Mad as a Hatter
Ever spotted the Mad Hatter pub and hotel along Stamford Street? Images of Alice at her wonderland tea party may spring to mind, but ‘Mad as a Hatter’ has a particular historical significance in SE1.
Southwark was one of the industrial centres of London, a place where the dirty and smelly trades were carried out, away from the eyes, ears and noses of The City of London. Hat manufacturing was a particularly polluting, discharging large amounts of mercury into local streams which ended up in the Thames.
Going back as far as the 15th Century, most of the hat-makers were based East of London Bridge, but by 1882 there were seven hat manufacturers on Stamford Street, with Tress & Co, standing on the site of the Mad Hatter Hotel.
A family run business until 1953, Tress & Co made a wide range of products including…
“silk and felt hats, new India and home regulation helmets, tropical hats and felt solar hats, patent cork air tube ventilated hats (!?) and helmets.”
Tress & Co was eventually sold to Christy’s and moved out of London, largely due to changing fashions.
Process of Hat-Making
It’s the ‘carroting’ that was so dangerous to factory workers; the process of making felt where the fur from small animals was separated from the skin. The nitrous gases released from Mercury made the fur easier to remove so was implemented across the industry. (Fun fact: prior to this, camel urine was the liquid of choice.)
Effects of Mercury Poisoning
Affecting the skin, kidneys, eyes and nervous system, Mercury exposure is deadly. The signs of mercury poisoning – the same as those commonly seen in hatters – were emotional instability, memory loss, speech problems, and ataxia (loss of control over bodily movements).
Alice in Wonderland
So perhaps a slightly more sinister tale that maybe you expected? And now you know that Lewis Carroll didn’t invent the phrase “Mad as a Hatter” (or indeed “Mad as a March Hare”). Both were popular phrases used at least from the 1830s and the first publication of Alice in Wonderland was 1865.
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