The Lost Children’s Drawings in a 19th-Century Medical Manuscript.

I’ve always been fascinated by marginalia in manuscripts – the comments written in the margins, the little drawings or doodles that someone absent-mindedly scribbled onto a piece of paper, in all likelihood blissfully unaware that someone would be reading them centuries later.

Remedy collections have always been a fruitful source for marginalia. The utilitarian nature of remedies invited comments and it’s common to find little notes about how well (or not) a particular remedy worked. This can be specific comments: One of my favourite was the addition ‘This I lyke’ next to a remedy for a cold I once came across. In another instance, an unfortunate patient had noted – next to a particular purge – that it was ‘too hot’ for him! Other things can include the pointing hand (known as a ‘manicule’) next to a favoured remedy, the word ‘probatum’, meaning ‘it is proved’ or, in other words, ‘it works’, and even a smiling face.


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This week I’ve been working at the wonderful archive in the Barber Surgeons’ Hall in London. It’s a treasure trove of all sorts of documents relating to the history of the barber-surgeons, from account books to apprentice registers, wills, details of fines and freedoms, portraits, artefacts…even a box full of antique razors. It was great to spend time there, and to see some of the wonderful things in their collection: A huge Holbein painting, for example, or a cup that Samuel Pepys once quaffed from.

On this visit I was looking for information about barbers after the 1745 split, so was looking through various manuscripts. Occasionally, though, and usually when you’re not particularly looking for it, you come across a document that stops you in your tracks. On the desk was a 19th-century manuscript book comprising of notes taken from medical lectures given by John Abernethy, at the anatomy theatre in St Bartholomew’s hospital, London. Abernethy (1764-1831) was an English surgeon and Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. Having founded the medical school in St Bartholomew’s hospital in London, and been elected principal surgeon there in 1815, he had become lecturer in anatomy at the RCS in 1814.


(Image taken by author – used by permission)

The note taker was one E. Long – part of a family hailing from Barham, Canterbury. Long was meticulous and methodical in his note taking. His pages were well ordered, neat and tidy, written in a fine Victorian script, with writing on just one side of each page, leaving the other blank. I’m not sure if Long continued his studies or went into practice afterwards, but the book remained in the family. There it might have stayed and perhaps still found its way into the archives as a fascinating record of the lectures of a prominent Victorian surgeon.

But at some point, perhaps years after, Long’s habit of leaving every other page blank proved tempting to certain younger members of the family. And they didn’t just add a few doodles on the odd page; they filled the reverse side of every page in the book with drawings, paintings, draft letters, copied passages from verses and even practised their writing. The book probably contains hundreds of these drawings, but I’ve picked just a few out.

One image, for example, depicts Victorian soldiers (“of the 93rd”)- perhaps copied from a book. The figure on the right, with his curly hair and beard, seems to have been the subject of particular attention.


(Image taken by author – used by permission)

Another shows various heads in profile. Elsewhere in the book there are strong suggestions that some of these images were drawn from life, with an aunt and nanny being mentioned.


(image taken by author – used by permission)

Another shows writing being practised, together with a less defined (and dramatically elongated) body, perhaps betraying the hand of a younger artist.


(image taken by author, used by permission)

This next page of sketched faces reminded me strongly of the Dickensian ‘Boz’ character faces, with slightly grotesque, grimacing features.


(image taken by author, used by permission)

Sometimes the children didn’t even pick a blank page. Was this their own house?


(Image taken by author – used by permission)

A final one intrigued me: Captioned ‘Dick’s Drive to Dover’, with ‘The Accident’ written underneath, it seems like it might have been copied out of a novel or magazine. If anyone can identify it, I’d be delighted to know! IMG_3016

Aside from the obvious charm of the children’s additions, the book stands as a fascinating example of the multiple uses to which historical documents could be put and also, more broadly, the continued utility of books over long periods of time. This is something that early modernists are familiar with. Books – even manuscripts – were lent, gifted, exchanged, bequeathed and, in many cases, continued to be added to over years…sometimes even centuries. Remedy collections can be particularly long-lived in this respect. The Long family book shows the same process, with two completely different authors, the children’s drawings in sharp contrast with the stark medical language of the lectures. What would those children make of their drawings being ‘discovered’ 150 years later? Perhaps more importantly, what was Mr Long’s reaction when he found his lecture notes had become a child’s scribble pad?!

Reading between the lines: reconstructing lives from parish registers

I’ve recently returned from a research visit to Ruthin archives to look at the Denbighshire parish registers. The purpose of the visit was to trawl through every one of the hundreds of parish register transcriptions, looking for medical practitioners. With two bookcases full of volumes, each containing many individual registers, this was always going to be a long task. The registers for the town of Wrexham alone took two days, and monotony soon sets in when faced with page after page after page of names and bare information.

Parish registers are commonly the domain of genealogists and family historians, perhaps researching their own family history. Through the popularity of television shows like Who Do You Think You Are researching your own family tree has never been so popular, aided by the growing availability of source material online. Historians too are making use of parish registers. In aggregate they can reveal a whole range of demographic information, allowing assessment of long and short term population changes, marriage, birth and death patterns and so on.

But parish registers are generally deficient in detail, and even more so the further back in time you go. In the register of marriages in the seventeenth century you may get no more than the names and locations of both parties. The same for births. The burials registers give you name and parish, and sometimes the name of the father if the deceased was a child. In some cases occupations are given, but unevenly and sometimes selectively. So much depends on the diligence of the parish notary. As such, individual registers are generally unsatisfactory as qualitative evidence for the lives of individual people. If, however, as I was able to do, you search through a large number of records, then it is often surprising what extra information is able to be gleaned. In fact, the marginal comments made by the register creators often contain nuggets of extra information that can reveal much not only about their own prejudices, but of wider attitudes in society.

Parish registers were legal documents. As such they were deliberately formulaic and only required the bare minimum of information. With no legal reason or administrative need to add in anything else, many notaries didn’t bother. But it is the very fact that extra comments were not necessary that renders them more interesting.

One thing that becomes clear is the disapproval levied against anyone who was perceived to have transgressed in some way. Some women in the Denbighshire burials registers, for example, were obviously held in low regard by the local clergyman. Several entries appear with the appellation ‘harlot’ written in the margin, ‘whore’ and even one recorded as being a ‘wich’.  Here was an indictment of loose morals writ large and preserved forever in legal documents. Whoever wrote these remarks was making a definite statement and was fully aware of the stain that they were forever putting against these parishioners names. Being ahistorical for a moment, it is sad to reflect that perhaps these women’s only appearance in the record is coloured in this way. Perhaps the worst (or best) example I have come across is poor Barbara Roberts, buried in Denbigh in 1832 and, according to the vicar, “The dirtiest woman in the neighbourhood”!

There is an obverse to such pejorative comments though, and this is the sometimes laudatory comments that could be made. Those who left money to the parish poor or were well known for their good deeds might forever be bestowed with comments such as ‘a well liked body’ or ‘a person of good repute’. Here again we can encounter glimpses of personal affiliations. It is no coincidence that gentry and other clergy were often well reported in parish registers!

Accidents and other notable or lamentable deaths were often remarked upon and these are often touching in their brevity. ‘An infant died on the road in the arms of its mother’ is a typical example which says so much but also so little. Registers are full of drownings, deaths in fires and other accidents that reflect the dangers of hard rural lives, belying any depictions of a romantic rural idyll. People who were extremely old (‘110 by common repute’) were likely to be remarked upon, as were women like Jane Reece of Holt in Denbighshire who died aged 58 in 1696 “pregnant for the 100th time”.

Even occupations were not free of the individual foibles of recorders. In some parishes certain occupations might be recorded where others were ignored. This might mean that weavers or glaziers might be recorded while apothecaries or barbers could go unremarked. This is only one of the frustrating problems facing anyone looking for occupational data. ON the other hand they can throw up surprising little quirks. In Denbighshire alone I found evidence of three ‘Aquavitae’ men,  in different parishes, all of whom were known only by their first names and who had died on the road. These were travelling salesmen selling what was a semi-medicinal strong brew. Of no fixed abode they probably succumbed to the harsh life of travelling. Given what they were peddling this seems a fitting case of ‘Physician heal thyself’.

Registers can be frustrating documents but they are often well worth spending time with. By reading against the grain it is possible to learn much about early modern life, as well as the characters of individual clergy as they wrote their sometimes barbed observations. I think that more qualitative work on early-modern registers is badly needed.

Finding medical practitioners in early-modern Britain.

History has been likened to dropping a bucket over the side of a ship, attached to a long chain. What comes up is a microcosm of life deep below the waves. So it is with an historical source. It offers a tiny little glimpse – a snapshot in time – of one particular event, or one person. On its own, though, it doesn’t give us a full picture. It is a frustrating fact but many people, in fact the majority of people, left little or no trace in the historical record. Even when one or two documents survive, it is often difficult to get much more than bare facts. Does this mean, though, that we shouldn’t bother even trying to piece together the lives of people in the past?

The project I’m now working on at the University of Exeter is a study of medical practitioners in the early modern period. In fact, it is the largest concentrated study of practitioners probably yet undertaken in Britain. The aim is to try and identify all those engaged in the practice of medicine in England, Wales, Ireland and (later) Scotland between roughly 1550 and 1715. It is a massive undertaking. Who, for example, will be included? The list is enormous. Physicians, apothecaries, surgeons, barbers, barber-surgeons, chirurgeons, chymists, druggists, surgeon-apothecaries, cunning folk, medical entrepreneurs and quacks…and all points in between. Dr Peter Elmer, formerly of the Open University and now a senior research fellow at Exeter has already collected over 12,000 names, many with individual biographies. I’ve been charged with finding Welsh practitioners and, after eight months, the list already stands at more than 600 – and this for a country that reputedly had very few doctors. You can keep up with progress on the project at our website here:

How are these people being located? The majority of my work is done in archives and on online catalogues. At the moment it is the sheer number of practitioners coming to light that is most surprising. They were, quite literally, everywhere. The problem lies in the deficiency of records and their limitations in offering much more than a glimpse of an individual’s life. Parish registers, for example, are often the only record that someone ever existed. In some cases, they might contain occupational data, and this begins to give some context. The Montgomeryshire parish registers are a useful case in point, with around 60 references to medical practitioners between the dates noted above.

Amongst the Montgomeryshire names are men like Arthur Jones of Berriew, a barber who died in 1697, Richard Evans of Brithdir “Physition” who died in 1701 and John Humphreys of Llanfechain, “chirurgeon” who died in 1660. Given that occupational data in parish registers is relatively rare, it seems fair to assume that recorded occupations suggest that these were the primary occupations of the people concerned. In each case, however, these are the only references to each man that I can find. No further evidence of their practice, their social status or indeed their lives, can be firmly established. At the very least though, and when aggregated, even this bare data does begin to allow us to see something of the landscape of medical practice in a given area. In Montgomeryshire, for example, is a rare reference to the occupation of midwife – one Catherine Edward of Glynceiriog, who died and was buried in April 1688. Midwives seldom appear in the historical record in Wales, so even brief references are interesting.

In other cases, though, it is possible to build up a broader picture of an individual practitioner’s life. The baptisms of children give both an indication of family formation as well as placing a person within a given area for a fixed number of years. Richard Ellis, for example, was a barber in Newtown, now in Powys. No record can be found for his birth or death, but the baptisms of his children William, Sarah and George between 1732 and 1737, in each of which he was referred to as a barber, tell us that he was at least practising between those dates. Also, it might be inferred (although by no means certain) that this was at the earlier end of his career given that children tended to be associated with marriage and the establishment of a household. The Newtown apothecary Thomas Kitchen provides a similar example, with the baptisms of his children Edward, Eusebius and Margaret between 1733 and 1737. Whilst we can’t tell anything about his business from this, we can at least fix him both geographically and temporally.

Other types of sources can unwittingly provide testimony to the businesses and social networks of medical practitioners. Wills and probate inventories can certainly be revealing about shop contents but, by looking further at things like the names of benefactors and even the signatories to wills it is possible to discern networks. In early-modern Wrexham, for example, a cluster of seventeenth-century wills reveal close links between practitioners in the same town, suggested by debts but also by their acting as executors or appraisers for colleagues. In some cases, for example that of Godfrey Green of Llanbeblig, died 1699, his entire shop and business found its way into the possession of another apothecary, John Reynolds, where it was still described as being the shop goods formerly of Godfrey Green when Reynolds himself died in 1716.

The best evidence can often be found where a picture can be built up using a variety of different documents. I’m currently working on an article about medical practitioners in early-modern Cardiff and especially their role within the early modern urban environment. Town records are generally better than for rural areas, but it is interesting to note the depth to which medical practitioners were often involved in town business. One Edward Want of Cardiff, an “barber-chirurgeon”, appears variously in documents in the second half of the seventeenth century. From parish registers we have his dates of birth and death, as well as the fact that he took over his business from his father of the same name. From hearth tax records we can tell that he was based in the affluent West Street area of the town, while a 1666 town survey further reveals that he was charged 6d  half a burgage in that area – the small plot probably indicating a shop. At some point he had occupied a mansion house near the corn market, a fact attested to by a land lease document, further suggesting wealth and status. References in the wills of two other Cardiff traders indeed refer to him as an Alderman, and Cardiff borough records also list him as a juror. We can also tell that his son Sierra Want was apprenticed to a Bristol barber surgeon, a common practice for the sons of middling-sort South Walians. Whilst his will contains nothing  of his medical practice, the use of a variety of documents can help us build up a real picture of the commercial and personal life of Edward Want.

In pulling the bucket up from the depths it is often difficult to glean much more than the barest facts; we often need more to really start to close in on the lives of our early-modern forebears. With practice, a little ingenuity and a great deal of luck though, even the smallest of extra facts help us to piece together a picture not just of how many people were practising medicine in Britain, and perhaps especially in rural Britain where records are fewer, but also something of their lives, occupations and statuses within their communities.

Uncle Austin and the case of the faked seances

It is 1942. As in cities across Britain, the people of Cardiff are suffering from repeated nightly attacks by the Luftwaffe, destroying homes and lives. Perhaps it is the chaos of war, the incomprehension towards a world being turned upside down, and the ever-present sense of death and loss, that attracts rising numbers of people to attend spiritual churches and private séances, in an attempt to draw comfort from the apparent confirmation of an afterlife, and for the chance to ‘speak’ to loved ones who have ‘passed over’. Perhaps it was for these, or similar reasons, that one Mrs Emily Libby of Cardiff attended a private sitting by a man named Austin Hatcher – my great uncle.

Uncle Austin had a bit of a reputation in the family, it’s fair to say. His marriage was unconventional  not least because of his ‘ladyfriend’, Emily,  with whom he seemed to spend much time, seemingly unbeknownst to his wife. Communication with the living was seemingly not his strong point. When, for example, he wanted a cup of tea, he would simply rattle his teacup, and expect Mrs H. to head straight for the kitchen. But Austin was a spiritualist, and a member of a Cardiff church, and ran séances (for which he charged). It was to one of these séances that Emily Libby headed in September 1942, and which led to a criminal case against Austin for “unlawfully using subtle means by pretending to hold communication with deceased spirits to deceive and impose upon certain of his majesty’s subjects”.

During the evening’s events, things were certainly happening. The lights were put out and, almost immediately, contact was made with a spirit identified by Austin as a man named ‘Colombo’. But Mrs Libby was suspicious, and became convinced that this was simply the voice of Austin, but in a slightly higher register.The séance went on for around 90 minutes, during which other things began to arouse her suspicion.  Quite tellingly, for example, she reported that a “human hand touched her and caught hold of her handbag”. Other voices spoke up throughout the session but Mrs Libby noted that she “knew someone was moving around the séance room in the darkness because luminous objects in the centre of the circle of chairs were continually being blotted out”! Austin, it seems, was none too subtle.

Mrs Libby had seen enough to tell her that something was amiss – “I was convinced it was an awful fraud” she later told the South Wales Echo. And so, on September the 27th, she returned to a second session at Austin’s house, this time accompanied by her husband (crucially, and unfortunately for Austin, “Police Constable Libby”) and two female police officers in plain clothes. Once again the spirits were not slow in coming forth. Another attendee at this séance, one Mrs Davies of Penylan, takes up the story.

“On one occasion, the “spirit” of a little black girl named “Topsy” appeared to make contact, who “said that another “spirit” named “Will” had given her sixpence because he was going to help her to come through”.

Other witnesses came forward, one of whom was PC Libby’s sister, Olive. More spectacularly in this episode, “she saw a luminous trumpet approach her and touch her on the knee. A voice said “it’s for the new lady”. Olive asked “Is it Uncle Tom?” to which a sepulchral voice answered “Yes, Uncle Tom on your father’s side”. Feeling brave Olive asked “How are you Uncle Tom?” at which the voice responded “one hundred percent and no bones broken”! At this point, it was clear that even the judge was beginning to see the funny side. When Olive revealed that she didn’t actually know anyone by the name of “Uncle Tom”, the judge quipped “it might have been Uncle Tom Cobley”. Perhaps it is a complete coincidence, but both “Uncle Tom” and “Topsy” are characters in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Was Austin cleverly able to manifest literary characters?!

Later on, a woman’s voice said “Elizabeth” and “bicycle”, which Hatcher interpreted as being a little girl killed when a car knocked her off her cycle. Again neither Olive nor any of the other attendees knew of any such story. When Austin claimed to manifest the voice of one of the attendees’ dead husband, the witnesses noted the distress caused to her, and the emotion in her voice as she replied. Perhaps the final straw came when Austin told the ladies present not to be afraid “even if the spirits kissed them”.

The outcome of the trial is unclear, but Austin certainly didn’t give up either his séance or his unconventional lifestyle. Not having a ‘regular’ job, he and his ‘ladyfriend’ made a good living by travelling around and knocking on doors, asking if people had antiques to sell, for which they offered a pittance and then sold on. Clearly, Uncle Austin was the progenitor of the many ‘cash for gold’ schemes operating today!

So how should we view Uncle Austin? A man who believed he had genuine gifts, or a heartless rogue who played on people’s emotions and loss to exploit money from them. I never met Uncle Austin, but I’m guessing that the jury weren’t out for very long.