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

Keeping Food for Winter

pickled-purslaneIn the days before refrigeration and canning, different means for keeping foodstuffs edible over the winter were an essential part of every household’s routine. If you didn’t pay attention to this, much of your harvest would go to waste. Besides, if your own stores failed or were inadequate, you couldn’t easily make up the deficit through purchases.

Some fruits, like apples and pears, could be stored for several months by setting them on racks in a cool place. Others had to be cooked with sugar and preserved in jars, sealed with butter or fat — no rubber seals yet. Pickling could work for others, or even drying. Quite a few fruits were dried, many we would not think of drying today, like gooseberries.

Unusual Choices

You quite often find unusual or surprising recipes in cookbooks from the eighteenth century. All the ones in this post come from “The Compleat Housewife”, written by Eliza Smith in 1739. Nothing suggests her recipes were not offered in total seriousness.

portulaca_oleracea-flowersTake the recipe in the opening graphic. I don’t imagine many people today ever eat purslane, let alone pickle the stalks. Nowadays, it is usually considered a weed, though it is sometimes eaten in parts of Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Mexico. While all parts of the plant are edible, it’s said to have a sour and salty taste and a somewhat slimy texture. Still, it also contains a large amount of omega–3 fatty acids, vitamins A, B, C and E and various beneficial minerals, so perhaps we should start eating it again. The reference in the recipe to “walms” is explained in the footnote below[1].

Nobody now needs to preserve lettuce, but they obviously did in 1739.

Lettuce to keep.

About the latter end of the season take very dry sand, and cover the bottom of a well-season’d barrel; then set your lettuce in so as not to touch one another; you must not lay above two rows one upon another; cover them well with sand, and set them in a dry place, and be careful that the frost come not at them. The Lettuce must not be cut but pull’d up by the roots.

Nor have I ever come across the notion of pickling asparagus.

To pickle Asparagus.

Take of the largest Asparagus, cut off the white at the ends, and scrape them lightly to the head, till they look green; wipe them with a cloth, and lay them in a broad gallipot[2] very even; throw over them whole cloves, mace, and a little salt; put over them as much white-wine vinegar as will cover them very well: Let them lie in the cold pickle nine days; then pour the pickle out into a brass kettle, and let them boil; then put them in, and stove them down close, and set them by a little; then set them over again, till they are very green; but take care they don’t boil to be soft; then put them in a large gallipot, place them even, and put the liquor over them; when cold tie them down with leather: ’Tis a good pickle, and looks well in a savoury made dish or pye.

And as for lemons pickled with garlic and ginger! Imagine what that would do to a gin and tonic.

To pickle Lemons.

Take twelve lemons, scrape them with a piece of broken-glass; then cut them cross into four parts, downright, but not quite through, but that they will hang together; then put in as much salt as they will hold, and rub them well, and strew them over with salt; let them lye in an earthen dish, and turn them every day for three days; then slice an ounce of ginger very thin, and salted for three days; twelve cloves of garlick parboiled, and salted three days; a small handful of vinegar. Stop them up very close, and in a month’s time they will be fit to eat.

  1. “Walms” is an eighteenth-century cooking term used to track how much something has been boiled. A walm is defined as a “surge upwards of boiling water”, as when a circular “wave” of water rises from the bottom of the pot and breaks the surface in a kind of bubble. Cookbooks of the time would give directions such as, ”… and so let it boil six or seven walms….”. That meant to look out for six or seven such surges of boiling water. Cooking instructions might also tell you to bring the water to a boil till “it boil high with great walms in the middle of the kettle.” I feel rather sad we’ve lost the term.  ↩
  2. A gallipot was usually a ceramic vessel with a small mouth, often used by apothecaries to hold medicines.  ↩


Dr Adam Bascom is faced with his toughest case so far. There’s an impossible crime, a mass of conflicting evidence and the hostility of the dead man’s son, who refuses even to discuss his father’s death. Finally, drama turns into crisis. Everything is thrown into confusion by events from past. The murdered man’s family fragments, his son is reported kidnapped and a whole neighbourhood is plagued by a rash of daring highway robberies. As events plunge out-of-control towards the inevitable confrontation between past and present, can Adam pull his ideas together and move fast enough to prevent more lives being put at risk?

Read it now via this link.

Posted in Cookery & Housecare | 8 Comments

A Pair of Famous Quacks

A typically understated advertisement of 1739

A typically understated advertisement of 1739 for a patent medicine

Despite The Enlightenment, the eighteenth century was still an age of credulity and superstition. Astrological almanacs and charms were sold by the thousand. Every sort of fortune-teller, quack doctor and peddler of patent remedies set themselves up in business. Since many did well, it became clear to such people all over Europe that England was a happy hunting ground. A stream of hopeful ‘snake-oil salesmen’ and quacks came from many countries to join in the fun.

Here are two of the most famous members of the breed at that time. Like many others, they managed to worm their way into the favour of the gentry and aristocracy — and even drew the attention of the royal family.

“Count Alessandro di Medina Cagliostro”

"Count Cagliostro"

“Count Cagliostro”

His real name was Guiseppe Balsamo and he had done well enough on his way through Europe to arrive in London in 1776 accompanied by his wife, a secretary and a significant fortune. Three thousand pounds in gold, besides money and jewels, he claimed. At first, his scam was to claim he had an infallible guide to selecting the winning numbers in lotteries. If this didn’t interest an audience, he also had a scheme for weaving silk out of hemp.

Then, like many of his kind, he lit upon the topic of curing sickness as the best arena for his ‘talents’. He began to peddle a system, not just for curing ills, but for complete physical regeneration — an infallible curative programme which would prolong life into the bargain. It consisted of a forty days’ course of bathing, sweating, starvation, plus his own patent medicines and purgatives — all the while subsisting on a diet of roots. He collected many claims for spectacular ‘cures’ and publicised them with glee. Nowadays, we know all about ‘the placebo effect’, but people of the time would have taken them to be genuine.

Then he overreached himself.

He claimed to be an adept of “Egyptian Masonry”, a statement which aroused the hostility of English freemasons. People started to look into his background. A whisper went the rounds that he was an impostor who had swindled many people on the Continent. He even fell victim to a swindler himself and was imprisoned for non-payment of a fictitious debt. All the while, his claims became wilder. He claimed to be an artist and his wife persuaded Sir Edward Hales to use him to paint murals at Hales Place. How she did this is not recorded! Needless to say, his artistic efforts were greeted with total derision and more claims that he was an imposter. By now, Londoners were becoming tired of him, so he departed for Paris, never to return.

“Professor” Gustavus Katterfelto


Gustavus Ketterfelto with his famous cat and a projection of his ‘insects’

Katterfelto was a prince amongst quacks and mountebanks. He travelled about the country in a caravan, accompanied by several large black cats. He claimed one was a “Famous Evil Moroccan Black Cat”. This particular cat he used in various conjuring tricks to bring in the crowds and whip up excitement. For example, he “… induced several gentlemen to bets respecting its TAIL, as by the wonderful skill of Katterfelto she would appear in one moment with a big tail and the next without any, to the utter astonishment of the spectators.”

Wonders! Wonders! Wonders!
Are to be seen by Katterfelto and his Black cat, worth 30,000 pounds, let out of the bag by the Philosopher himself, who has discovered a secret more valuable and astounding than the Philosopher’s Stone, the art of extracting go[l]d from the cat.”

Pastor Moritz, a German also touring England at the time, declared that, “every sensible person considers Katterfelto as a puppy, an ignoramus, a braggadocio and an impostor …” It made no difference. Katterfelto began claiming to be a professor in his native Prussia and continued to attract large audiences wherever he went.

Oddly enough, some of what he claimed not only had substance but was ahead of its time. He obtained a microscope and a primitive form of projection. Using these. he showed his audiences all kind of invisible creatures moving in a drop or two of rainwater. He went further, however.

He made the remarkable claim that these invisible creatures — he called them ‘insects’ — were the source of many diseases and infections. We know that what he saw were not bacteria or viruses, of course. But the idea that disease could be caused by tiny organisms did not reach serious scientific minds for some time to come. Only when it did could the link be made between improving hygiene and preventing some of the commonest fatal diseases of the time. Would it have happened earlier, if Katterfelto had been taken seriously? We can never know.

A typical Ketterfelto advertisement(Bodleian Library)

A typical Ketterfelto advertisement
(Bodleian Library)

Here’s another of his advertisements, this time from 1782. It’s the usual odd mixture of scientific demonstration and the old standbys of card tricks and medical quackery. Perhaps that’s why his ‘discovery’ of living creatures too small to be visible drew so little attention from serious men of science. He could never bring himself to desert his mountebank ways.

Wonders, Wonders, Wonders, Wonders! are now to be seen at No. 22 Piccadilly, by Mr. Katterfelto’s newly improved and greatly admired solar microscope. Mr. Katterfelto has, by a very long and laborious study, discovered at last such a variety of wonderful experiments in natural and experimental philosophy and mathamaticks [sic] as will surprise all the world. Mr. Katterfelto will show the surprising insects on the hedge larger than ever, and those insects which caused the late influenza as large as a bird, and in a drop of water the size of a pin’s head, there will be seen above 50,000 insects. N.B. After his evening lecture he will discover all the various arts on dice, cards, billiards and O.E. tables. Admittance, front seats 3s. second seats 2s. and back seats 1s. only. Mr. Katterfelto likewise makes and sells Dr. Bato’s medicines at 5s. a bottle.”

A Travelling Circus of Quacks

If Cagliostro and Katterfelto were the most ‘eminent’ practitioners of their dubious profession, there were many others — far too many to include in one blog posting. These travelling mountebanks and quacks were entertainers as much as healers — maybe rather more. They travelled in gaudy carriages to show the wealth their nostrums had made for them. Then they set up their booths in the market place of country towns and villages, since their real skill lay in working a crowd.

They usually sold powders, pills and ointments. These, they assured their audiences, had already cured vast numbers, including many of the royal households and aristocracy of Europe as well! They waved imposing certificates. They wore medals and sashes supposedly bestowed upon them by grateful princes. Some even included actual entertainments in their demonstrations, such as tight-rope dancing, tumbling and acrobatic feats. Their advertisements contained glowing endorsements of every kind, all written by themselves. They printed and distributed pamphlets in advance of their arrival to help drum up interest,

It’s easy to be contemptuous of the crowds who attended these people and listened to their patter. Yet is it all so different from a good deal of marketing today? A little less regulated, for certain, but no less cynical in its use of every kind of attention-grabbing device to gild the lily of a dubious product.

William Savage writes fiction as well as non-fiction. His historical murder-mysteries are set in Norfolk in the years between 1760 and 1815, at a time when tensions with France were high and republican and revolutionary ideas were spreading throughout an England suffering the growing pains of the Industrial Revolution. You can see all his books listed here, including the latest, “A Shortcut to Murder”, set in 1793.

Posted in Medicine & Science | 4 Comments

Eighteenth-century ‘Packet Soup’


Browsing through the cookbook of Katherine Windham, wife of the squire of Felbrigg Hall in the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, I came across the recipe above for “Solid Soup”. What on earth might that have been? As you can see, it was a kind of primitive packet soup that would keep “for an East India voyage”, which meant several months at the very least.

Essentially, this is veal soup and would presumably be used as a basic stock to make something more interesting by adding extra ingredients. “White Soup” was a staple of many eighteenth century dinners and assemblies and veal stock was a major part of what went into making it. Indeed, in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr Bingley tells Lydia Bennet that she shall name the day for the Netherfield ball “… once Nicholls has made white soup enough …”. That implies providing White Soup was too important to omit!

White Soup

To make White Soup, you began with veal stock, chicken and bacon, then added, “half a pound of rice, two anchovies, a few peppercorns, a bundle of sweet herbs, two or three onion, and three or four heads of celery cut in slices.” The soup would then be left overnight and any fat or “scum” taken off the top, before you added ground or pounded almonds, seasoning and cream.

Lack of Convenience

What strikes any modern reader, I imagine, is just what hard, long drawn-out labour was needed to produce even a simple dish. We’re used to taking something off the supermarket shelf, opening a tin or a package from the fridge or freezer, and there’s the food in a matter of perhaps 15–30 minutes at most. Not so in the eighteenth century.

That recipe for Solid Soup requires long simmering (“simper” is local dialect for “simmer”), taking the thickening mix out and cooking it still more over a pan of boiling water, then finally drying it and “keeping it from moistare” [sic. Katherine’s spelling was always wayward], presumably by wrapping it tightly and putting it somewhere dry. It sounds as if the process would take a day or more.

The charcoal stewing stove Katherine’s cooks would have used is still at Felbrigg Hall (NT). It’s made of brick and set solidly into one side of the kitchen her son had built during her lifetime.


The recipe for Solid Soup comes from Katherine Windham’s Boke of Cookery and Housekeeping, compiled in the early years of the eighteenth century. The transcription was made by my friends Bonnie Lovelock and Roger Sykes. The recipe for White Soup is from John Farley, The London Art of Cookery, 1783.

Posted in Cookery & Housecare | 5 Comments

Did the Georgians have a Drink Problem?


One of the aspects of Georgian life that puzzles visitors to the NT property where I am a volunteer guide relates to the vast amount of alcohol consumed by just about everyone in the 18th century. Most visitors, I suspect, believe I exaggerate. Many say the drinks of the time must have had a lower alcohol content. Yet I have found nothing to suggest that is so. The plain fact seems to be that taking in large amounts of alcohol was a daily occurrence in the 1700s.

Until the drinking of tea and coffee had spread downwards through the social classes — something long hindered by punitive taxation — there were few alternatives to some type of alcohol. Milk was not available in sufficient quantities and quickly soured. Water was seen as thin, feeble stuff, likely to cause weakness and a tendency to poor health in those who drank it. We now know, as the Georgians didn’t, that this was because much of the available water was contaminated — a ready source of diseases like Dysentery, Cholera and Typhus.

The ‘upper classes’ drank wine, spirits, punch and sometimes beer or cider. The ‘middling sort’ followed their example — in kind if not always in amount. Artisans and labourers mostly drank either beer or cider, depending on geography. ‘Small beer’ — a weaker or watered brew — was for children and servants. Compared with water, alcohol produced by fermentation contained fewer contaminants; the heating involved usually removed the main sources of infection. Even low-alcohol beer was made safer by the boiling needed in its production[1]. Distilled spirits would be even purer, and were drunk without the addition of today’s mixers.

Social Attitudes to Drinking

Contemporary attitudes to drinking alcohol were more about fashion than principle. Hogarth’s famous illustration ‘Gin Lane’ is often produced as evidence of disapproval of alcohol. Yet it needs to be remembered that gin was a ‘foreign’ drink, brought over by the Dutch soldiers in William of Orange’s army. If you compare the poverty and degradation shown in ‘Gin Lane’ to its companion piece, ‘Beer Street’ (a solid, English drink) Hogarth’s message isn’t so clear. It seems less about alcohol than a typical crusty English aversion towards foreign food and drink. Beer Street is clean and prosperous, everyone looks healthy and happy — and the pawnbroker has gone bankrupt!

It’s fair to say that contemporary attitudes to heavy drinking were class-based — linked to the economic need to keep people productive, especially the ‘working classes’. An example comes from the opening of the Gin Act of 1736. It stated the law was needed because of the prevalence of gin consumption among “the people of lower and inferior rank”. This led to “the destruction of their healths, rendering them unfit for useful labour and business, debauching their morals, and citing them to all manner of vices.” Dammit, they’re there to work, not enjoy themselves as we do!

As an aside, it’s worth noting charges of excess in drinking, like attacks on other ‘moral’ vices, served as convenient ways for the middle classes to attack the social and political elite. Their neglect of godly living and scorn for public morality were useful weapons in the lengthy campaign waged to wrest exclusive control of the government out of their hands. Certainly the aristocracy and gentry — and ‘honorary gentry’ like the clergy — drank heavily as a normal part of life. Drink also played a large part in the typical upper-crust horseplay they indulged in. Here’s Parson Woodforde, in 1761, noting one example at his Oxford College:

Dyer laid Williams 2s 6d that he drank 3 pints of wine in 3 Hours, and that he wrote 5 verses out of the Bible right, but he lost. He did it in the B.C.R. [Bachelor’s Common Room], he drank all the Wine, but could not write right for his Life. He was immensely drunk about 5 Minutes afterwards.

The Inescapable Conclusion

However you explain it, it seems likely that a good part of the population of 18th-century Britain had, in modern terms, a significant drinking problem, greater the higher up you look on the social scale. Gout was everywhere amongst the rich and the gentry, especially in men, who were the heaviest drinkers. Men boasted of their ability to drink huge amounts and remain able to function. To qualify as a rake virtually required you to consume up to three bottles of port a day. During his time as Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger was said to take up to six bottles daily. You have to wonder what effect this had on his decision-making during those years. It certainly shortened his life. Claims of even more gargantuan intakes were made, though most were almost certainly wild exaggerations.

I suspect such constant drinking produced some lessening of the immediate effects of alcohol on mind and body — or at least a greater ability to conceal them. That could account for how most people functioned despite their intake. I have encountered alcoholics who seemed able to function quite normally most of the time, despite the amount they drank. It caught up with them in the end, of course, but usually the social impact came before the physical one.

Did the Georgians find drunkenness acceptable? Amongst the rich, I suspect they did, up to a point, especially if it resulted from a social event. To be drunk at the end of an evening including a dinner party was unlikely to cause much concern. To be drunk every day might have raised a few eyebrows.

Of course, the privileged elite forgave themselves all their vices, while disapproving of them in the classes below. Their disapproval also increased the further down the social scale those vices appeared. The middling sort should not ape their betters in drinking, as in anything else. The poor were expected to work, not waste their money on drink.

What first limited the Nation’s drinking was the spread of evangelical Christianity, especially in the middle class, who had always been more puritanical than those above them. I say limited, because it never went away. The Victorians were better at hiding it, not staying sober. The 19th-century poor drank just as much as those in the eighteenth century, when they could get the booze. The final nails in the coffin of constant alcohol consumption were high taxation and effective licencing laws. Both were put in place from the need to keep people working during two world wars. Moral disapproval never proved effective. It took economic and military needs to truly clamp down.

  1. Boiling the water to make tea or coffee produced the same benefits, of course — not that infection was recognised as a source of disease until late in the period.  ↩

williamsavageWilliam 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 Georgian Society | 4 Comments