The Singular Case of the Tiverton Barber

We all know the feeling of paying for something that doesn’t match up with our expectations, or not receiving the service or product we expect for our money. Many of us wouldn’t think twice of complaining, and getting a refund. But would we necessarily be prepared to go to court over something so apparently mundane as shaving soap?

In 1887 an unusual case came before the county court at Tiverton in Devon. The case of Stuckey versus Mitchell centred upon whether a barber had used a different brand of shaving soap to his usual one on a regular customer, in the process causing him a serious skin damage and illness. “The question before His Honour was whether Thomas Mitchell (the barber and hairdresser) was liable in damages” from any potential negligence or want of skill. More particularly, if he had not taken particular care to ensure that the materials he used were fit for purpose, could he be held responsible?

The customer, Stuckey, had visited Mitchell’s barbershop together with his friend, a Mr Rabjohn, for their customary shave. Not long afterwards both reported that their faces felt unusually hot and, as the day went on, Stuckey, in particular, was struck by a severe skin condition, likened to eczema, and also reportedly also fell ill. Not only seeking compensation for his suppurating face, Mr Stuckey also attempted to claim for loss of earnings. The case centred upon the soap used by the barber. Had the barber, in an attempt to cut corners, substituted his usual brand for a new type? Mitchell had, years previously, indeed fallen on straitened times before, appearing the London Gazette as an insolvent debtor, where he was described as a ‘hair dresser, perfumer, stationer, stamp distributor and post office keeper’.

Image copyright Wellcome Images)

When he came to the stand, the barber claimed to be a man of habit, and swore that he had used the same particular brand of soap – Millbay – for more than 30 years. Not only this, he had even purchased it every week from the same shop. Millbay was a common enough brand made in Nequay, cheap and often used by penny barbershops and even the poor law unions, who used it in Devon workhouses. His counsel even went so far as to have a sample of Millbay tested, and reported to the court that the results proved that it contained ‘nothing injurious to human skin’.

(1884 Advert for Mill Bay soap – Image from Pinterest)

But the customer and his friend were adamant that they had been duped. In their testimony they claimed to have raised suspicions when they both noticed that the soap in the barber’s bowl looked suspiciously dark, and unlike the usual lather. It appeared, they suggested, to be plain ‘scrubbing soap’, a rough caustic type used for cleaning clothes and other general duties. According to Mr Stuckey, the two men even remarked this to the barber, who allegedly shouted at his son “I told you not to buy that!”. This, the barber vehemently denied.

Things began to unravel when, under cross examination it emerged not only that Stuckey was prone to eczema and had long received treatment for it, but that Mr Rabjohn’s testimony – the only other witness – was, to be blunt, full of holes! When asked if he had mentioned the heat in his face to the barber, he reported that it was “only in a joking way”. When further pressed he admitted that he had never in fact suffered any ill effects from it on the day in question, but was referring to another occasion…which he had never informed the barber of.

The judge remained unconvinced as to either the liability of the barber or the injurious effects of the soap. Whilst he sympathised with Mr Stuckey’s condition, and apparently ‘substantial pecuniary loss’ he felt it could be conclusively proved either that the soap was deficient, or that the barber had neglected his duty of care. The court found in favour of the barber, and Messrs Stuckey and Rabjohn were clearly left to lick their wounds!

One thought on “The Singular Case of the Tiverton Barber

  1. I happen to be a barber who has made and used my own soap from olive oil and a sodium hydroxide solution. I’ve used it on myself (not customers, hasten to add). Can attest to my soap being stingier than the regular shop-bought stuff, so it could well be the case that the barber had used a cheap or homemade soap. I’m not going to bother making soap from scratch again!

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