Georgian “Madness” and Melancholy


Dr. Philippe Pinel at the Salpêtrière, 1795
by Tony Robert-Fleury

In the eighteenth century, “madness” was used as a catch-all description for just about any type of mental illness, from depression to full-blown psychosis and mania. The causes were much debated, not just by medical men either. Some saw madness as a physical problem (an imbalance of the humours), others as a psychological problem (a response to grief or stress), a moral problem (a breakdown in behaviour caused by licentious excess, drink or drugs), or even a spiritual one (brought on by excessive religious zeal or occasioned by demonic possession).

Depressive or Genius?

Depression, or melancholia, was especially common amongst the better educated. Indeed, foreigners sometimes referred to it as ’The English Disease’. Yet, following Aristotle, it could also be viewed as conferring a mark of special genius or imaginative power.

The name comes from the idea that it was caused by an excess of black bile in the body. In the Aristotelian view, such an excess produced a tendency towards suspicion and fear of others, coupled with a general darkness of outlook and misanthropic view of the world. Yet melancholics were also credited with strong intellectual powers, acute perception, a powerful critical faculty and great expressiveness in communication. Indeed, you could hardly be accepted as a great artist or poet unless you were also somewhat melancholic in your personality.

Could Madness be Cured?

Everyone weighed into the debate, from professional medical men through ‘empirics’ (non-qualified practitioners) to clergymen like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. They disagreed over treatments and causes and whether madness should be seen as an incurable descent into irrationality, or an understandable, and curable, response to some overwhelming stimulus or life event. Did madness somehow reduce you to an animal-like state or was it a disease like any other?

Certainly few, if any, of the treatments available for most of the century were likely to do much good, save via a placebo effect. It is also clear that those judged mad amongst the lower classes were much more likely to be incarcerated than their social superiors. At the same time, private asylums could be notably profitable businesses. What went on in them varied from the luxurious to the horrific. Still, the fact that enough people were prepared to pay highly to make certain ‘mad-doctors’ rich shows how common mental illnesses were amongst the better-off. It is also true that it took little effort to have a troublesome or unwanted family member confined for life under the guise of being mad — so long as you could pay the fees demanded. The romantic novel’s stereotype of the mad wife in the attic was not always very far from the truth.

Much has been written on the evils and cruelty of certain eighteenth and nineteenth-century practices in madhouses and asylums, but the reality was, I believe, far more complex, with every kind of response from vicious disdain to empathy and genuine kindness. It’s a vast topic, and one I intend to return to more than once. However, to start on a lighter note, here’s a list of supposed causes of madness amongst those confined in London’s Bedlam Hospital in 1810[1]. The numbers indicate the number judged to have been driven mad by each item:

Causes of Madness

It is clear that, in the eighteenth century, mental illness was most usually seen as essentially similar to physical illness, at least to the extent that both could be traced to an actual event or a tangible bodily dysfunction. The table below shows that clearly. There are no mentions of invisible psychological factors, such as neuroses. Their time had yet to come. The only inner, intangible causes listed are emotions such as pride, jealousy, fear or love.

What this seems to reflect is a view that madness is as madness does. Diagnosis was based on observable behaviour. A person was judged mad if he or she acted in ways commonly held to indicate insanity. Madness was not, in itself, unnatural, let alone culpable. Thus the mad person was only in need of custodial treatment if his or her behaviour became socially outrageous or was otherwise unacceptable. The ‘village idiot’ might be taunted and mocked, but no one thought he or she should be locked away. Rich eccentrics often flourished and were typically viewed with a good degree of indulgence.

Cause Number of Cases
Misfortunes, troubles, disappointments, grief 206
Religion and Methodism 90
Love 74
Jealousy 9
Pride 8
Study 15
Fright 51
Drink and intoxication 58
Fevers 110
Childbed 79
Obstruction 10
Family and heredity 115
Contusions and fractures of the skull 12
Venereal 14
Smallpox 7
Ulcers and scabs dried up 5

I love the idea that someone thought more people had been driven mad by Religion and Methodism than by drink, venereal disease and head injuries put together! Childbed presumably refers to what we would term post-natal depression, still sadly common today. It’s interesting too that Heredity was seen as producing only half the number of cases of insanity as Misfortunes and griefs. Doesn’t that argue for a refreshing doubt about the commonplace notion that mental illness is usually congenital?

Fright makes some kind of sense, I suppose, at least if it refers to overwhelming and irrational phobias. But what about Love being apparently some seven times more likely to drive you insane than Jealousy? How would fevers make your sanity collapse? And what on earth was meant by Obstruction? People driven mad by constant constipation?

Much food for thought here — so long as the Study doesn’t drive you over the edge!

  1. Quoted in Madmen: A Social History of Madhouses, Mad-Doctors and Lunatics, Roy Porter, Tempus, Stroud, 2006.  ↩
Posted in Medicine & Science | 7 Comments

Georgian Travel: Bad Weather and Bad Roads


Here is a final group of examples of travel problems from the diaries of Mary Hardy. Most relate to coping with bad weather, especially in winter, but bad roads were just as great a difficulty in many parts of the country. Some so-called roads in the period were more like wandering tracks, not marked by neat verges or metalled surfaces. People, horses and vehicles might choose various paths around obstacles or patches of mud and deep ruts.

The result would be a network of trackways, all going approximately in the same direction. When cattle drovers and their herds passed along them, these ‘roads’ would be widened still more. Until enclosure became near-universal, hedges by roadsides were even less frequent than they are today in places like Norfolk, where the agriculture is mostly arable.

Clay_SoilsThe roads in Norfolk, especially north Norfolk, were judged to be much better than many in the 18th century. This was mostly due to the geology: extremely sandy soils above a bedrock of chalk and flint. The ground drains very quickly. In those parts of the country plagued by heavy clay soils, like the midlands and areas close to London, roads in winter might become virtually impassable through mud. Problems continued in the summer too, with reports of sun-baked ruts several feet deep! After journeys from 1724 to 1726, Daniel Defoe wrote:

… the soil of all the midland part of England, even from sea to sea, is of a deep stiff clay, or marly kind, and it carries a breadth of near 50 miles at least, in some places much more nor is it possible to go from London to any part of Britain, north, without crossing this clayey dirty part … the roads had been plow’d so deep, and materials have been in some places so difficult to be had for repair of the roads, that all the surveyors’ rates have been able to do nothing—nay, the whole country has not been able to repair them.

Diary Entries

In Mary Hardy’s diary for February 1784, she reports a Letheringsett man returning from Wells-next-the-sea fell into a lime pit in a snowstorm and lost his life, as much from exposure as the fall itself. Something else to remember is that roads may have been reasonably busy during the day, but far fewer people travelled by night, especially in bad weather. Such lights as were available—basically candles in boxes, with perhaps a reflector—would have given only a feeble glimmer. If you became stuck, or fell and were injured, you were unlikely to get help quickly. Add cold and wet and the potential for dying from exposure rose alarmingly.

Also in December 1784, on Christmas Eve, Mary’s husband went in their chaise to see his brother and sister, who lived about 10 miles away. He left around 6:00 am. The chaise “broke down” on the way home and he had to return to where his family lived and borrow a cart. He got home again “after 8 [pm]”.

On February 2, 1784, one of the Hardy’s delivery wagons went out into a snowy morning landscape, heading for two inns half a dozen miles distant. It got lost in the snow drifts and finally made it back around ten in the evening.

Feb 10 1784 “Sharp frost, storms of snow. Cornwell went to Cromer lost himself upon Holt Heath, the snow being so very deep.” [Mary wrote that the snow drifts were 14 to 15 feet – 4 to 5 metres – deep in places]

Feb 18, 1807 “A very terible [sic] morning With Wind and.. snow. Mr Hardy and I and sister Raven sett out for Sprowston [near Norwich] morng [sic] 7 in Love’s post chaise, had a terrible journey, the snow being very much drifted and wind very high and stormy. Baited [fed horses] at Aylsham and got to Sprowston ½ past 2. The man could not return that night but slept there.

It wasn’t just snow and ice that caused bad accidents. In June, 1796, after days of rain, a cart belonging to a Mrs Booty, a rival brewer based a few miles away at Binham, tried to cross the ford of the river (the bridge may have been too narrow or the cart too heavy). The flow was too strong and the cart was overturned, then pulled under the bridge. One of the horses drowned and the man on the cart was thrown into the river. Mary notes he was “providentily [sic] sav’d”.

Norfolk has abundant marshes and fens in some areas, of course, and the neighbouring counties of Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire even more. Draining was primitive or non-existent, so heavy rain might block some roads and river-crossings for lengthy periods. Increased flows could also damage or destroy bridges and block fords. Our modern experience of major floods can be bad enough; imagine the chaos caused by flooding when few roads had any real surface or drainage, and fields and water-meadows were expected to fill with water through most of the winter months.


With the roads so bad and slow in many places, it wasn’t unusual for people to take passage on a coastal ship for long journeys north or south along the east coast. In good weather, it could be a useful means of travel. In bad storms, it could be lethal, particularly considering the effects of high tides and storm surges.

The North Sea (or German Ocean as it was called before World War I) is shallow, turbulent and prone to violent storm surges when conditions are right. This was probably why fewer people in the 18th century were drawn to living close to the coast. It was simply too wild and dangerous. There are reports of 18th century storms in which hundreds of small ships perished, along with all their crews, so that miles of shoreline were strewn afterwards with flotsam of all kinds. Defoe remarked that almost every fence or hedge in Norfolk’s coastal areas was made-up mostly from the timbers of wrecked ships.

The Norfolk Chronicle of 7 November 1789 reported:

For the sake of humanity, we wish it were in our power to contradict, or at least to soften, the dreadful consequences of the storm from the north-east, which happened this day se’nnight [a week ago].

The article then goes on to list 28 ships lost in that single storm, with more severely damaged or washed up on shore. When this happened, sailors and any passengers ran a high risk of being drowned.

In 1770, thirty vessels were lost on Lowestoft Sands and all aboard them drowned. On October 31, 1789, 40 vessels were driven ashore between Yarmouth and Southwold and 120 bodies washed up with them. On the night of 18 February, 1807, no fewer than 144 bodies were washed up at Yarmouth alone.

Despite all the hazards, the threats from robbers and the uncertainties of wind, weather and mishap, people did travel in Georgian times, many both widely and often. I suspect they were a great deal more stoical about the problems they faced than we are today. They knew well that life is uncertain and dangers frequent.

I wonder what they would make of the tantrums of modern commuters when delays are caused by leaves on the line?


Bird, Margaret, ed. The Diary of Mary Hardy 1773–1809 (4 vols.). United Kingdom: Burnham Press, 2013.

Cozens-Hardy, Basil. The History of Letheringsett in the County of Norfolk. Norwich: Jarrold & Sons Ltd, 1960.

Bentham, Hervey. Once Upon a Tide. London, Harrap, 1971.

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Posted in Travel | 8 Comments

The Georgian Letter-writing Boom


Frontispiece to the novelist Samuel Richardson’s (1689–1761) book of letter-writing templates (1741).

People had written letters to family and friends long before the eighteenth century. The famous Paston letters are only one example. However, both the Georgian and Regency periods saw a vast increase in the amount of correspondence of all kinds. Letter-writing became commonplace from aristocrats down to skilled artisans and  local traders. Some wrote to stay in touch with family or friends; some to ask for favours or handouts; some to send in their accounts or press for payment. The Georgians travelled widely, not just because of improved roads and carriages, but because they could make the necessary arrangements by letter in advance. Businessmen, gentry and aristocrats could run their estates and businesses from a distance. Business could continue while partaking of the waters in Bath or the delights of the capital.

Historians gain great benefit from this upwelling of the urge to write. Many levels of society had rarely set pen to paper before. In time, the letter became so natural that novels, like Richardson’s Clarissa, were written in the form of correspondence.

What caused this change in society’s means of communication— a change comparable to that caused by the Internet and social media in our own day? These are my own answers.

A Universal Means of Communication

The Post Office was not a Georgian invention, as the postage stamp was a Victorian one. There had been royal postal carriers since the time of Queen Elizabeth I. The rich used messengers or paid coachmen or carriers to take their letters. What changed was the opening up of a regular postal service to anyone with the means to pay the charges involved — initially levied per sheet of paper sent, save via the Penny Post in London.

The earliest organised postal system existed purely for the use of the royal household. In time, those close to the king began to make use of it, but this was always a matter of ‘grace and favour’. Indeed, King Charles I tried to remove the privilege entirely in 1637, alarmed by the potential for conspiracies.

During the Civil War, king and parliament tussled for control of the infant Post Office. In fact, we really owe the existence of a postal service available to all to Oliver Cromwell. He had experienced how essential good communications were to command or government. In 1653, he established a permanent Post Office under a Postmaster General. Two years later, he gave it a monopoly on the transmission of letters. In 1657, he instituted a single General Post Office covering the whole of the British Isles.

Don’t give Cromwell too much credit for foresightedness. His decision owed as much to considerations of cash and security as anything else. The post office generated significant profits for the exchequer. Keeping the mail in government hands also made the interception and investigation of suspect correspondence easier. Indeed, for many years, genuine conspirators were reluctant to use the official mail for precisely that reason.

The Growth of Trade

The new Post Office both facilitated trade and benefited from it. You cannot trade successfully at a distance — especially overseas — without a means for customers, suppliers and financiers to communicate easily.

Britain’s trading activities, and hence its growing empire, took place over huge distances. The European continent may have been our ‘backyard’, but it was never the limit of our commercial ambitions. Nor was it the principal arena for our trade. As the Industrial Revolution made its slow and hesitant way over Britain in the 1700s, the concentration of manufacturing, financial and long-distance transportation it brought could not have existed without the means to communicate reliably. The old Royal Mail of mediaeval days had concentrated on links between London and major cities and centres. Now the network was expanded and broadened, by adding cross-country links of every kind, as well as regular links to overseas ‘hubs’ via the packet ships.

For a time, the means of carrying goods lagged behind. Only when the network of turnpike roads, canals and finally the railways appeared, would delivery become as swift and reliable as placing orders or sending out the mass of correspondence any business generates.

A Growing Involvement in Politics

Just as with today’s ‘Internet revolution’, a major impact of improved person-to-person communication was political. Letters and pamphlets let political ideas and information travel at speeds undreamt of before. Governments could — and did — tamper with letters. They spied internally and internationally. Control of the mail made both easier. It also helped  the flow of intelligence between ministers, Britain’s military centre at the Admiralty and field commanders.

Of course, the government was well aware of the risks. Regular, reliable mail facilitated conspiracies and made it hard to suppress unwanted revelations. Wikileaks stands at the head of a long line of letter-writers and pamphleteers, all eager to expose official mistakes, ‘dirty tricks’ and illegal actions to public scrutiny. Then, as now, official bodies did their best to limit or remove such unwanted publicity; then, as now, they usually failed.

The Social Impact

To my mind, the ease of sending and receiving personal letters had its greatest impact of all in the social sphere. The rise of literacy and education was as much a product of improved communications as any abstract belief in the value of learning. Subsistence agriculture and local trading demands no ability to read or write. Operating in a regional or national market economy cannot be done without it.

As the eighteenth century progressed, the urge to become literate spread downwards from the gentry to the middling sort and below. Only the person working solely with his or her hands could ply a trade and remain functionally illiterate. As literacy became the mark of rising above the ‘dregs of society’, many a labourer spent much of his or her scant spare time learning to read and write. As they progressed, they read read aloud to those who were still illiterate. Those without the confidence or ability to compose a suitable letter bought books of letters ready to copy out[1].

Letters soliciting favours or money from patrons were especially useful in a society dominated more by whom you knew than what you could offer on your own account. Army and naval commissions depended heavily on ‘pull’ (influence), as did many other lucrative appointments and sinecures. Even the clergy in the established church wrote to powerful landowners to ask for better livings or seek support in rising through the church hierarchy. The Rev. Lucius Hibbins pestered the Duke of Newcastle on at least thirty occasions asking for clerical preferment, money or a pension. Sylas Neville, the Norfolk doctor, existed for a large part of his life on handouts obtained by letter-writing. Just about every person of wealth, power or influence had to endure a welter of begging letters, much as we endure cold calling and Internet spam and advertising today.

Maybe the greatest impact of all came upon women of the middling sort. Many were no longer tied all day to domestic chores or needlework. They now had the leisure to read and write letters, and demanded the literacy to do so.  By the end of the eighteenth century, untold numbers of women were writing to friends and family, sending and receiving love letters — and even composing classic works of English literature. Once that genie was out of the bottle, as the saying goes, there was no way it could ever be put back in.

Letter-writing seems so obvious to us that it’s far too easy to take it for granted. We pride ourselves on the impact of technological advance of electronic communications in our own day. Let us not miss the fact that, to a great extent, it has all happened before.

  1. The Newest and most Compleat Polite Familiar Letter-writer, by John Tavernier (1760), contained advice on everything from the paper to the used to the form of address ‘to persons of distinction’. The New and Complete British Letter-writer; or young Secretary’s Instructor in Polite Modern Letter-writing, by David Fordyce (editions from c.1751 onwards to 1790), included ‘The Petitioner’s Instructor’. This had templates for everything from pleading for mercy when under sentence of death to being admitted to local almshouses in old age.  ↩

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Posted in Commerce, Georgian Society, Politics | 3 Comments

The Georgian Apothecary


An Apothecary’s Shop
(CC) Welcome Images

Medicine in georgian times was categorised largely by the social class of the practitioner and the scale of fees they charged. Some doctors did tend to focus on one or two main approaches to treatment — sea bathing, for example. Some took appointments that carried with them a limitation on the range of patients, like those who supervised the poor wretches confined in Bedlams or asylums. However, for the most part, all tackled illnesses of the same kind, approaching it via their own area of expertise, and there was little love lost between them.

Apothecaries were not the elite of the profession. Far from it. At the top of the heap were the physicians. Some trained by costly apprenticeships with noted doctors. Most were university men, who completed some kind of medical degree in Scotland or overseas, since English universities did not offer them for most of the century. This made them acceptable socially, like lawyers and clergymen — ‘honorary gentlemen’. All were noted for charging steep fees and dealing mostly with the wealthy, though a few might take on a wider range of patients, especially in rural areas, since buying in to a practice was expensive and setting up your own a long-term risk.

A physician might also become a man-midwife. Childbirth was a hazardous business and local midwives were not always trusted by the upper classes. This too was more a matter of upper-class snobbery than skill. Many midwives came from the lower classes and spent much of their time with the poor. The rich did not want them dealing with the birth of their children.

Surgeons or barber-surgeons carried out operations and amputations, sometimes with a physician present for the most hazardous ones. Some would be ex-military men, for dealing with battle wounds was their province. Their training was based on a practical apprenticeship, though this was often haphazard. Because they worked with their hands, they were considered artisans.

Apothecaries: Retailers or Professional Men?

Apothecaries were classed as tradesmen. For many years, the law saw them as retailers, not medical professionals. Not until a ruling by the House of Lords in 1704, were apothecaries accepted as part of the medical profession and legally allowed to prescribe and dispense medicines. Even then, they were forbidden from charging fees for their services. They had to obtain their whole income from the sale of medicines, bandages and the like, plus general shop items. Like some chemists today, the apothecary’s shop would not just be a dispensary,. They also sold patent medicines, perfumes, spices, herbs and even confectionery.

Adam Smith wrote:

Apothecaries’ profit is become a by-word … the whole drugs which the best employed apothecary in a large market town will sell in a year, may not perhaps cost him above 30 or 40 pounds. Though he should sell this therefore for a three or four hundred percent profit, this may frequently be no more than the reasonable wages of his labour, charged, in the only way in which he can charge them, upon the price of his drugs.

Dr Erasmus Darwin however, more cynically, advised a young man to remember “… at first a parcel of blue and red glasses at the windows might gain part of the retail business on market days … I remember Mr Green of Litchfield once told me his retail business, by means of his show shop, and many coloured windows, produced him £100 a year.”

Apothecaries in London had started out as part of the Grocers’ Company. Only in 1617 was the Society of Apothecaries created by royal charter. It was slow to spread its influence outside the capital, but gradually the standards set by the Society for admission were accepted more widely. These required apothecaries to undertake a lengthy apprenticeship with a final examination, though there were still no legal rules for claiming the title of apothecary before 1815.

Apothecaries as General Practitioners

Over time, apothecaries took on more and more work in dealing directly with patients, not just compounding and dispensing medicines. Some were little more than quacks or men with a sharp eye for high profits. Still, they were the doctors most likely to visit the middling sort and even the poor, riding around a large area with their medicines and tools in knapsacks.

As the poet Crabbe wrote:

Helpers of men they’re called and we confess
Theirs the deep study, theirs the lucky guess,
We own that numbers join with care and skill
A temperate judgement, a devoted will.
Men who suppress their feeling, but who feel
The painful symptoms they delight to heal.
…To the Physician of the soul and these
Turn the distressed for safety, hope and ease.

This is perhaps a rosy view of the group. Others were much less complementary. Lady Eleanor Butler called the apothecary in her locality “a dirty little village quack”.

A manuscript in the library of the University of Melbourne, created in Hampshire, England, between about 1727 and 1740 shows that some apothecaries were certainly men of science, worthy of being set alongside any other kind of doctor.

This unknown owner of an anatomy atlas used the reverse of many of the plates to record a cross between a pharmacopoeia and a prescription book. Unlike most contemporaries, who started from the remedy, he used medical conditions as a basis for his notes, giving a page or more to each of 34 different groups of diseases. After some general comments about drug treatment, he gives a list of remedies, some linked to named patients, with the level of detail typical of a prescription book. The end result was a kind of aide memoire or handbook, linking standard information from the printed book to his own observations and experience.

This is surely not the work of some “dirty little village quack”.

Druggists and Chemists

As apothecaries transitioned into being full-blown doctors, so the necessary work of dispensing attracted its own specialists. Pharmacists (also called chemists or druggists at the time) began to develop a separate area of work, based on the preparation and supply of medicines. Since this put them in competition with the apothecaries, who were also still involved in the same area, tensions rose. The apothecaries attempted to restrict the chemists’ and druggists’ activities in 1748 with a proposed new law to control the supply of medicines to their own advantage, but it failed to make it onto the statute book.

Later in the 1800s, proposals were made to unite apothecaries, surgeon-apothecaries, midwives and dispensing chemists under one examining body. The chemists opposed this and won the argument, so the Apothecaries Act of 1815 did not give apothecaries sole control over making-up medicines. Perhaps as a result, the apothecaries eventually merged with the physicians, leaving the dispensing chemists and pharmacists as a separate profession.

Posted in Commerce, Medicine & Science | 5 Comments

The Superstitious Eighteenth Century


Lucky Horseshoe on door
 [Photo (CC) Colin Kinnear]

It’s easy to forget how superstitious many of our Georgian ancestors must have been. At this time of year, when thoughts run to what may lie ahead of us, it was natural enough to try to make sure nothing was done that might cause that future to be any worse. Note how many of these old superstitions were concerned with averting ill luck, and how few were aimed at making good luck come. Nearly two thousand years of Christianity had done little or nothing to wipe out any of the common superstitious practices. I recall encountering several of these in my childhood, still being held tenaciously by various elderly relatives and country folk of my family’s acquaintance.

Christmas Time

My oldest relatives often referring to January 6th as ‘Old Christmas Day’. That comes from the time in 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar to align our dates with those in use on the continent. The calendar was advanced by 11 days: Wednesday 2nd September, 1752 was followed by Thursday 14th September, 1752 and the year shortened to just 355 days to allow the New Year to fall on January 1st. Not everyone was happy about it. Puritans objected to the imposition of what they saw as a ‘popish’ calendar. Amongst the general populace, some believed their lives had been shortened by 11 days, or were suspicious at the moving of special days, including the date of Christmas. It used to be said there were riots, with people calling out “Give us back our eleven days!”, but this is now believed to be an urban myth. Even so, the mere fact of such a myth arising shows how much concern there was at the change.

Add back the ‘lost’ 11 days to December 25th and you reach January 6th — the so-called Old Christmas Day. Certain events, like the blooming of the Holy Thorn at Glastonbury, could not be ‘fooled’ by the calendar change and were now sought on January 6th instead! That may also be part of the reason why it was considered unlucky to continue Christmas celebrations past Twelfth Night (January 6th again).

Herefordshire, where I was born, had its own Holy Thorns[1] at King’s Thorn and Aconbury, said to be cuttings from Glastonbury. If you could collect a sprig from the Holy Thorn when it blossomed at midnight on Twelfth Night and keep it for the rest of the year, it would bring you and your family good fortune.

New Year

Thresholds were always considered chancy places and the threshold of a new year especially so. That’s why the Scots still have the practice of ‘first footing’ — to make sure the first person to cross the threshold on New Year’s Day should be suitable to bring good luck for the year ahead. It’s also why brides are traditionally carried over the threshold of the marital home — to make sure any malign influences or witchcraft spells lurking there can’t get at them.

You often see horseshoes nailed up over doors of old houses — always with the open end facing upwards to keep the good luck from falling out. Evil spirits and the like are supposedly terrified of iron, so it keeps them away from that scary threshold place. Planting an ash, hawthorn or rowan tree outside the door was believed to have a similar effect in keeping witches and demons from entering.

Worst mistake of all was washing any clothes on New Year’s Day. That was certain to cause a death in the year to come by “washing someone out of the family.” That superstition was still alive and well amongst older people in the 1950s to my certain knowledge. In Lincolnshire, it was considered a terrible omen to carry anything out of the house on New Year’s Day before something had been brought into it first.

“Take out then take in, bad luck will begin,
Take in then take out, good luck comes about.”

Winter time

Winter darkness naturally brought fears of ghosts and death. Daniel Defoe commented on the superstitious fear caused by the sound of the Death Watch Beetle. It must have been common enough for someone to be awake in the dead of night watching over some sick or dying relative. As he says:

“How many people have I seen in the most terrible palpitations for months together, expecting every hour the approach of some calamity, only by a little worm which breeds in old wainscotes and endeavouring to eat its way out makes the noise like the movement of a watch.”

The cries of wild geese flying overhead were also regarded with fear. They sounded to many like hounds baying and were known by various names, such as Gabriel’s Hounds (because he used them to hunt the Devil) or Yell Hounds (the pack of blind, white-and-red hounds of the Wild Hunt led by Hern the Hunter, a giant man with stag’s antlers). I wonder if this superstition, coupled with the unearthly screeches made by vixens in winter as they seek a mate, accounted in part for the persistent Norfolk superstition of the devil-dog known as Black Shuck?

Black Shuck was a ghostly black dog which roamed the coastline and countryside of large parts of East Anglia. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle heard the legend when he was staying in Cromer and used it as the model for “The Hound of The Baskervilles” — the same glowing, malevolent eyes and drooling from its vast jaws. To see Black Shuck meant your certain death was not far off.

In the eighteenth century, death and disaster were constants in poor households, as well as a good many richer ones. We forget how precarious life must have seemed. Bad harvests produced famine and children dying from malnutrition. Almost any wound might produce a serious infection followed by death by septicaemia. The threats from typhus, cholera and a host of other diseases were ever-present.

Against all of these, the medicine of the day was virtually useless. More than half the children born did not survive to reach their fifth birthday. Women died in childbirth all the time. Misfortune of one kind or another must have seemed almost certain. It’s no wonder people looked to a new year with foreboding, rather than excitement, and tried to avoid anything that might stack the odds against them. Indeed, to get past the winter without serious harm must have meant you were uncommonly lucky!

What would have surprised the Georgians is the extent to which people today still follow these superstitions. After all, compared with their time, we in Britain live in a world of amazing safety, abundant food and wonderful medical care.

  1. I have seen them myself produce a few flowers at Christmas, presumably because of either the microclimate or some genetic mutation.  ↩
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Norfolk and the Sport of Kings


Groom with Two Racehorses, 1780
Francis Sartori

Horse racing was an especially popular sport with royalty, the aristocracy and the gentry during the eighteenth century. Its origins go back well beyond that time, though earlier races tended to be simple challenges between two riders and their horses. James I began racing his horses for fun by 1605, choosing the obscure Cambridgeshire village of Newmarket to do so. He spent so much time on the sport that parliament had to petition him to give greater attention to the business of state. Where royalty led, the aristocracy were never far behind, especially in matters of pleasure and gambling.

By the reign of Charles I, regular race meetings were being held at Newmarket, as well as elsewhere in the country. Cromwell suppressed public races and the gambling that went with them. Charles II, naturally, brought them back and became a devotee. He even took part as a jockey. At the start of the eighteenth century, Queen Anne kept many horses and encouraged the establishment of regular racing at Ascot.

Eighteenth-Century Racing

However, this post is concerned with later developments and how they affected Norfolk. It was in the mid-eighteenth century that racing assumed its modern form. Several of today’s ‘classic’ races were first run then, such as the Derby, the Oaks and the St. Leger. The Jockey Club was also established (in 1750) to regulate the sport and establish codified rules to govern how it should be organised. As was the system of handicapping still in use today. By 1762, certain horse owners were officially able to register their jockeys’ racing colours or ‘silks’.

It’s interesting to note that the original list contained no less than seven dukes, one marquis, four earls, one viscount, one lord, two baronets and only three plain ‘misters’. If not purely the sport of kings, breeding racehorses was pretty much a preserve of the aristocracy and wealthier gentry. Not really surprising, of course, given the huge costs involved in owning and training a string of suitable thoroughbreds. Gambling, naturally, was open to anyone with money and nerve enough.

Racing in Norfolk

Nowadays, races are held at Great Yarmouth and Fakenham, but in the eighteenth century one of the principal meetings took place just outside the little market town of Holt, on land now occupied by Holt Country Park. This area was then part of a great swathe of heathland that virtually surrounded the town to the east and south — a stretch deemed largely wasteland, save for a few rabbit warrens and some miserable sheep. Racecourses were often established on such land[1], because they were thought useless for agriculture, were relatively easy to clear from excessive vegetation and had sandy soils that made good racetracks.

Holt Races were often timed to coincide with important calendar events like Norwich Assize Week or the Quarter Sessions. They attracted both ‘The Great and the Good’ and all the hucksters, traders and bystanders that come with any large gathering of people. In October 1753, the Derby Mercury reported as follows:

At Holt Races in Norfolk, on Friday 28th ult., a Subscription Plate was rode for by Gentlemen:
Mr. Bullock’s Bay Gelding, Nimrod, rode by himself.
Mr. Henley’s Chestnut Horse, Parrot, rode by Mr. Kemp
Lord Orford’s Dun Gelding, Ginger, rode by himself
Mr. Long’s Bay Gelding, Jove
Col Townshend’s Chestnut Gelding, Forester, rode by Mr. Walker, was distanced in the first Heat.

The Company on the Ground during the whole Time of the Races was very numerous and splendid; there were near a Dozen Coaches and Six, most of the horses Bays or Chestnut, and all with grand Equipages, besides a multitude of Post-Chaises, Coaches and Four, Chariots, Berlins, Phaetons, Chaises, Flys, etc.

The Assemblies were very brilliant, and a Subscription was opened for the Next Year’s races at Swaffham[2].

In September, 1788, the Norfolk Chronicle, carried an advertisement which proclaimed:

On Wednesday the 17th Inst. Will be run on Holt Race Ground, a Match for One Hundred Guineas[3] between two capital Hunters.[4]

After which Saddles and a Five Pound Cup will be given gratis to be run for by any Horse, Mare, or Gelding, not having won or started for a larger prize.

Every Horse, &c. Must be entered at the Bar of the Feathers Inn, Holt, before Ten o’Clock in the Morning of that Day.

An ORDINARY[5] at the Feathers.

HOLT ASSEMBLY will be on Tuesday, the 16th of September next.

Tickets to be had at the Feathers Inn, at 3s 6d each[6], Tea and Cards included.

Jacob Henry Astley, Esq., George Windham, Esq., Stewards

The RACES the next Day.

Holt features several times in my books about Dr Adam Bascom. In the eighteenth century it was a rather more important place than it is today, with a regular market for the area round about. It was also the meeting place for the local magistrates and Overseers of the Poor, as well as being the starting point for various coach routes, including Norwich and London.

  1. Newmarket was also heathland originally.  ↩
  2. Also in Norfolk, but no longer with a racecourse today.  ↩
  3. Around £1800 – £2000 in today’s terms.  ↩
  4. Note this is an old-style contest between just two horses and riders.  ↩
  5. A type of assembly or ball.  ↩
  6. Around £45.00 today.  ↩
Posted in C18th Norfolk | 4 Comments

The Cure for ‘Green Sickness’


‘Green sickness’ was described as a condition ‘peculiar to virgins’, which was said to turn the skin a greenish colour and leave the sufferer weak and melancholic. It was also believed to be common throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in girls approaching puberty and in thin and languid young women. Was it delayed puberty, chlorotic anaemia, or anorexia? We don’t know. Was it, like ‘the vapours’, mostly the result of too tight corseting? Was it a kind of fashionable lassitude, coupled with boredom at the restricted lives allowed to well-brought-up young women? Was it frustrated sexual needs?

The last reported case was in the 1930s. Maybe it was simply an eighteenth- and nineteenth-century term for a complaint we know under another name and now understand much better. Whatever it was, plenty of medical men claimed to be able to diagnose and treat it.


In the late 17th century, Thomas Sydenham believed it to be a ‘hysterical’ disease affecting not just adolescent girls, but also ‘slender and weakly women that seem consumptive.’ He must have thought it a kind of anaemia, since he advocated swallowing small amounts of iron as a treatment:

To the worn out or languid blood it gives a spur or fillip whereby the animal spirits which lay prostrate and sunken under their own weight are raised and excited.

Casanova, not without a good measure of self-interest, attributed it to ‘excessive’ female masturbation:

I do not know, but we have some physicians who say that chlorosis in girls is the result of that pleasure onanism indulged in to excess.

Daniel Turner, 1714, claimed to have found it in a girl who had been eating coal and described its causes as:

… an ill Habit of Body, arising either from Obstructions, particularly of the menstrual Purgation, or from a Congestion of crude Humours in the Viscera, vitiating the Ferments of the Bowels, especially those of Concoction, and placing therein a depraved Appetite of Things directly preternatural, as Chalk, Cinders, Earth, Sand, &c.

One of the commonest claims for a cause was lovesickness or a similar kind of emotional melancholy. It was believed that those denied expression of their love, such as young girls, would naturally be most at risk. This provided a convenient explanation of, and reason to ignore, awkward moods and behavioural changes associated with puberty. The problem was temporary and would pass in good time, since marriage would prove a complete cure.


Hannah Woolley, in 1675, took a robust approach:

How to cure the Green-Sickness.

Laziness and love are the usual causes of these obstructions[1] in young women; and that which increaseth and continueth this distemper, is their eating Oat-meal, chalk, nay some have not forbore Cinders, Lime, and I know not what trash. If you would prevent this slothful disease, be sure you let not those under your command to want imployment, that will hinder the growth of this distemper, and cure a worser Malady of a love-sick breast, for business will not give them time to think of such idle matters.


John Hooper’s Female Pills were sold in the 1700s for ‘green sickness’ and were guaranteed to contain “the best purging and anti-hysterik ingredients.” They were best taken with tepid baths and plenty of exercise. Daffy’s Elixir was another strong laxative and purgative cure-all.  “Active friction with a flesh-brush” for fifteen minutes over the stomach and bowels was yet another recommended remedy.

Iron could be taken in the form of pills made from sulphate of iron, ipecac, ‘aromatic powder’ and extract of gentian, or by taking the waters at an iron-rich spa, like Tunbridge Wells.

The fastest ‘cure’ of all was said to be sex, since semen was believed to ‘settle’ the womb and allow the humours to evacuate. Do you think a man thought that one up? As long ago as 1554, the German physician Johannes Lange described the condition as ‘peculiar to virgins’ and recommended turning to frequent copulation as a cure, especially when it led to pregnancy.

Here are some of the words of a bawdy song of the time:

A Handsome buxom lass lay panting on her bed,
She looked as green as grass, and mournfully she said:
Except I have some lusty lad to ease me of my pain,
I cannot live, I sigh and grieve,
My life I now disdain.

But if some bonny lad would be so kind to me
Before I am quite mad, to end my misery,
And cool these burning flames of fire
Which rage in this my breast,
Then I should be from torments free
and be forever blest.

A sturdy lad overhears this and hurries, at great personal cost, to give her swift relief! So pleasant does the treatment prove that, though she is now fully cured, the young lady resolves to continue taking it on a regular basis.

What was it?

Was ‘green sickness’ physical or psycho-somatic? We don’t know. Was it one condition or several? Again, we don’t know. Something produced these symptoms in enough young women for doctors of the time to see it as a common ailment. It may have been anaemia, it may have been anorexia, it may have been some genuine problems with starting menstruation. It may just have been the vague melancholy, moodiness and lethargy associated with a period of significant hormonal changes. Perhaps it was all of these, different combinations in different people, run together into a single diagnosis.

Whatever it was, it served as a handy catch-all term for the belief of the time that women who did not — or would not — function fully as women were headed for health problems now and in the future. Choosing long-term virginity, a state associated with nuns, was viewed with great suspicion in Protestant England. Women were expected to marry and spinsters were more despised than pitied, even if they were useful as unpaid servants for their married sisters and nursemaids to elderly parents. Just as in men, denial of one’s sexual instincts was deemed unnatural. Men, of course, could mostly indulge where and when they wished, while women were expected to be faithful and chaste.

Well, that was the theory. The reality was often quite different. Compared with the buttoned-up Victorians, our Georgian ancestors were nearer to the attitudes of the 1960s than the 1860s.

  1. The reference to ‘obstructions’ is based on a common belief of the time that, until a girl stated menstruating, the ‘humours’ built up in the womb and festered.  ↩

William Savage writes historical fiction set in eighteenth-century Norfolk in the years between 1760 and 1800. This was a period of turmoil — constant wars, the revolutions in America and France and finally the titanic, 22-year struggle with Napoleon. The series featuring Dr Adam Bascom, a young gentleman-physician caught up in the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, takes place in a variety of locations near to the North Norfolk coast. The Ashmole Foxe series is located in Norwich. Mr Foxe is something of a dandy, a bookseller and, unknown to most around him, quickly involved in dealing with anything likely to upset the peace or economic security of his beloved city. You can check out both series here.

Posted in Medicine & Science