BBC Free Thinking Feature: Bamburgh Castle Surgery, c. 1770-1800

Over the past few years I’ve been working on the records of a unique eighteenth-century medical institution. The eighteenth century saw the rise of institutional medicine, first in the form of hospitals and infirmaries, and later dispensaries. The former were large, imposing buildings in a town landscape, housing inpatients and treating surgical cases, as well as other conditions. Dispensaries were smaller, sometimes occupying existing buildings, but generally acted as outpatient services where the poor could be given medicines, patched up if necessary, and sent on their way.

Both hospitals and dispensaries were funded by subscription. Subscribers were invited to pledge an annual sum of money, put towards the building, running and upkeep of the institution. In return, subscribers had the right to recommend patients for treatment, according to the size of their donation. Unlike today, patients could not simply turn up at the doors, unless in absolute emergency. Instead, they required a certificate of permission, signed by a subscriber and, as such, could be difficult to access at times.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Also, institutions were firmly urban in nature. They were closely bound up with the civic ambitions of Georgian towns. A hospital could be a strong statement about a town’s importance and beneficence to the poor. ‘See how kindly we look upon our poor objects’.

Unsurprisingly demand for these facilities was high. Even outside London, annual admissions could number in the thousands. Especially in the crowded and often unsanitary conditions of towns, conditions like epidemic fevers were rife.

But one medical institution stood apart – both literally and notionally – from the rest. In the 1770s, Dr John Sharp, Archdeacon of Northumberland, philanthropist, and member of a family which included a prominent surgeon and famous anti-slavery campaigner (Granville Sharp) was a trustee of a large charitable fund established by the late Nathaniel Lord Crewe. Crewe had set aside large amounts of money from land revenues, stipulating in his will that these were to be put to charitable use.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons

One of the properties was the dilapidated medieval Leviathan of Bamburgh Castle. Undertaking a massive programme of restoration, Dr John Sharp adapted the castle to a variety of charitable uses, including a school, corn charity, home for shipwrecked sailors and the surgery/infirmary.

With his brother’s advice (a surgeon at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London), Sharp equipped Bamburgh with the very latest in medical technologies, including an ‘electrical machine’ for literally electrocuting patients back to health, a full stock of medicines and equipment, and other modern apparatus such as the ‘machine for the recovery of the apparently dead’ – used to try and revive the recently-drowned.

L0011748 Title page: Report of the Society...recovery of persons

Last year I visited Bamburgh and made a short radio programme for BBC Radio 3, which is now available online.

Click on the link and then the ‘play’ icon in the new page to access the programme

For more about Bamburgh and its facilities, you can also click here for my ‘History Today’ article about Dr Sharp and his medical charity.

Framing the Face: New Perspectives on the History of Facial Hair – Registration Now Open!

Registration is now open for our one-day workshop on the history of facial hair, November 28th in Friends Meeting House, London, with an exciting programme of speakers, and keynote paper from Dr Margaret Pelling, University of Oxford. Click here to register.

The fee is £30, including lunch and refreshments during the day.

For more on the workshop, including the programme of speakers, click here.

Launching the ‘Beards Project’!

This month sees the beginning of my three-year project ‘Do Beards Matter? Facial Hair, Health and Hygiene in Britain, c. 1700-1918’. Around September 2014 I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, and was hugely lucky and privileged to have been granted the award in January of this year. It’s been a long wait to get to this point, but it’s finally here, and the next few years will see me delving into the archives to see what delights lay in store. But why should facial hair interest us? Surely something so prosaic as a beard can’t tell us much about the grand sweep of history? I thought it might be an idea to say a bit about why it is important and, in fact, takes us to the heart of a number of key issues in the history of the body, health and hygiene and masculinity.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

The project starts in 1700, a period when the bodily humours still dominated, and older ideas about the body prevailed. As it moves through the Georgian period, it charts a period of almost complete ‘beardlessnes’, which was to be the norm until at least the 1820s. Covering the Victorian ‘beard and moustache movement’ of the mid nineteenth century it culminates at the end of the First World War – a time when moustaches remained popular, while the military motivations for wearing them had declined.

Over time, changing views of masculinity, self-fashioning, the body, gender, sexuality and culture have all strongly influenced men’s decisions to wear, or not wear, facial hair. For Tudor men, beards were a symbol of sexual maturity and prowess. Throughout the early modern period, debates also raged about the place of facial hair within the medical framework of the humours. The eighteenth century, by contrast, saw beards as unrefined and uncouth; clean-shaven faces reflected enlightened values of neatness and elegance, and razors were linked to new technologies. Victorians conceived of facial hair in terms of Darwinian ideas of the natural primacy of men, and new models of hirsute manliness. The early twentieth-century moustache closely followed military styles; over the past 60 years the duration of beard fashions has shortened, influenced by everything from celebrity culture and the Internet to shaving technologies and marketing. At all points the decision to wear facial hair, or not, and its managements and style, involved not only personal decisions, but social, cultural and medical influences, as well as a range of practitioners. Also, from light beards to stubble, and whiskers and moustaches, there are questions about degrees of ‘beardedness’ and the significance of the beard as a binary to the shaven face.

Copyright - Wellcome Images
Copyright – Wellcome Images

But what was behind these changes? Despite recent media and popular interest in the cultural significance of beards (on which point a further blog post is to follow!), historians haven’t really taken up the baton. Works by Will Fisher, Christopher Oldstone-Moore and Susan Walton have explored the cultural and sexual significance of beards in the Renaissance and Victorians periods respectively, while my own article on eighteenth-century shaving charted its relationship with masculinity and emergent steel technology. So far the focus has been on broad changes in attitudes towards beards, elite fashions and concepts of masculinity at given points in history, rather than across time.

This project will be framed around a number of key research questions:

To what extent are beards a symbol of masculinity and what key attributes of masculinity do they represent?
• To what extent did the ‘barbering trades influence beard styles and the management of facial hair? How far did they shape trends that were then replicated in personal shaving rituals? How far did the ‘barbering’ trades cater to wider male health requirements before, during and after the high point of the ‘barber surgeon’ as a medical figure in the long eighteenth century?
• To what extent were beard trends led by the elite and by metropolitan fashion? How far and how quickly did these spread elsewhere? Did the distinct regions of the British Isles have distinct cultures of facial hair? How far did provincial trends influence metropolitan trends through migration?
• What impact did changing shaving technologies have on beard fashions/trends?

Firstly, I want to chart the changing nature of facial hair in men’s views of their bodies and masculinity over a longer period than hitherto attempted. The aim is to recover the series of cultural, scientific and intellectual changes that have affected views of facial hair, and to raise questions about the extent to which beards are indeed a symbol of masculinity, and indicate changing conceptualisations of masculinity.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

Secondly, the role of medical practitioners, and in particular barbers, in shaping both conceptions of, and the management of, facial hair has yet to be fully elucidated. How far, for example, were barbers responsible for shaving and how did the relationship alter over time? This period witnessed both the ascendancy and decline of the barbering profession, but the often-close link between barbering and medicine has yet to be fully explored. Margaret Pelling has demonstrated a close correlation between the two in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but we know far less about how that relationship changed over the course of the 18th century as the role of the barber surgeon disappeared, or of the health and medical functions performed by barbers, say, in the nineteenth century.

Alun loses his beard!
Alun loses his beard!

Thirdly, (and as you might expect from a Welsh/regional historian!) this project moves away from a London-centred and elite-focussed study, instead addressing different regions of the British Isles, and also the question of ‘beardedness’ at different social levels. What, for example, was barbering provision like across both time and location in Britain?

A final key question for me, one close to my heart after recently finishing my book on eighteenth-century technologies of the body, is that of the impact and nature of technologies of shaving upon facial hair over time. New technologies, from cast steel to safety razors and scissors, all had an impact upon men’s ability to fashion their own appearance, but the nature of the relationship between the propensity and ability to self-shave requires exploration. How far were new technologies directly responsible for changes in facial-hair styles?

Image from, used with permission.
Image from, used with permission.

And so, after all this, it’s time to deliver, and to do that will require a large and diverse body of source material. Amongst the things I’ll be looking at will be popular and religious texts relating to beards, self-help books such as Jean-Jacques Perret’s 1770 book Pogonotomia, instructing men how to shave, all of which serve to reveal the cultural context of beards. Medical texts from the 17th to the 19th centuries show everything from conceptions of facial hair to preparations to stimulate beard growth. A variety of personal sources, including letters and diaries from Parson Woodforde to the oral testimony of soldiers in First World War trenches are there to be mined for their gems. Portrait collections show the changing depictions of beards over time, while the records and advertisements of razor manufacturers and sellers offer a glimpse of the marketing of shaving technologies. A huge new database of medical practitioners in early-modern Britain will form the basis for discussion of barbers, along with references to the figure of the barber in popular culture, from literature to satires.

And so, let’s get started! I’ll be tweeting regular updates from the archives using #beardsproject, and a project website will hopefully be in place soon.

Medicine in a Vacuum – Practitioners in Early Modern Wales

In 1975, John Cule argued that the problems facing the historian of medicine in Wales are ‘quantitatively and qualitatively different’ to those of England. Even given the ever-expanding range of sources for medical history over the past twenty years of so, and the massive impact of digitization upon the availability of source material, this remains a truism.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

It has long been held that Wales was a land largely devoid of formal medical practice. Instead, there remains a belief that medical folklore dominated, with cunning folk and magical healers providing the mainstay of medical provision. There are certainly strong reasons to support this view. Favourable religious conditions, laxity in prosecution, a largely rural landscape and the cushioning factor of the Welsh language, all served to provide favourable conditions for unorthodox practice to flourish.

My book on Welsh medicine argued that folklore was only half the picture. The other half was of a country far less medically remote than previously acknowledged. Far from being insular, Wales was remarkably open to medical developments, both in terms of ideas, retail and consumption. The Welsh language, I argued, served to disseminate, rather than limit the spread of ideas, and a wealth of evidence suggests a thriving economy of medical knowledge, manifest in a strong culture of remedy sharing. When I began my trawl of the archives for this project, I was confident that the numbers of practitioners would quickly stack up, since no quantification had ever been attempted.

After three years, however, I have managed to locate only 1300 individuals. Whilst this might sound fairly healthy, it represents the whole of Wales (with a population then of nearly half a million) between 1550 and 1740. To put it another way, there were more medical practitioners in 17th-century Bristol than in the whole of Wales. Understandably this has got me thinking. Have I simply been wrong all along? Have I overestimated the breadth and scope of medical practitioners? Was Wales, after all, really a land of cunning folk? All possible. But, I also believe that the numbers alone don’t give us the whole picture. As I want to argue today, there are reasons why we should not become over-reliant on raw statistics.

To understand the nature of the Welsh medical landscape in the early modern period, it is necessary to understand the landscape itself. One of the most important factors affecting formal medicine was the nature of urbanization. In the early modern period Wales was a rural nation, with a sparse and thinly spread population. Compared to much of England, Welsh towns were extremely small. The largest town was Wrexham, with a population of around 3,500 by 1700. Most of the larger Welsh towns were between 1000 and 2000 inhabitants. This had crucial implications for the structure of medical practice. Since there were no towns large enough to sustain large groups of practitioners, there is no evidence of any medical guilds or companies. Wrexham was the only possible exception, but its practitioners apparently never attempted to formalise the practice of their trade in the town.

Secondly, Wales lacked any medical infrastructure until well into the nineteenth century. There were no hospitals or medical training facilities on Welsh soil. Neither, until the 1730s, were any medical texts being printed in the Welsh language, although there was a lively trade in English medical books. Without local facilities, prospective Welsh medics needed to look elsewhere for formal education. Even here we are frustrated though since it seems that a mere handful (perhaps 10) ever darkened the doors of European medical universities, and perhaps a few score to Oxford and Cambridge. Compared to Irish medical students, who travelled in numbers, the Welsh, for reasons that are unclear, remained steadfastly put. We could simply stop here and therefore assume that we are chasing shadows. But, even a brief look at the nature of Welsh source material reveals the extent of the problem.

In general terms, for example, Wales lacks many key source types – a problem familiar to Irish medical historians. Parish registers before 1700 are excellent for some areas, but virtually non-existent elsewhere. A lack of probate accounts inhibits large-scale analyses like Mortimer’s work on southern England. Wills and inventories for Welsh medical practitioners are few, rendering quantitative studies difficult. Other types of sources such as property deeds and parish registers offer statistical insights but offer little in qualitative terms.

Image from Wikipedia commons
Image from Wikipedia commons

As I have mentioned, there were no medical guilds or companies. Practitioners are fleeting figures in borough records; with small towns there is less evidence for things like apprentice registers which might otherwise be revealing. What remains is an unrepresentative patchwork map of practitioners. There are simply more sources in some areas too than others. Monmouthshire, Denbighshire and Glamorganshire are all relatively well served. But for Cardiganshire, for example, I can find only three individuals in total. By any measure, this is simply not correct.

If, however, the limitations are recognised, and the sources allowed to shape the research questions, it’s possible to recover a surprising amount of detail about the types of individuals engaged in medical practice in Wales, their status within local society, training, social networks etc.

To get the full picture we need to look again at the question of hinterlands. In fact, I would suggest it makes little sense to regard Welsh practitioners as a homogenous group at all. Large English towns influenced each area of Wales. For south Wales it was the massive port of Bristol. For mid Wales and the Marches, towns like Shrewsbury, and for North Wales it was Chester, each of which contained large groups of medics and, evidence suggests, strong connections with Wales.

Case studies of individual towns can be instructive, rather than county studies where population density and local conditions, can vary so much. In North Wales the mighty Wrexham gives a much deeper picture of medical practice in a Welsh town than anywhere else in the Principality due to excellent records. In fact, rough patient-practitioner ratios in Wrexham are comparable to those in many large English towns. But what stands for Wrexham does not necessarily follow for Carmarthen, Monmouth or Brecon, so regional comparisons are important as far as records allow.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

A second thorny issue, however, is that of the nature of medical practice itself. Our evidence highlights the dangers of drawing artificial distinctions between practitioner types. Much depends on occupational titles in sources. Medicine could be a part time occupation – perhaps especially important in the case of cunning folk. It must be assumed that such people did not earn a living wage through the occasional use of charming etc. The single practitioner in the tiny Welsh hamlet of Festiniog in the 1650s can hardly have been overworked! But more broadly, tradesmen like blacksmiths often found second occupations as tooth drawers, but this duality is not reflected in the sources. Shop inventories suggest medical goods available in a range of non-medical shops.

In the last analysis it may well prove true that the numbers of Welsh practitioners were lower than elsewhere. Indeed it seems logical that this was the case. But it also depends where the comparison is placed. Comparing, say, Cardiganshire with Cumberland, or parts of rural Ireland, is more realistic than comparing it to London! Many previous studies simply don’t differentiate. Equally, after effectively ignoring them in my book, it is likely that we need to put folkloric healers back in. Whatever the truth may be it is clear that numbers just simply don’t reveal the whole story. The unique characteristics of a country, nation, region, county or even town need to be fully understood before conclusions can be made.

(This is a version of a paper I gave at the ‘Medical World of Early Modern Ireland, 1500-1750, in Dublin in early September 2015).

Religion & the Sickness Experience in Early Modern Britain.

Over the years, a number of studies have been made of the sickness experiences of clergymen and religious figures as recorded in their diaries. One of the most well known is that of the diarist Ralph Josselin, vicar of Earl’s Colne in Essex. Another, lesser known, diarist I studied in the course of researching my book was Phillip Henry of Broad Oak in Flintshire, a puritan minister whose mid seventeenth-century diary covers a time of great religious upheaval, but also goes into great detail about his sicknesses. I also uncovered the records of an eighteenth-century Welsh Methodist preacher, who recorded the behaviours of his sick parishioners, naturally viewed through the lens of his own religious beliefs.

In every case, it is clear not only how central religious beliefs were in interpreting and understanding sickness, but how individual experiences could be affected by denomination.

For Puritans like Phillip Henry, for example, sickness was a test from God and it was up to the individual to interpret the message being given to them. In many ways sickness was to the body what sin was to the soul – both needed firm and definite action. As Henry wrote in 1657 “They that are whole need not a Physician…sin is the sickness of the soule, and sin-sick soules stand in great need of a Physician, and that Physician is none other than Jesus Xt”.

(c) Mansfield College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) Mansfield College, University of Oxford; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

When ill, Henry constantly monitored his symptoms and looked for causes in his behaviour. If he had a cold, he might wonder whether this was a result of the sin of pride. In other cases he felt that illness had been brought on by his over-attachment to wordly goods, or laxity in prayer. In almost every case, he viewed his body as the instrument through which God was correcting him.

If anything impressed the Godly in the sickness behaviours of others it was fortitude and stoicism. If people were penitent, so much the better. The clergy were especially pleased when the sick attended church, despite their afflictions, even if they had to be carried in, and limped out!

In the 1730s, John Harries, Methodist rector of Mynydd Bach and Abergorlech in Carmarthenshire, kept a journal in which he recorded his visits to sick parishioners (National Library of Wales MS 371B, Register of Mynydd Bach Chapel). Harries paid careful attention to the behaviour and comportment of the sick. When Morgan Evan Morgan ‘departed this life 23rd December 1736/7’, Harries noted that he had ‘behaved himself very sivil and sober’ despite being in a ‘lingering distemper about eight years’. Catherine Richard likewise ‘behaved herself inoffensive’, while Joyce Evan ‘was very cheerful…expected but to live, but hoped to be saved’.

In other cases, however, it is clear that Harries was looking to the sick for signs he could interpret of his own destiny. When Mary John died in October 1737 he noted that she ‘relied wholly on Jesus X for her soul and behaved very patient’ but also noted that she was the first received to communion at the same time as him. As he noted, ‘I shuld take this into consideration’. Those who did not conform to expectation troubled him. When Mary Richard died in July 1742, Harries was keen to stress that ‘she was very wavering and inconstant in her profession [of faith], sometimes in and sometimes out’.

M0018191 Dying man in bed. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Left: a dying man in bed. Original Negative is a Vinegar Negative CAN NOT BE RESCANNED Woodcut circa 1531 By: Hans BurgkmaierOfficia M.T.C. Cicero, Marcus T. Published: 1531 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
M0018191 Dying man in bed.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Left: a dying man in bed. Original Negative is a Vinegar Negative CAN NOT BE RESCANNED
circa 1531 By: Hans BurgkmaierOfficia M.T.C.
Cicero, Marcus T.
Published: 1531
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

He took comfort in those whom he felt offered a glimpse into his own fate. The last moments of Ann Rees showed a woman who ‘behaved herself very lovely [and] told me a few hours before she dyed that shee hoped for salvation for God’s mercy’. Reflecting on this Harries wrote that ‘the Lord prepare me for death and judgement. I see both young and old are carried away to another world unobserved’.

Constantly keeping company with the dying and dead could actually have an effect on the health of ministers. Welsh Methodists were apparently prone to depressive illness, due to their intensive introspection and concentration upon their own failings and weakness. Phillip Henry reported his unease at having attended three dying parishioners within a few days in January 1651, and worried that this was leaving him was a diminished sense of his own spirituality. Other ministers like the Manchester Presbyterian Henry Newcome, found the continual round of deathbed sittings and funerals overwhelming.

But it was not only ministers who applied their religious tenets to sickness. A lucky find in Cardiff University library’s collection was a transcription of the diary of Sarah Savage, Phillip Henry’s daughter. (J.B. Williams, Memoirs of the Life and Character of Mrs Sarah Savage, London: Holdsworth and Hall, 1829). Like her father, Sarah was quick to seek the hidden meanings in her symptoms. In 1691 she was “all day at home having got an ill cold in my head”. Clearly feeling ill she fretted that “My heart was a little let out in love and praise to my Redeemer”, but reassured herself that this was “but a fit [and] soon off again”.

An attack of the smallpox the following year placed her and her family in mortal danger. Her daughter Ann, also a diarist, wrote that ‘when I had received the sentence of death within myself, surely the Lord as ready to save me”. Ann also felt that the experience had taught her a valuable lesson: “the mercies, the sweet mercies which I experienced in the affliction, I shall never forget”.

Lawrence Stone’s (now much criticised) book on early modern family life suggested that people were reluctant to invest much love in their offspring since they stood a good chance of losing them. A wealth of evidence has been put forward to refute this. Puritans, often portrayed as the most stony-faced of all Christian denominations were as troubled as anyone by illness in children. In July 1663 Henry visited a local household where a child was ‘ill of the convulsion fitts. I went to see him & O what evil there is in sin that produces such effects upon poor Innocent little ones’. With a troubled conscience he reflected ‘if this bee done to ye green tree what shall be done to the dry?’.

L0043760 Memento Mori Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images The head and shoulders of a 'memento mori' corpse. These statues were used to remind people of the transience of life and material luxury. 16th century Published:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0
L0043760 Memento Mori
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
The head and shoulders of a ‘memento mori’ corpse. These statues were used to remind people of the transience of life and material luxury.
16th century Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

When family members, especially children, were ill, even the strongest of faith could be tested. After witnessing the sickness of other people’s children, he was forced to confront the death of his own young son from measles. It is one of the starkest and most moving diary entries I have ever encountered, and conveys the conflict between religious conviction and a parent’s desperation. Perhaps most strikingly, Henry looks to God to show him where he (Phillip) had strayed to be punished thus.

“At Sun-Sett this day hee dy’d, our first born and the beginning of our strength, a forward child, manly, loving, patient under correction. O that I could now be so under the correcting hand of my heavenly Father. Lord, wherefore is it that thou contendest, show mee, show mee? Have I over boasted, over loved, over prized? My heart bleeds. Lord have Mercy”.

Religion was a central part of the sickness experience, and coloured not only hopes and expectations of recovery, but also the actual, physical experience of illness. Ministers and lay individuals alike, albeit perhaps to different extents, looked to God to explain how they were feeling and what this might suggest about their own conduct.

Unhealthy Beards? Denouncing Facial Hair in History

Once again in the past week beards have made the headlines…and for all the wrong reasons. The Independent carried a story titled ‘Do beards really contain as much faeces as a toilet?’. For the Daily Mail the question was ‘how filthy is your beard? ‘Yes’, cried the Huffington Post, ‘our beard might be as dirty as a toilet seat’!

 CAPTION: Portrait of red haired man with beard, hipster, male

CAPTION: Portrait of red haired man with beard, hipster, male


The source of the controversy was a claim apparently made on a Mexican website, that beards can actually harbour more germs than the average toilet. Microbiologist John Golobic was quoted as saying that the ‘degree of uncleanliness’ was such that if the same levels were found in a supply of drinking water it would be turned off. Hipsters, Santa Claus, and other beard wearers, he suggested, should wash their hands frequently. As quickly as the beard was being accused, a rush of pogonophiles emerged to defend it. Many pointed out that the same germs inhabit the skin on the face, and pose no risk to health.

But this latest attack on beards is seemingly part of an emerging trend. Over the past few weeks several articles have appeared to encourage the move back to a clean-shaven look. Back at the start of April, CBS posed the question ‘Are Beards Bad for You’, quoting a New York physician as saying that they harboured bacteria, and advising men to wash their beards regularly. Even in last Wednesday’s Metro, for example, is a (albeit light-hearted) list of ’11 Reasons Beards are Wrong’. These range from the danger of confusing babies to making the wearer look older (or, perish the thought, resemble a Hipster) even to deceiving people and being unhygienic.


How long this current beard trend will last is a burning issue for journalists. This time last year came a slew of articles all confidently asserting that ‘peak beard’ had been reached; the same claim was being made in the summer of 2013, when the demise of facial topiary was first mooted. So far the beard has proved stubbornly resistant to attack. Indeed, if anything, the anti-pogonotomy trend has continued to grow. There is little evidence of men beginning to shave off their beards. In fact there has been a noticeable rise in products for beard care in the advertisements sections of men’s publications like GQ. It seems that, for the first time in the last few decades, the beard may become more than a passing fad of fashion.

It is interesting to note, though, that, just as there have always been beard trends, so have there always been detractors. There have always been those for whom facial hair is anathema. Often, when beards have apparently been most popular, some have sought to bring about their demise. In fact, peering back through history the parallels with the recent attacks on facial hirsuteness are often striking.

Shakespeare, for example, although a poster boy for the pointy goatee, allowed his characters to vent their spleen upon the hairy face. The character Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing exclaims ‘Lord! I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face: I had rather lie in the woollen’!

Beatrice and Benedick

In the eighteenth century facial hair fell spectacularly from favour. ‘The caprices of fashion’ wrote William Nicholson in 1804, ‘have deprived all the nations of Europe of their beards’. The face of the Georgian Beau Monde was clean-shaven, smooth and elegant, reflecting new ideals about politeness and appearance. To be stubbly was considered vulgar. The Whig politician Charles James Fox was lampooned in satires for having a heavy growth of stubble; in fairness this was a man whose own father had described him as resembling a monkey when he was a baby! How would our perceptions of Cameron, Clegg, Miliband et al be affected if they had appeared on televised debates sporting full Hipster beards? It’s not an attractive thought I confess.

The tax levied on beards by the Russian monarch Peter the Great in the eighteenth century is often cited. Peter was keen to modernise his nation and saw the beard as a symbol of earthy roughness – the exact opposite to the image he wanted to portray of a modern, European nation. This seemingly was not the last tax on facial hair though. In 1907, a report claimed that a member of the New Jersey state legislature had introduced a bill for a graded tax on facial hair. The unnamed politician claimed not only that men with beards had something to hide, but had ‘base and ulterior motives’ for growing them. It was bearded men, he claimed, who had recently carried out a series of notorious murders. What further proof was needed?

Image copyright to Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images
Image copyright to Lewis Walpole Library Digital Images

Perhaps more striking was the graded scale of the tax. For an ‘ordinary beard’ the tax was levied at $1 per year. This was fairly straightforward. But, from then on, things got a bit strange. For those men whose whiskers exceeded six inches long the charge was $2…per inch. A bald man with whiskers was punished to the tune of $5, while goatee beards were clearly high on the undesirable list, coming in at a hefty $10 levy. The final (and rather inexplicable) stipulation was that, if any man sported a ‘red beard’ (i.e. ginger), an extra 20% was chargeable. What happened to the bill (and indeed whether it was ever meant to be a serious piece of legislation) is unclear.

Some feared that the trend for facial hair might lead to the weakening of British moral fibre! In 1853 a barber calling himself ‘Sibthorp Suds’ complained that the “movement for German beards and Cossack Moustachios” would lead to nothing less than a “farewell to the British Constitution”. If this continued, he argued, he and others like him should be entitled to “‘demnification”!

Health and hygiene issues surrounding beards have also long been a bone of contention. In the 1660s the English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller was referring in print to the beard as “that ornamental excrement under the chin”. Sound familiar? Even as the Victorians were in the grip of a ‘beard movement’ in the mid nineteenth century, a raft of claims were being made about how healthy the beard was, as well as being the ultimate symbol of male authority. ‘The Beard that has never been cut is beautiful’ opined one author in ‘The Crayon’ periodical. Not only that, the beard protected men from infections of the nose and throat by trapping bacteria before they could enter the mouth.

Image from Wikipedia Commons
Image from Wikipedia Commons

But others were swift to cry down the beard. If facial hair could filter germs, might it not also act as a magnet, which merely collected them around the face, where they could do most damage? Keeping the beard clean was certainly a consideration. In Cardiff in 1870 a barber prosecuted for shaving on a Sunday (against the law!), argued that he was doing a service since a man attending church with a dirty beard was a blackguard.

All of this raises questions about why some people apparently dislike beards so much. They clearly have the power to be extraordinarily divisive. Cleanliness – or otherwise – is clearly one issue. Another is that of the element of hiding, or disguise. Some simply dislike the aesthetics of the beard. It will be interesting to see whether, by 2016, the decline of the beard will have begun. Whenever (indeed if!) this occurs, it will simply be the passing of another episode in the chequered love affair between man and his facial hair.