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A Cautionary Seasonal Warning from Glasgow 1949 regarding Alcohol (Methanol Poisoning)

A blog post By Gillian Mawdsley

We are all aware of the warnings about drinking at Christmas, mostly focused on the quantity of alcohol consumed. This public concern features prominently in the annual Drink Driving campaigns, with one such example being this year’s slogan from North Yorkshire Police of “Don’t shatter lives.” Christmas Drink and Drug Campaign 2023 | North Yorkshire Police

In 2023, we have become quite familiar with public inquiries in the United Kingdom instructed under the Inquiries Act 2005; these have been much highlighted in the extensive press reporting of the two current Covid-19 death inquiries. Their purpose, as with all inquests (England) and Fatal Accident Inquiries (FAI) (their Scottish counterpart), is to examine the circumstances of the deaths in seeking to identify lessons to be learnt, and crucially, to avoid other lives being shattered.

This article examines the consequences of methanol poisoning examined in an FAI held into ten deaths that occurred in Glasgow at New Year in 1949. In that case, it was the alcohol consumed rather than the quantity, which was key, though quantity may also have played a part in those who lived or died. It explores the nature of such deaths from methanol and concludes with the regrettable and surprising continuing international relevance of the nature of these deaths today. It seeks to endorse a seasonal warning regarding the consequences of the inadvertent consumption of methanol.

FAI into the deaths

Ten people in Glasgow died following New Year parties which are traditionally the highlight of the Scottish festive celebrations. The Scottish “first footing” tradition contributed to the number of deaths as the practice of being the first person to enter a house is meant to bring luck or as seen from this FAI, to bring misfortune for the year ahead. This practice commonly combines with the consumption of alcohol. Those who died were close neighbours who lived in Blackhall and Townhead, a tenement area to the north of Glasgow. They had died after consuming methanol (or CH3OH) used in industrial processes. It had been taken illegally from Strathclyde Chemical Works.

The FAI (SC36/30/1949/8) concluded on 7 February 1949, merely one month after the deaths which had occurred between 2nd and 4th January 1949. That timescale contrasts sharply with the speed of such inquiries today that are delayed and where such delays are consequently subject to severe criticism. What is important is to learn lessons from deaths so inquiries should take place as soon as possible to avoid any recurrence. That speed was certainly achieved here.

The circumstances of these deaths were investigated as a discretionary inquiry held at the instance of the Lord Advocate, the senior law officer in Scotland, under section 3 of the Fatal Accidents and Sudden Deaths Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1906 (1906 Act). That allows the Lord Advocate to hold a FAI into a sudden or suspicious death in Scotland, where it was deemed expedient in the public interest as clearly the circumstances of these deaths fully merited.

The jury delivered the FAI verdict as required in terms of the Fatal Accidents Inquiry (Scotland) Act 1895, amended by the 1906 Act. It held that those who died had “partaken on the assumption that it was an ordinary intoxicating beverage of a quantity of liquor which was in fact a concoction containing [methanol] used for industrial purposes and deaths resulted …. from [such] alcohol poisoning.” The jury went on to hold that the [methanol] in question had been stolen during the New Year holidays from the premises of Strathclyde Chemical Works by an “unnamed” employee. From other evidence, the methanol had been mixed with tea, lemonade, and other drinks.

There are features of that FAI worth observing today: -

The local newspaper reported that a Chief Police Inspector, Northern Division, indicated that a man had initially denied any knowledge but later admitted having stolen and distributed the alcohol. He had not tried to sell the alcohol and had indeed consumed the alcohol himself but survived. No indication was given as to any criminal sanctions for him which may have followed. Criminal processes would have needed to be instituted in separate proceedings. Interestingly, in Scotland the responsibility for criminal investigations as well as deaths too falls under the Lord Advocate, the head of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

Only twenty-one witnesses gave evidence before Sheriff -Substitute, Lanarkshire, James Wellwood Johnstone. From the Minutes of Proceedings, this comprised relatives and the police. The absence of evidence from pathologists, doctors and indeed those working or responsible from the premises from where the alcohol was taken, shows a narrower focus than might be anticipated within the scope of today’s inquiries. All relevant lines of inquiry need to be pursued, including the ease with which the methanol was stolen and any responsibility of the employers.

Justice, a charitable organisation, endorses this by stating: “[w]hen a catastrophic event or systemic failure results in death or injury, the justice system must provide a framework to understand what happened and to prevent recurrence.” JUSTICE launches timely report on urgent reform for major inquests and inquiries - JUSTICE

The context too for these deaths, 70 years ago also needs understood. These arose post WW2 when rationing was still in place. Though alcohol was not rationed, it may have been in short supply plus the costs of its production had arisen. This may have been a contributory factor supporting the incidence of the theft. However, it may have been ignorance of the risks of methanol which focused in why the FAI was originally held. These continue to be relevant.

What is methanol and its role in the causation of deaths?

Methanol is a commonly available chemical Methanol - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics, found, for instance, in antifreeze, and windscreen wash. It is a product of fermentation, with low levels of methanol being detectable in all beer and spirits. Low concentrations are not toxic but when methanol is deliberately added, its levels increase. It will metabolise into formaldehyde and formic acid, thereafter, potentially causing deaths. Unfortunately, as demonstrated in the FAI, symptoms do not appear immediately after its consumption. Initial symptoms may include “drowsiness, feel unsteady and disinhibited.” These symptoms are arguably common with the consumption of alcohol. Headaches, vomiting, abdominal pain and vertigo thereafter can occur along with hyperventilation, convulsions, and permanent visual impairment. There may well be a delay in seeking out medical assistance which contributes to the elevated levels of mortality. There is no information from the FAI as to how many consumed methanol but survived.

Relevance today

Though these deaths occurred years ago, the circumstances of the FAI remain relevant today. The BBC reported in 2019 that “every few months, reports circulate of large numbers of people falling ill after a wedding or other gathering. The illnesses - often deaths too - are blamed on bad alcohol; cheaply made homebrew which contains potentially lethal levels of methanol.” Methanol poisoning: Death by ignorance and taboo - BBC News.

Oslo University has set up the Methanol Poisoning Initiative to record methanol outbreaks to understand the scale of the international problem. They seek to raise awareness of early diagnosis and treatment regarding methanol poisoning. Training is included as part of their remit to targeting the public.

Finally, closer to home in February 2023, following an inquest into the death of Kirsty McKie in Bali from the inadvertent consumption of methanol, the Manchester coroner issued a Prevention of Further Deaths Report (PFD) under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to the Foreign Secretary. She found that knowledge amongst the expatriate/tourist community of the consumption of methanol was very low despite the increase in incidents and the catastrophic consequences. Additionally, she considered that the UK Government should publicise information about the risk of methanol being used in local spirits, so that steps could be taken by UK nationals travelling to reduce the risk and warning regarding the signs of methanol toxicity help to reduce the chance of others dying in the way in which Kirsty McKie died, Kirsty McKie: Prevention of future deaths report - Courts and Tribunals Judiciary.


In 2023, we can see that the issues regarding the accidental consumption of methanal remain relevant. The PFD Report though applicable to Bali could equally well have been written in 1949 regarding the Glasgow deaths.

Both the FAI and inquest illustrate the dangers and the need for awareness of the risks regarding the accidental consumption of methanal. The 1949 FAI remains a timely warning as we enter the festive period, no matter where we are located.

Finally, as 2023 concludes we should remember the relatives of those affected in 1949 and of Kirsty McKie. Let’s endorse their common wish for other relatives not to go through what they have done and avoid the occurrence of such deaths in the future.

Gillian Mawdsley is an Associate Lecturer in Law at The Open University

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