Cleaning up the ice cream triangle

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During the early 20th century the Medical Officers of Health (MOH) for the Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury made a concerted effort to reduce the risk of illness from contaminated ice cream. Dr George Newman was the MOH for the area and the author of the 1902 report which described the problem. Digitised versions of the London MOH reports are now available online and you can read the 1902 report for Finsbury online.

Street map of Finsbury, London , UK 1900.

The MOH’s report is most concerned with the area inside the red triangle. This is where a lot of ice cream sold on the streets of London was being made. The map comes from The Pocket Atlas and Guide to London by J.G. Batholomew which was published in 1900.

The 1902 report explained that there were 94 registered ice cream makers in the Borough of Finsbury, many of which were based in the triangular area bounded by Clerkenwell Road, Rosebery Avenue and Farringdon Road. The ice cream was made in small batches at home. Having pointed out that it was strictly speaking frozen custard, rather than ice cream, Dr Newman goes on to say that the milk, eggs, sugar and vanilla used were generally wholesome. The public health risk came as the mixture was left to cool prior to being frozen. It was at this stage, cooling in overcrowded living rooms and insanitary backyards, that the mixture might become contaminated. As the report says; “…it is not the process of manufacture that we need to supervise so much as the general condition of the houses in which the substance is made, and the persons who make it…”. This sums up the core of the much of the Medical Officer of Health’s work.

Photograph of George Newman, MOH for Finsbury

George Newman (1870-1948) the Medical Officer of Health for the metropolitan borough of Finsbury in London. WI no. M0003323

It seems that George Newman’s efforts were not entirely successful. His successor as MOH for Finsbury, Dr A. E. Thomas, had a more flamboyant style and, in the 1914 report for Finsbury, he wrote:

“The itinerant ice-cream vendors are probably the filthiest tradesmen in London. Their ice cream is, or may be, made in the gutter, and the stain of its place of origin adheres to it throughout its existence. The use of the small conical glasses which are mouthed and sucked by children is most undesirable. For cleaning, they are dipped into dirty water which contains the mouth secretions of previous buyers, swabbed with a small wet offensive duster and upended on a soiled barrow-top. One itinerant attempted to improve upon this method by immersing his right thumb into the same nauseous water and rubbing it vigorously on the inside of the glass: he used no duster. Another was giving the final polish to his glasses by rubbing them inside and outside with his handkerchief into which he blew his nose. Still another cleaned out the form in which he made the ice cream sandwiches by licking it with his tongue.”

I doubt if Dr Thomas tasted any of the ice creams.

Read about ice cream shops in the 1914 MOH report:


The medical officer of health reports for London, from 1848-1972, are freely available online (with full-text searching) via the London’s Pulse website and in the Wellcome Library catalogue.

Sue Davies

Sue Davies is External Projects Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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