Nostalgia: Medicine killed four Romford children

Lasham's Chemist was on Lasham's Corner, in High Street, Romford.

Lasham's Chemist was on Lasham's Corner, in High Street, Romford. - Credit: Archant

Newspapers reported “considerable excitement” in Romford in late October 1874 as four children died in mysterious circumstances.

Prof Ged Martin

Prof Ged Martin - Credit: Archant

It was Queen Victoria’s England, Disraeli was Prime Minister and Romford had a population of 8,000.

William and Ann Copsey lived alongside Romford Market, where William worked an upholsterer.

They were incomers. William had been born near Chelmsford, Ann at Rayleigh. There were other Copseys in town (today, the removals firm of Geo. C. Copsey and Co. must be Havering’s oldest business) but probably no grandparents around to help rear five children under the age of seven.

On Monday, October 26, the youngest, Reginald, aged 19 months, was teething and crying. Ann sent her eldest, seven year-old Susan, to buy a “powder” from Lasham’s, the respected chemists on the corner of High Street and South Street.

Mixed with jam, it made Reggie sick. He was given a second powder with his bottle. The Copseys were not worried when he fell asleep. Aspirin had not been invented. The “powder” was opium based, to relieve pain and quieten grizzling children. But Reginald died on Tuesday afternoon.

Benjamin Keeble was a printer and bookbinder in Waterloo Road. His daughter, 10-month-old Sarah Jane, was also teething.

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Sarah’s mother mixed a Lasham’s powder with her breast milk. The child died on Tuesday evening.

Richard Brazier was a labourer at Ind Coope’s brewery. 15-month-old Joseph died at his house in Mawney’s Lane (now Mawney Road).

The fourth victim was Septimus, the two-year-old son of Joseph Adams, a “mechanic” who lived in Moss Lane, at the Brentwood Road end of Albert Road.

These last two tragedies seem unpardonable. They happened later in the week, caused by powders purchased on Wednesday and Thursday. Why had sales continued?

The South Street surgeon, Dr Alfred Wright, admitted he knew of other cases. He applied a stomach pump to Septimus, but it was too late.

Every TV cop show has a brainy pathologist who decodes the grisly story, but no such resources were available to the Romford coroner. Medical gentlemen performed tests, but without results.

The inquest was an elaborate cover-up. “Old Mr Lasham”, the founder of the business, had recently handed it on to his son, John William, who had been on his honeymoon at the time of the tragedies. Nobody enquired whether there was some connection here.

The local elite felt sorry for the grieving parents, but their chief aim was to protect a fellow professional. Two shop assistants gave unhelpful evidence.

Nobody remembered who had mixed the powders and when. They could not even recall selling them. The coroner steered the jury away from blame: “If a party acted to the best of his judgment in the discharge of his duty he could not be found guilty of manslaughter,” he said.

The jurors needed persuading, debating for half an hour before returning their verdict.

The four children had been poisoned by Lasham’s powders, but there was no evidence “as to how or by whom such powders were prepared”.

The cover-up had worked – no prosecutions, no fines, nobody in jail.