“The infamous Dr Foulkes”: The ‘black villain’ of 18th-century physick

National Library of Wales Ty Coch 22 Add. MS 836d (also known as ‘Piser Sioned’) is, like so many other early modern ‘miscellanies’ an absolute treasure trove of information. Attributed to various authors over a period of several decades, it contains everything from family records to poems, and quotes from Tyco Brahe.

In the first few pages are records of ‘unfortunate days of the year’, alongside remedies for sore tendons and records of books that the anonymous author had lent to Arthur Jones. One of my particular remedies in the book is this one:

An approved imparabl’d medicine to eat anie overgrown film over an eye

R;/ The green part of a goose dung fresh (or at least very juicy) it will not be fitt after 16 or 24 hours, drop the juice thereof into the Eye with the dew that falls on the first, second or third day of june, wch you must provide or procure in that season. The first does the effect, the second clears the Eye, it does nt smart at all, and nothing has been found better as yet”

Needless to say that putting fresh, “green” goose dung into your eyes is probably best consigned to the book of history. Let’s just take it as read that people at the time believed it would do them good, and leave it at that!

Elsewhere in the document, however, is a record that is starkly at odds with the more generic and haphazard notes that make up the majority. It is unsigned, making it difficult to verify the allegations being made, but appears to relate to someone who has first-hand knowledge of the events being described. First taking the form of a vernacular poem, the verse is dated 1716 and headed:

“To the infamous Dr Foulks, Dr of Physick and Rector of Llanbedr in Denbighshire”.

It is worth quoting the first two verses to get a flavour of the allegations.

Thou Holy letcher thou religious cheat

How shall I halfe thy horrid guilt repeat

Now but my colours strong enough to paint

The blackest villain in a seeming saint

Doe lay thee open to a publick vicar

For greater crimes than ever Judas knew

Thou art, what shall I say, thou art alone

Whose sins epitome, all sins in one

And yet

Thou art too vile to live too bad to die

Nor canst thou from deserved vengeance fly…


by philtrers force and sympathetick charms

Oh! Black physician to the fernal Tribe

Who canst for soul and body to prescribe

But such designs thy medicine impart

That both are ruined by the cursed art


“Quick, Strait, begone from Wallia, Fruitful Isle

To some far distant unpregnated soile”


Strong stuff. “The blackest villain in a seeming saint”, “Black physician to the [in]fernal tribe”. Clearly he was a notorious figure in Llanbedr. But who was this “Dr Foulks…and what had he done?

The Reverend Robert Foulkes of Llanfrothen, Merionethshire, was indeed an M.D. who had graduated from Oxford in 1725. This Dr Foulkes was a correspondent of some of the most eminent physicians of his day and, in 1718, had set up his own physic garden at Cambridge. He wrote to Welsh luminaries such as Edward Lhuyd (then at the Bodleian) on the subject of botany, and was considered to be an authority in his field. Reportedly of delicate health he died young. All in all, this does not sound like the sort of man to inspire the vitriol of the ‘Piser Sioned’ author.

By incredible coincidence, however, there was another Robert Foulkes, also a vicar and physician, at roughly the same time, and it is this man who is the more likely candidate. The Reverend Robert Foulkes of Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, Gwynedd, indeed seems to be the subject of the poem but he is a shadowy figure. Little can be found about either him or his medical practice so we have only the poem to shed light. What had he done to elicit such contempt? Luckily for us the poet left a few lines of narrative to fill in the blanks. At the very end of the poem, written in the margin, is the following note:

“The subject is now too well known but futurity may drown it in oblivion, unless it be commemorated in writeing as thus,

The s(ai)d doctor was guardian to the young ladies of Llanerch in Flintshire with(?) the Davises. He debauched one at 13 years of age and gave her physick to prevent conception. He lay with her 15 or 20 years, at last she refuted physick and conceived, she was delivered privately, he disowned the childe, but s(ai)d he had to do with her mother and did not know(?) but the child might be his grandchild – a black villain”


So Dr Foulkes’ sins were laid bare. It is unclear whether this poem was ever published but it would fit the sort of libel that could be distributed around a local area or pinned up in prominent places. Since the “subject [was] now too well known” it seems that Foulkes already had a soured reputation. That he was a vicar, entrusted with the moral and spiritual health of his parishioners, would have been difficult for them to accept. That the sins occurred with young women with whom he had been entrusted with their care would surely have been worse. Even when faced with the allegations and the presence of an illegitimate child Foulkes seemingly refused to take responsibility.

I’m still on the hunt for information about this ‘black villain’ and it would be interesting to find out more about him. Vicars who practised medicine were not uncommon, but those who inspired such venom as did Dr Foulkes certainly are. Sadly, it seems that figures of authority or fame who used their positions to exploit or abuse others are not just a modern phenomenon.

Unpacking the ‘eccentric’ in popular memory: Local characters of old Cardiff.

Disclaimer!: This is not a fully-formed argument, just some thoughts about the ‘eccentric’ in reminiscences of childhood and popular memory. I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

I’ve been reading the ‘Cardiff Borough Records’ – a magisterial five-volume set of miscellany relating to Cardiff from Norman times through until the early twentieth century. It is fascinating. There is everything from court cases to inquests, slander suits to land rents and tithes. For a good Cardiff boy like myself, I find the references to land parcels very interesting in, say, the fourteenth century, which still have echoes in areas and street names to this day. There are, for example, several references to the ‘Weddle’ or “Weddal fields”. Wedal Road is now a busy conduit not far from the University of Wales hospital. But I digress…

One section that stands out for me is the ‘Reminiscences of Old Cardiff’, which contains a brief but fantastic list of ‘eccentric old characters of Cardiff’. These include ‘Pegg the Wash’, an apparently feisty and pugnacious old washerwoman, whose habit was to chase children away from her house with a stick, perhaps peppering her imprecations with a good Welsh oath or two.

“Dammy Sammy” was an apparently well-known schoolmaster, whose sobriquet relates to his colourful choice of language in front of his young charges. A dwarf sweet-seller, known as ‘cough candy’ took advantage of his appearance and, in fact, seems to have augmented it by using his top hat as an advertising hoarding, pasting shop adverts and flyers onto it. The list goes on, but also noteworthy is ‘Hairy Mick’, the lamplighter!

What, though, stands out about these reminiscences? For me, it is the fact that all of these figures involve, or have relevance, for children. They were clearly denizens of a childish world – larger-than-life characters who left an indelible mark on the memory.

Memory, and reminiscence, is an odd thing, especially in terms of using and interpreting these characters in context of, say, social conditions.  How can we separate the ‘truth’ (if such a thing exists) from misty-eyed, if not evocative, depictions of ‘characters’. It is an interesting question. History is full of ‘characters’. If we think of history taught in schools, it is most often done in terms of a cast of individuals (Henry VIII, Hitler et al) and set-piece historical events.

And yet there is a remarkable constant throughout history and human nature, in our ability to identify and remember people who, for one reason or another, were somehow different. I can illustrate this from my own memory. When I was little, there was an unfortunate character who frequented a main street nearby, and who would suddenly leap out and shout at the traffic, sometimes even accompanied by violent gestures and karate actions. A certain mythology built up around him; it was popularly supposed that his wife and children were killed in an accident, thus affecting his mind and causing his behaviour. Whilst it’s certainly possible, it is interesting that no hard evidence really exists; people simply ‘know’.

In his excellent study of the history of folklore in London, Steve Roud makes this important point relating to the endurance of certain types of popular myths – things that are still ongoing today. Aside from more obvious ones such as empty properties gaining a reputation for being haunted, or patches of waste land being attributed to plague pits, he also notes the spread of often baseless rumours, which are then taken as truth. One such is the belief that a certain portion of land or building can never be developed as it was, at some stage, ‘given to the people’. There is one of these on my doorstep; the Caerphilly Miner’s Hospital has long been said by locals to be the property of the people of Caerphilly. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped it from recent closure…and redevelopment! A mythology of the individual, perhaps especially when that individual is located within the context of childhood memory,  fits well into this type of folklore.

How could we interpret characters like ‘Dammy Sammy’? As a medical historian, I am loath to engage in ‘retro-diagnosis’ since it’s obviously possible that he just had a foul mouth! But it’s also plausible that a pathological condition, say Tourette’s syndrome, certainly unknown and undiagnosed at the time, might explain spontaneous expletives. If so, a historian of nineteenth-century attitudes towards such conditions might find a useful case study. In a sense, it is not the character himself, but the reason why (s)he stood out that renders them interesting.

Let’s speculate further. Was ‘Peg the Washerwoman’ simply a bad-tempered old woman? Highly likely. But dementia, or perhaps an underlying psychological or sociopathic condition might explain a fear of strangers and a desire to drive them away. Historians of witchcraft have long highlighted the fact that ‘difference’ was often a crucial deciding factor in suspicions of witchcraft. Old women, especially those at the margins of society, were vulnerable.

The point is that we sometimes need to look beyond the simple description or reminiscence and try and unpack the social context of the ‘other’ in society. That the names of these characters – and their apparent ‘eccentricities’ – have survived or achieved notoriety, whilst many others have not, tells us something of how difference was perceived in past societies.

Steel and the body in the Enlightenment:

Whilst I was a research fellow at the University of Glamorgan, working with Professor Chris Evans, I was lucky enough to be part of a project far away from my usual research on Welsh medical history, but one which opened my eyes to an extraordinarily fruitful and fascinating area of research.

As the sociologist Richard Sennett commented, the eighteenth-century body was a ‘mannequin’ upon which were hung conventions of fashion, taste and politeness. Historians, however, have been slow to recognise the important influence of ‘enlightened’ manufactured goods in this process. New industrial technologies yielded products aimed specifically at the body, of which articles made from steel were central. Steel is not often thought of in terms of its contribution to culture, but rather as a prosaic industrial material. Technological breakthroughs between the 1680s and 1740s (such as Huntsman’s crucible steel) made steel an increasingly abundant and important good. It was, however, a material that could actually play a role in the fashioning of a new, refined self, and was indeed vital for some of the most personal rituals of everyday life. It was the metal with which people had the closest, even the most intimate, physical contact.

Razors were a prime example of this. Better steel enabled razor-makers to produce blemish-free, durable and more comfortable blades. Pre-crucible steel razors tended to blunt quickly and, although sharp, were not superbly keen. Part of the reason for this was the use of pre-Bessemer cementation steel, which was more brittle due to the less than uniform distribution of carbon. Crucible (or cast) steel razors were far superior; not only could they carry a much sharper edge, they could be polished to a mirror-like shine, making them far more aesthetically pleasing for consumers.

Indeed, when advertising their wares in popular publications, it was to domestic consumers rather than professional barbers that they most often appealed. Personal razors allowed their owners to meet expectations of refinement and social order. Shaving the face evinced gentlemanly neatness and elegance, while shaving the head prepared it for the wearing of a wig – an expression of genteel masculinity.

Cast steel had effects in other ways. Its ability to take a sharp edge also influenced the design of surgical instruments, for example, and this led to changes in operative techniques, which had implications for both the patients and practitioners of surgery. The amputation knife was one such instrument. The standard amputation knife around the mid eighteenth century was long and straight – something resembling a chef’s knife today! But advances in steel allowed a new, curved design. This allowed surgeons to use a more natural cutting stroke around the leg, cutting through the soft tissues more quickly, before sawing through the bone. Given the risk of losing a patient through hypovolemic shock in pre-anaesthetic surgery, speed was of the essence.

The springy strength of steel was likewise indispensable for medical paraphernalia from trusses to deportment collars. Here, steel was a pure Enlightenment good, scientifically honed to improve or correct nature’s vagaries. As makers of ‘elastic steel trusses’ frequently emphasised, steel was the only material with which they could claim to cure hernias or ruptures. Steel ‘neck swings’ could be used to force the body back into its ‘natural’ shape, while deportment collars and steel ‘stays’ encouraged young ladies and gentlemen to stand up straight.

Other devices benefitted from the development of new types of steel. It could, for example, be employed in fixing correctional devices to the body, such as the flexible springs in spectacles’ side arms. Spectacles became a permanent part of costume, with an aesthetic value in their own right. In this process, they ceased to be indicators of bodily deficiency and acquired more positive associations (learning and sagacity), as archival and artefactual collections at the College of Optometrists can demonstrate.

One of the most visible uses of steel, though, was in costume jewellery. By the mid eighteenth-century, jewellery was strongly in vogue amongst the upper echelons of society. As Marcia Pointon has noted, diamonds were the very height of luxurious and conspicuous consumption, and costume jewellery reflected a range of social mores and rituals related to society ritual and appearance. Prohibitively expensive, the potential market for these precious stones was therefore extremely limited.  But steel offered new possibilities as an ersatz precious metal; here was a material which could offer all the decorative allure of diamonds, but at a fraction of the price. Cut and faceted into imitation stones known as ‘brilliants’, cast steel sparkled. With flat surfaces polished, it shone like a mirror.

By the late eighteenth-century demand for cut-steel jewellery reached across Europe and appealed to royalty as well as affluent middling sorts with disposable income to match their social aspirations. Fashionable gentlemen increasingly bought cast steel watch chains, both to support their newly modish gold and silver watches, but also as a costume adornment in their own right. Added to these chains were a further range of accoutrements such as seals and lockets, which further served to draw attention to the means of the wearer. In the 1760s, chatelaines made from ‘blued steel’ presented a ‘gamut of metallic hues’. Glistening steel buttons also became an essential part of the dress of the Beau Monde, so much so that their effulgence was satirised in cartoons such as Coups de Bouton, showing a society lady cowering in the face of the blinding light reflected in the buttons of her rakish companion. But this perhaps also worked on a deeper level. Steel jewellery reflected the light but, in doing so, it also perhaps somehow reflected the spirit of the age – literal enlightenment.

It is often surprising what even the most basic of materials can reveal about society and culture, as well as the technological processes involved in making them. Steel was in many ways a ‘crossover’ between technology and culture; it was both a product of the enlightenment, and something that acted as a vector for enlightened ideals, through the various uses to which it was put.


Writing Welsh History (3)

A couple of weeks ago I took part in the ‘Writing Welsh history’ event at Swansea University. One of the main topics of the evening was how we approach Welsh history; is it somehow different to other countries or regions? Are there any specific problems facing historians that are uniquely Welsh? That last question is one that vexes me. The recent television series was titled The Story of Wales. As a participant in the television debate following the series noted, it is not The story, but A story. I believe that we are lacking a grand narrative of Welsh history. It is natural to think in terms of chronologies, but it is difficult to think of the sweep of Welsh history without using the broader British history as a reference point. In other words, could we even tell a story of Welsh history?

This problem is particularly relevant for me as I contemplate my next academic project. I’m thinking about tackling a narrative of Welsh medicine from earliest times to the present day. This hasn’t been attempted before, and there is certainly a need for such a study. The problem, though, lies in structure. From available source material, for example, is there enough evidence to fill chapters before, say, the tenth century? The obvious solution is to adopt a thematic approach, rather than a narrative chronology. But in other ways it highlights the fact that Welsh history cannot always be neatly compartmentalised.

There have been many ‘history of Wales’ volumes (I’m thinking of works by John Davies, Geraint Jenkins and Prys Morgan) and these ably take on the difficult task of constructing a narrative. Geraint Jenkins’s Concise History of Wales is excellently written on what he describes as a ‘formidable task’ of writing the entire history of a country. In terms of periodization, the first chapter, ‘the earliest inhabitants’, covers everything from Celtic and Roman Wales up until around 380AD. Chapter two covers around seven hundred years, up to 1063. But after 1063 the pattern changes to around two hundred years per chapter. This isn’t a criticism; it just underlines the reality for any chronological history of Wales that, before the 11th century, it is difficult to go into forensic detail.

But I also think that we do need more of these types of ‘stories’ to get a more fixed idea of what our history actually consists of. In my first book, I purposefully avoided a narrative, firstly because the evidence wasn’t suited to this type of approach, and secondly because I wanted to address a number of different themes in broader medical history. But this time I’m tempted to bite the bullet and try and answer my own question of whether we should think in terms of ‘Welsh medical history’ or ‘medicine in Wales’.

Finding that one special source…

I’m sometimes asked why I became interested in Welsh medical history, and people are usually surprised when I tell them it was a complete accident. In 2003 I had just left a 10-year career with a high-street bank and had returned to study. Actually, ‘returned to study’ is a bit of a misnomer; I left school with 6 GCSEs and packed in A-levels after one year with a burning ambition to work in an office and have my own swivelly chair and desk. Suffice to say it wasn’t all I had hoped! But, after starting my degree studies with the OU I decided to take the plunge and go to Uni full time, joining in the second year.

In the summer before my final year I was on the hunt for a dissertation topic. I had little idea what I wanted to do beyond a vague notion of looking at seventeenth-century Wales and the civil wars. Aside from a little bit of reading about James Lind and the cure of scurvy, I had no experience of medical history whatsoever. I headed off for the Gwent Record Office and asked the archivist what was available. In what turned out to be a prescient comment, he said “if you’re interested in the seventeenth century, you might like this”, and produced the notebook of John Gwin of Llangwm. Tony Hopkins, I’m very grateful to you!

Gwin’s book is a miscellany. It contains everything from farming notes to accounts, from biblical verses to poetry and from family records to church seating disputes. But what caught my eye were the medical remedies.  This was my first real experience of early-modern handwriting, and at first I couldn’t make out much, and what I could see wasn’t familiar. “The sesticall stone to cure sore eyes by mistress Moone” was one. Another recorded “Mr Cradock’s directions to us for our two children being afflicted by the small pox”. One even had a receipt “to make a horse pisse”. Something about these remedies piqued my curiosity; I wanted to learn more about Gwin and the medicines he used.

It was then that the second stroke of massive good fortune occurred. Having taken a photocopy of one page to show my supervisor, Dr David Turner (later my PhD supervisor and now a good friend and colleague at Swansea), it was he who first suggested that there was little work on medicine in seventeenth-century Wales, and that this might prove a fruitful topic for research. David, I’m very grateful to you too! This led to my undergrad dissertation, to an MA and then to a PhD, funded by Wellcome…all this from one visit and one source. I often wonder what shape my academic career might have had, if any, had I not gone to the record office that day. It is a point that I often make to students looking for a dissertation topic, that it often only takes one really good source to spark off an idea.

Nearly ten years later and although my research interests have broadened, I still like to return to the Gwin book from time to time. There is a danger in over-using a source; you can become too close to them and, to use a term I hate, risk ‘valorising’ your subject. But in this case, the richness of detail in the book, its value for so many areas of Welsh history and its insight into daily life all render it an amazing – but largely unused – resource for Welsh historians.

I am part of the ‘History Research Wales’ network of historians working in Welsh universities, and we’re now into the third series of articles for the Western Mail, my first two concentrating on medicine in Wales. For this series, ‘Iconic places in Welsh history’ I thought I’d do something different. My iconic place was Llangwm – home of a certain Monmouthshire yeoman. One day I might get around to doing something more definite with the book; maybe an edited edition. But for now it was nice to revisit the book and use it for something wider than medicine. Here’s a link to the article.