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Sugar Tax 2016: A Story of History Repeating, According to York Curators

16 March 2016

“History repeating!” That’s how George Osborne’s announcement today of a sugar tax on companies producing sugary drinks has been described by historians in York, who have compared the measure destined to raise £520 million in tax to the original Sugar Tax that raised £1 million per year from 1764 to 1874.

“Until the early 19th century, sugar cane was the only source of sugar, and as this could not be grown in our country’s cold climate, it was an expensive luxury item for centuries – trading records show sugar being sold in London for two shillings for a pound in 1319 – around £75 in today’s money,” comments Ali Bodley, the museum’s senior curator of history. “Indeed, following the introduction of the Sugar Act in 1764, the government collected nearly £1 million each year in sugar tax, levied at 34% – the equivalent of around £106 million today.”

Tax on sugar was only removed in 1874 by then Prime Minister, William Gladstone. There were a number of reasons for this, including the growth of the sugar beet industry in the UK – it was not until the mid-18th century that sugar was first extracted from beet crops grown in Europe – and the effects on the abolition of slavery on the colonial sugar cane industry, which effectively increased production costs.

The curatorial team at York Castle Museum is currently putting together a new permanent exhibition, opening on 25 March 2016, which looks at the links between fashion, lifestyle and diet throughout the last 400 years, including an exhibit dedicated to sugar, from its first introduction to the English aristocracy, to a modern day addiction.

Included in the displays in the new Castle Museum Exhibition will be a cone of sugar dating back to the late 18th century. The cone pre-dates granulated sugar, and cooks would either break or scrape sugar from the cone for use in cooking.

“Sugar had gradually changed from being a luxury item to an everyday commodity, and became a key ingredient for lower class people who used it to make jams and preserves – an essential part of the diet for those poorest people for whom bread was their primary source of nutrition,” adds Ali.

“Removing the sugar tax made jam-making and other sweet products more affordable for those living in poverty, and may have marked the first step towards the obesity epidemic that we are facing today – sugar became a cheap, affordable staple, and sweet treats, including York’s own chocolate industry, made it easier to consume than ever before.”

Alongside the displays on how diet has influenced body shape, the gallery will also look at other dietary fashions and fads, including diet pills – which were as lethal in Victorian times as some are today, containing ingredients including arsenic – to the 1930s trend to deliberately infect yourself with parasitic worms to control weight.

“Of course, whilst some eras were marked by a trend to be skinny – including the early 19th century ‘TB chic’ where the gaunt, skinny appearance of someone suffering from consumption was considered attractive, to the 1990s equivalent of ‘heroin chic’, you also have periods when curvy figures were very much in vogue.”

“As with today’s ‘Kardashian booty’, at the end of the 18th century, ladies would use padded ‘bums’ or ‘rumps’ to create an enviable round silhouette – more examples of history repeating,” comments Ali.

Shaping The Body: 400 years of food, fashion and life‘ opens at York Castle Museum on 25 March 2016.