considerable quantity of lead. I must therefore recommend it to those, who drink the juice of the merchin, to prepare it in wooden vessels.

I cannot learn how long this custom has prevailed; but it probably took its rise from the following practice, for the knowledge of which, I am obliged to a very sensible clergyman of Rhayader (the late Mr. EDWARDS). It has been for many years a custom in Wales to make ale from the berries of the mountain-ash. This liquor, in its natural state, has a harsh ungrateful flavor, which the inhabitants in many parts correct, by infusing with the berries broken pieces of glazed earthen ware, which are collected and preserved for that purpose. The same gentleman also informed me, that disorders of the bowels were very fatal amongst them; and there is no doubt but many lives have been sacrificed to this pernicious custom.

... the inhabitants of all the cyder counties. I was desired to visit one of the patients, and had no doubt of his disorder being occasioned by lead. It has been suggested, that the Devonshire cholic is sometimes brought on by cyder carried in glazed earthen pitchers. This suggestion is entirely confirmed by the facts already mentioned, and by ... unfortunate cases; which, if they should prevent the public from keeping cyder and other acid liquors in glazed vessels, have not happened in vain.

I am, Sir, your obedient servant, Benjamin THOMAS - Kingston, Oct. 12, 1784.


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