Thursday, 30 April 2020

J'Accuse! - The case of Stephan Goldner - Britain's Dreyfus



 Images from the wonderful AMC's The Terror


I shamelessly appropriate the language of Émile Zola's celebrated exposé of the notorious Dreyfus Affair to emphasize the injustice meted out by history to Stephan Goldner.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French army captain of Jewish descent who was wrongfully accused and convicted of treason in late 1894. He suffered five years harsh imprisonment but was eventually exonerated and promoted in July 1906.

Stephan Goldner was an Hungarian born industrialist of Jewish descent who was accused of fraud, almost immediately exonerated, yet strangely he was still condemned and demonised by the court of public opinion for 150 years.

Goldner built a successful business supplying canned food for the Royal Navy and the civilian market but when defective products caused the collapse of the venture and a public scandal in January 1852, the question was raised as to whether a similar failure may have caused the disappearance of Sir John Franklin's expedition which had departed for the Arctic seven years earlier.

The Times article had phrased the question quite neutrally, "Suppose, for instance, Franklin and his party to have been supplied with such food as that condemned...", it did not pretend to have the answer. Nonetheless, within a few years, the supposed poisoning of the Franklin expedition was being treated as established fact, and it grew from there.

    ... but worst of all they were supplied with Goldner's canisters of meat, which were (as subsequently proved to be) putrid and unfit for human food

                John Ross, 1856, Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin: a narrative of the circumstances &c.

    ... it was now proved beyond doubt that their lives were sacrificed by the accursed cupidity of the contractors who supplied them with putrid provisions.

                Alexander Bryson, 1859, Proceedings of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh

    It seems probable that the men of the expedition might have survived for a longer period but for the fact that the animal food which they were supposed to carry with them in the shape of preserved meats had actually rotted in its cases. ... To supply putrid poison for naval men engaged upon a public duty is to play the part of the enemy and the traitor.

                The Spectator, November 19, 1859

    To me one of the most awful things in connection with the Franklin catastrophe was the discovery afterwards of tins professing to be filled with preserved meat, but which were only packed with stones. These had been supplied by a contractor Named Goldner in England. When the poor unfortunate explorers came to open them, what must have been their horror on discovering the fiendish act - I call it nothing else - that had been perpetrated? These tins were eventually found by one of the searching parties; but of course on their return to England the man - who deserved hanging several times over - had disappeared.

                Albert Hastings Markham, 1895, The Windsor Magazine

    Like most evil men, Stephen Goldner would have passed unnoticed in a crowd.

        Cookman, 2000, Ice Blink

John Barrow, The Admiralty's archivist and son of  the long serving Admiralty Second Secretary who had set the expedition in motion, was the first to try to set the record straight, his letter appearing in the Times just two days after the scandal broke.




        THE PRESERVED MEAT OF THE NAVY

            TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES

    Sir,— Having read in The Times of to-day the account of
    the examination of the preserved meats at the Royal
    Clarence-yard, supplied under Goldner’s contract, and of
    the contents of the tin canisters, you will oblige me by in-
    serting these few lines, which I trust may in some measure
    counteract the alarm which the concluding paragraph from
    your Portsmouth correspondent cannot fail to have created
    in the minds of the family and friends of the officers and
    seamen of Sir John Franklin’s expedition. Your corre-
    spondent very reasonably supposes, and very naturally too,
    "that if Franklin and his party have been supplied with
    such food as that condemned, and relied upon it as their
    mainstay in time of need, the very means of saving their
    lives may have bred a pestilence or famine among them,
    and have been their destruction."
        No one can dispute this. If it be so, it is a fearful thing
    to contemplate; but I do not myself feel much misgiving
    on the subject. I think I am right in asserting that the
    first supply of preserved meats under Goldner’s contract
    was to Sir John Franklin’s ships. This, of course, can
    easily be ascertained. It is not probable that in his first
    supply anything but the very best provisions would have
    been issued. From that period (1845) Goldner’s preserved
    meats have been in constant use in the navy, and it is only,
    I believe, latterly that they have been found to consist of such
    disgusting material. Disgusting, however, as the material is,
    the state of putrefaction is certainly infinitely worse; but in
    a cold climate this is fortunately not likely to have occurred.
    Had any of the preserved meats, supplied to Sir John
    Franklin’s ships been of a bad description I think it would
    have been known, inasmuch as Capt. Fitzjames remarked
    to me, that "it was not wise to take a new contract for
    preserved meats from a man who was unknown, merely
    because his tender was lower, while another was willing
    to supply the provisions whose meat had been universally
    approved in the navy."
        Captain Fitzjames was alive to the importance of the sub-
    ject, and would doubtless have discovered and made known
    the fact, had it been so, on the return of the transport
    which accompanied them to Disco; but so far from it, I
    possess a letter from that brave officer — the beloved of all —
    in which he speaks to the very contrary of the provisions
    they were consuming.


Barrow makes several excellent points.

He wasn't completely correct in that Goldner’s first government contract wasn't for Franklin’s ships in 1845. There had been a small contract (less than £250) for Henry Dundas Trotter's Niger expedition of 1841. However, the supply for Franklin's ships was a much larger and far more important contract which carried with it the prospect of future sales on a vastly different scale. Barrow's point that Goldner would have been motivated to provide only the very best provisions is perfectly valid as to do otherwise would have been business suicide.

The product had been in use on a large scale for a long time without complaint. The recent report of disgusting material could not be reasonably used to imply a problem with goods provided six or seven years previously.

Commander Fitzjames was an experienced officer very alert to the possibility that a contractor might supply inferior goods. It was after all an everyday occurrence. In fact he was not correct that the preserved provisions had been supplied on the basis of lowest bidder in this case. If there had been a problem with any of the provisions then reports to that effect would certainly have been sent back with the Barretto Junior. On the contrary, Fitzjames' report of the provisions was positive. We also know from a letter of James Thompson, Engineer of HMS Terror, that preserved meat was served out three times per week.

Barrow's final point refers to the empty tin canisters carefully piled up Cape Riley. Actually they were on Beechey Island - the other side of Erebus and Terror Bay. Standard practice was to throw condemmed stores over the side of the ship so the the fact that these cans were all perfectly empty is suggestive that their contents was serviceable and had been consumed. 


Good as these arguments are, Barrow is not speaking in any official capacity. To fully acquit Golder would require the authority of the State. The subject would soon be raised in the House of Commons.

Friday, 24 April 2020

The Newspaper Column Which damned Goldner


The Times newspaper of the mid-Victorian era carried, on page 7, a column titled "Naval Intelligence". As might be expected, the column reported all manner of snippets of news on subjects connected with Her Majesty's Navy.

From Saturday, January 3, 1852, the column began a series of items detailing, in lurid detail, the condemnation of stores which had begun the previous Tuesday (December 30) at the Royal Clarence victualling establishment at Gosport near Portsmouth.

Times, January 3, 1852
            NAVAL INTELLIGENCE
                                                   PORTSMOUTH FRIDAY,
THE PRESERVED MEAT OF THE NAVY.

    A board of examination, consisting of Mr. John Davies,
R.N., master-attendant of the Royal Clarence Victualling
Establishment, Gosport; Mr. Joseph Pinhorn, R.N.,
storekeeper; and Dr. Alexander M'Kechnie, surgeon and
medical storekeeper of the Royal Naval Hospital, Haslar,
has been employed since Tuesday last in examining the
cases of preserved meats supplied by contract to the
Navy, the Admiralty having cause to suspect their
purity. The examination has disclosed some horrible
facts. The canisters containing the meat are, upon the average,
about 10lb canisters. On Tuesday, 643 of them were opened,
out of which number no fewer than 573 were condemned,
their contents being masses of putrefaction. On Wednesday,
779 canisters were opened, out of which number, 734 were
condemned. On Thursday, 791 canisters were opened,
out of which number, 744 were condemned. On Friday
(this day), 494 canisters were opened, out of which,
459 were condemned. Thus, out of 2707 canisters of meat
opened, only 197 have proved fit for human food, those
condemned for the most part containing such substances as
pieces of heart, roots of tongue, pieces of palates, pieces of
tongues, coagulated blood, pieces of liver, ligaments of
the throat, pieces of intestines— in short, garbage and
putridity in a horrible state, the stench arising from which
is most sickening, and the sight revolting. The examining
board and party were compelled to use profusely Sir W.
Burnett's disinfecting fluid, to keep off, or in the hope of
keeping off, pestilence. To-day, however, they deemed it
prudent to desist from further exposure for a time, to guard
against danger, and will consequently not proceed with
the examination until next week, the greater part of which will
be taken up with the filthy investigation, as there were up-
wards of 6000 canisters to examine at the commencement.
This stuff was supplied to the Admiralty, and delivered into
store at the Clarence yard last November twelvemonth,
warranted equal to sample, and to keep sound and consuma-
ble for five years. We are informed it came from Galatz,
in Moldavia. The few canisters containing meat fit for human
beings to eat have been distributed, under the direction of
Captain Superintendent Parry, to the deserving poor of the
neighbourhood, and those containing the putrid stock have
been conveyed to Spithead in lighters, and thrown overboard.
The consequences of such frauds as this cannot be too seriously
estimated. Suppose, for instance, Franklin and his party to
have been supplied with such food as that condemned,
and relying upon it as their mainstay in time of need, the
very means furnished for saving their lives may have
bred a pestilence or famine among them, and been their
destruction.

Times, January 7, 1852
             NAVAL INTELLIGENCE
                                                   PORTSMOUTH Tuesday,


    The examination of the remaining stock of "preserved
meat" in store at Clarence-yard was resumed by the officers
forming the board this morning; but they were again
obliged to leave off prematurely, owing to the nausea en-
gendered by their unwholesome task. They opened 497
canisters, varying in the amount of their contents from
10lb. to 10½lb. each, 466 of which were condemned and
thrown overboard at Spithead, and 31 only considered fit to
let pass for distribution among the poor. Each day brings
to light some item of disgust in the matter of the com-
modity sealed up as "preserved meat" To-day we have
inspected clots of hair, a piece of intestine with the manure
in it, a huge lump of gangrenous kidney, and such like filthy
items. But for the great efficacy of the disinfecting solution of
Dr. Sir William Burnett, the Director-General of the Medical
Department of the Navy, which is profusely used in the
store where the examination is going on, it would be im-
possible for the officers to prosecute their investigation for
long together, owing to the sickening stench arising from
the stuff around them. There remain about 2,600 more
cases to open, which will occupy the rest of the week.
This afternoon Dr. Twynam, an experimental agriculturalist,
applied to purchase a quantity of the offal condemned, with
the view of its forming the matrix of ammoniacal manure,
but no item of it was allowed thus to escape, and the gen-
tleman was recommended by the authorities to make his
application to the Lords of the Admiralty.

Times, January 8, 1852
             NAVAL INTELLIGENCE
                                                   PORTSMOUTH Wendesday,
    This morning the examination of the canisters of "pre-
served meats" was resumed at the Royal Clarence Victualling
Establishment, and so far from the investigation exhibiting
any improvement in the stock, as the board progressed with
their labour, the result showed a realization of still worse
delinquency. Out of 300 canisters, of the respective size
of 10lbs., 10½lb., 10¾lbs., and 11 lbs. each, only one was
suffered to pass as consumable, the rest were condemned,
and thrown overboard at sea. The contents exposed
to-day were chiefly loosc putrid matter, now and then
varied with a few stones, entrails with the excrement in
them, kidneys green with decomposition, lumps of heart,
and in many cases whole hearts festering with putridity,
coagulated blood in great abundance, tallow, lumps
of tendons, garbage, grease, and offal. After three
hours' labour the officers forming the board were com-
pelled to leave off, the stench was so great; indeed, it would
have overpowered them, but that a man was ever and anon
employed in well saturating the floor about them with Sir
William Burnett's disinfecting fluid, with the extra
precaution of a blanket saturated with it being hung up imme-
diately contiguous to the bench whereon the contents of
the canisters were emptied. After standing for an hour, I
was compelled to quit the store from the overpowering
stench, and Dr. M'Kechnie (the medical officer of the
Board of Examination) also felt sick from the influence of the
noxious odour, soon after commencing his labours in the
morning. The examination of the contents of the canisters
is conducted upon the fairest principle—the top part and
the bottom part of each canister being alternately selected
to commence upon, and the contents of the whole are
gradually exposed and brought under inspection. Due notice
of the intended examination was given to the contractor's agent
and his sureties, requesting their attendance, but no one
has appeared, and the contractor himself is not to be found.
At the commencement of this investigation, on Tuesday week,
there were 6,660 canisters, varying in size from 4 lbs. to 12lbs.,
and some of 32 lbs. each. and about three months ago, when
the stench arising from the store in which they were kept
made the authorities of the Clarence-yard suspect some-
thing was wrong, the agents to the contractor came down
and took away 2,000 canisters (containing 17.000 lbs. of
stuff) without opening them. This contract has long since
been paid for. The goods are warranted to last sound and
wholesome for five years after delivery into Admiralty store.
After the 300 canisters above mentioned were examined to-
day, one of the canisters of 32 lbs. was opened, labelled "Gold-
ner's patent stewed beef," and bearing the following direc-
tions :—"The canister to be put into a saucepan with warm
water and boiled about 15 minutes, then the meat to be taken
out, and add to the gravy a portion of water, rice, or any
vegetables, and an admirable dish will be obtained." This
"admirable dish," without the aid of the saucepan, rice,
and vegetables, presented a sickening mass of revolting de-
composition. It was intended as the food of 40 seamen,
marines, or boys of Her Majesty's fleet. The examining offi-
cers intend to take rest to morrow from their disgusting
task, and will not resume it until Friday. About 2,000
more canisters remain to be examined. That "pre-
served meat" from this stock had been issued to sea-going
ships we know, as Commodore Lambert, of the Fox, on the
East India station, returned a lot, with the report that
after partaking of some of it those who had done so had
been seized with sickness, &c.; and we believe Commodore
Martin, of the Prince Regent, 90, on the Lisbon station,
also had some of it, and returned it ; and so doubtless
have many other ships.

These three paragraphs amount to a nauseating tally of putrid garbage which disgusted the readership and roused a hue and cry that something must be done to root out the evil of crooked contractors and incompetent victualling officials.

It certainly destroyed Goldner's reputation and cemented him in the role of an almost pantomime villain and bogeyman for the next 150 years or more.

What interests me is the fact that it wasn't the cans of preserved meat but actually the newspaper reports reproduced above which had the greater proportion of garbage. There can be no doubt that Goldner was falsely accused. This point will be expanded in future posts.

Three visits to 137 Houndsditch

In January ‎2019 Gina Koellner and I made a pilgrimage to the site of Goldner's preserved provisions manufactory. The site is now partly...