Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
May Donoghue found a snail in her ginger beer. Taking a day trip out of Glasgow one Sunday in August 1928 she caught up with a friend in the Wellmeadow Cafe in Paisley. Her ice cream float sounded tasty, but when her friend poured out the last of the ginger beer a decomposed snail came tumbling out. May Donoghue was shocked. Soon after she fell ill and was admitted to Glasgow Royal Infirmary where she was treated for gastroenteritis.
The ginger beer was made by David Stevenson, a small manufacturer in nearby Glasgow. May Donoghue sued him. Her case was heard through a series of courts in Scotland before it eventually came before the House of Lords in 1932. There the Lords ruled that Stevenson (and, by extension, all manufacturers) owed a duty of care to Donoghue (and, by extension, all consumers). That duty of care had been breached, since he had failed to ensure the safety of his ginger beer and caused harm to Mrs Donoghue.
The Paisley Snail is a founding case for delict law in Scotland and Tort law in England. Thinking about it in the broader context of the 1920s we can see the growing importance of ideas of “the people” in shaping social, cultural and political life as Britain was transformed into a genuinely modern mass democracy. We can also see how the institutions of law, state, and civil society were increasingly drawn into regulating emerging forms of mass consumer culture. The historical significance of the Paisley snail is great indeed.
Thank you to Erika Hanna for telling me about this fantastic case: her history knowledge extends a long way beyond Modern Dublin.