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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 13th May 2012

I said, on Friday, that I would have a look at the most recent appearances of Laburnum in the British Newspapers Archive to see if I could detect a change in the reporting of any poisoning incidents from the early 19th century.

Immediately, I came across a problem that I’ve had in other circumstances but, it seems to me, to adopt the cliché, that this problem was really an opportunity to look at attitudes to this tree.


I’ve mentioned many times that I use Google Alerts to lead me to stories about interesting items. Laburnum is one of the most popular search terms used by people who, as a result, become visitors to this site so it seemed obvious to create an alert for that word.

Unfortunately, though it produces plenty of results, they are almost all real estate sites offering properties in Laburnum Crescent or Laburnum Avenue or similar. It seems that all those references to the presence of Laburnum in 19th century adverts for property for sale or to let have turned into a strong tendency to name residential areas after the tree as a means of suggesting that this is somewhere pleasant to live.

My Google Alert for Laburnum is, as a result, almost useless.

The newspaper archive, however, allows advertisements to be excluded so the results refer only to news stories. Of course, it could be a news story that a resident of Laburnum Drive suffered a car crash or the like but it does narrow the field a little.

Before turning to the stories I found, I must divert your attention, as mine was, with a couple of the other stories I noticed on the same page. I could claim that they help to add context to what I’m about to write about the Laburnum but, the truth is, I just found them to be beacons of how much society and attitudes have changed since the end of World War II.


The first was a 1949 report, from Bath, about the visit of a Kenyan police officer for training with the Somerset Constabulary. The item was deemed newsworthy because of the strangeness of seeing a black man in police uniform. The second item was also about prejudice but, this time, a strangely reversed gender prejudice. This was the news the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons was limiting the number of women being allowed onto its training courses because they were taking places that should go to men. It was claimed that this quota system, what today would be called ‘positive discrimination’, was necessary to keep the number of women at 30, out of 400 places, instead of 280 if no cap were applied.

The Laburnum story from that page was a follow-up to an earlier report of poisoning amongst a group of under-fives who became ‘very ill’ after getting access to seedpods growing in a place called Rosemary Lodge. There was a gender element to the story because the local Medical Officer of Health was quoted as saying that one of the boys had accused one of the girls of enticing them all to eat the seeds. ‘Adam blamed Eve’ was the phrase used.

Though this incident didn’t seem to be very different from those reported over one hundred years earlier, there was part of it that, I believe, would not happen today, just sixty or so years later.

The story said that it had been decided to remove the pods, each year, as soon as they formed rather than remove such attractive and useful, in terms of offering shade, trees from the grounds completely. It is hard to believe that, in our modern, risk averse world, those trees would have survived one day after the poisoning. 

It does seem that we've gone from valuing the beauty of Laburnum so much that we name streets after it to being irrationally scared of it.


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