Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Postgate, John

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POSTGATE, JOHN (1820–1881), initiator of the laws against adulteration, the son of a Scarborough builder, Thomas Postgate, by his wife Jane, born Wade, was descended from an ancient Roman catholic family of Yorkshire, of which a representative, Nicholas Postgate (1597-1679), was executed at York during the panic caused by the 'popish plot.' This Nicholas, born at Egton in Yorkshire, was ordained at Douay on 20 March 1628, and served the English mission in the district of Ugthorpe, near Whitby, where the farm at which he resided is still known by his name. He was apprehended for baptising a child according to the Roman rite, indicted at York assizes under the old penal statute of 27 Eliz., and executed on 7 Aug. 1679. A hymn that he composed in York Castle 'is even now used in the wild moorlands about Ugthorpe ' (cf. Foley, Society of Jesus, v. 760; Peacock, Yorkshire Catholics, p. 98; Raine, York Castle Depositions.)

Born at Scarborough on 21 Oct. 1820, John Postgate started life as a grocer's boy at the age of eleven. In 1834 he went as assistant to a surgeon at the modest salary of 2s. 6d. a week. His leisure hours he devoted to self-improvement, working hard at Latin, chemistry, and botany, and at the age of seventeen he wrote and published in the 'Yorkshire Magazine' a paper on 'Rare Plants and their Properties.' He subsequently attended lectures at the Leeds school of medicine; in July 1845 he qualified at Apothecaries' Hall, and earned the means to continue his education by acting as assistant to a firm in the east of London. He then attended the London Hospital, satisfied the College of Surgeons in 1844, and settled in May 1851 at Birmingham, where he soon acquired a position of influence. Three years later he obtained the fellowship of the College of Surgeons, and thenceforward commenced his lifelong crusade against the adulteration of food substances, into the secrets of which his experience as a grocer's boy had given him a grim insight. He succeeded in interesting the Birmingham members, William Scholefield and George Frederick Muntz [q.v.], in the matter, and on 26 June 1855 Scholefield moved for a select committee of inquiry in the House of Commons. Postgate was frequently examined, and by means of circulars and letters he kept the question before the public. Meetings were held in the large towns of the north, and samples of such commodities as bread, flour, ground coffee, mustard, vinegar, pepper, wine, beer, and drugs, as adulterated by the local retailers, were publicly exhibited and analysed. The local appointment of public analysts, coupled with the bestowal of powers of summary jurisdiction upon the magistracy, was the leading feature of the machinery by which Postgate proposed to repress such frauds, and his suggestions were substantially embodied in the recommendations of the select committee. Altogether, no fewer than nine bills dealing with adulteration were introduced into the House of Commons by the members for Birmingham under Postgate's influence. Their efforts met with strenuous opposition from retailers. At length, in 1860, a comparatively gentle measure, giving local authorities the option of appointing public analysts, with powers of prosecuting offending tradesmen, became law. It was to remedy the manifest defects of this permissive and largely inoperative measure that Muntz, at Postgate's instance, subsequently introduced the Amendment Act, which eventually became law in 1872. Other suggestions of Postgate's were embodied in the Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1875. This legislation was followed by similar measures in the British colonies. Postgate obtained no public recognition of any kind for his services. He took an active part in the inauguration in Birmingham of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science in 1857. Two papers by him on adulteration were published in the ‘Transactions’ for 1857 and 1868 respectively. On 7 May 1860 he was appointed professor of medical jurisprudence and toxicology at Queen's College, Birmingham. His death took place on 26 Sept. 1881 at the London Hospital, whither he was taken by his own desire upon his return from Neuenahr, near Bonn, in a dying condition. He was buried in the new cemetery at Birmingham. His epitaph records that, for ‘twenty-five years of his life, without reward, and under heavy discouragement, he laboured to protect the health and to purify the commerce of this people.’ Postgate married, in May 1850, Mary Ann, daughter of Joshua Horwood of Driffield, Yorkshire, by whom he left issue. He published the following pamphlets: 1. ‘Sanitary Aspects of Birmingham,’ 1852. 2. ‘A Few Words on Adulteration,’ 1857. 3. ‘Medical Services and Public Payments,’ 1862.

An excellent portrait by Vivian Crome, a grandson of ‘Old Crome,’ hangs in the council chamber at Scarborough.

[Times, 30 Sept. 1881; The Biograph and Review, May 1880; Langford's Modern Birmingham and its Institutions, ii. 446–66; Scarborough Gazette, 19 Oct. 1882; notes kindly furnished by J. P. Postgate, esq., Trinity College, Cambridge.]

T. S.