Tag Archives: medicine

Snails and Serendipity

Snail Milk Water


So much of extending my historical knowledge has depended on serendipity.

This week I was in London for a meeting and hoping to be able to visit the Tate afterwards. However the meeting over-ran and, because it was closer to St Pancras where I catch my train, I went instead to the Georgians Revealed Exhibition at the British Library. It is full of fascinating images and objects demonstrating the way in which the Georgians shaped modern Britain. One of the highlights for me was the huge map of Georgian London making up the floor of the final room of the exhibition. I can spend hours looking at maps – and often do!

Afterwards I browsed through the books and souvenir objects for sale, which included among the usual mugs and posters a complete high head white wig for those wishing to dress the part! And among the books I came across a small volume that looked interesting, containing Georgian household cures and remedies.

And here I discovered a Jamaican connection, for the original book had come down through the Biscoe and Tyndale-Biscoe families to its present custodian Nicola Lillie. Some readers may remember the story I told not long after starting this website of the court case involving Joseph Biscoe and his runaway wife Susanna.

Joseph Biscoe’s aunt by marriage, Elizabeth Ambler (Mrs Elisha Biscoe) was the original owner of the ‘Physick Book’ in which she, her friends and later generations recorded their recipes for various potions for easing or curing everything from the bite of a mad dog to fits, bladder stones, gout, coughs and indigestion. Marilyn Yurdan worked with the author to provide the medical historical background, and although some recipes would be fairly easy to make now, it really is a case of ‘Don’t try this at home’ when you encounter Nurse Payne’s Receipt for a Sore Throat in the Small Pox containing rock alum and white dog turd! Given that as little as one ounce of alum can kill an adult (not to mention the dog turd), this is not one to copy.

Nor are we likely to want to make use of woodlice, earthworms and snails, all of which were favourite eighteenth century ingredients.

More benign is a recipe to make Lavender Water by simmering lavender flowers in cider; and a Tincture for Gout and Colick in Stomach was made using raisins, rhubarb, senna, coriander, fennel, cochineal, saffron and liquorish infused in brandy. My guess is that the rhubarb and senna would have made it effective for constipation if not for gout. Increased prosperity in the eighteenth century leading to a diet rich in red meat and other high protein items such as turtle, taken together with rich red wines, made gout the classic Georgian complaint.

Besides reproducing the recipes, the book explains what the various ingredients were – how many of us now would recognise Burgundy Pitch, mithridate or Balsam of Tolu? even if we could safely identify coltsfoot, ox-eye daisies or camomile. To take us through these forgotten ingredients each recipe has its own glossary and an explanation of its intended use or the problem it was intended to ease.

It is also a beautifully produced little book with a short, illustrated history of the Ambler Biscoe family and woodcut illustrations of the various herbs and other ingredients.

Although the eighteenth century family name was Biscoe, in the mid-nineteenth century it became Tyndale-Biscoe (after the Biscoe name had been lost for a time through a female line of descent) and some readers may know the lovely Historic Jamaica from the Air by David Buisseret, in which the photographs were taken by Jack Tyndale-Biscoe.

There is a large bequest of papers, maps, documents and photographs relating to Jamaica made by Jack Tyndale-Biscoe and his wife in the Jamaica Archives in Spanish Town – you can read the details of what was donated in Kenneth E. Ingram’s University of the West Indies publication Manuscript Sources for the West Indies. The collection also includes genealogical information on the Morrison, Duff and Dallas families of Jamaica and the Branch and deFreitas families of St Lucia.

In addition to their connection with Jamaica, the eighteenth century Biscoe family also owned plantations on St Kitts. There are records for the slave ownership of Stephana and William Biscoe (widow and son of Joseph Biscoe) in Jamaica on the Legacies of British Slave-ownership website.

Not for the first time I have been impressed by just how intertwined was the history of Jamaica with the huge changes that went on throughout the eighteenth century.

Lavender Water & Snail Syrup: Miss Ambler’s Household Book of Georgian Cures and Remedies, Nicola Lille & Marilyn Yurdan with illustrations by Laura Lillie, The History Press, Stroud, 2013. ISBN 978-0-7524-8995-7

Sugar and Medicine

Papaver somniferum, Opium Poppy – By Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen via Wikimedia Commons

Sugar, which was so crucial to the development of Jamaica in the eighteenth century, is now something we take completely for granted. It is easy to forget that it was originally such a luxury that it was only available to the very rich, and that apart from flavouring food and conspicuous consumption in medieval sugar sculptures, it was also used as medicine.

There is a long tradition in believing that if something tastes nasty it must be doing you good! Equally it was often the case that if something did taste nasty or bitter it could be made more palatable by being sweetened with honey or sugar.

I came across one reference which highlighted this use of sugar in the Lee family letters, where Frances, who suffered from severe abdominal pain throughout her (long) life, wrote that she found relief by taking ‘Black Drop’ on the advice of the royal doctor Sir Richard Jebb.

Variously known as Kendal Black Drop (and also Lancaster and Armstrong’s Black Drop, and Quaker’s or Toustall’s Black Drop after a certain Dr Toustall of Durham who was said to have invented it) it was made from opium and flavoured with sugar and spices.

Here is a recipe from Henriette Kress’s website   – to be followed by qualified herbalists only!

BLACK DROP.—Black, or Quaker’s drop, is variously made; the Edinburgh formula is: Take of opium, 4 ounces; distilled vinegar, 16 fluid ounces. Cut the opium into small fragments, triturate it into a pulp with a little of the vinegar, add the rest of the vinegar, macerate in a closed vessel for 7 days, and agitate occasionally. Then strain and express strongly, and filter.” The aromatics added in some formulae are unnecessary (see also Acetum Opii).

Another popular recipe requiring sugar was Syrup of Poppies used for pain control and as a sedative.

SYRUP OF POPPIES.—A syrup of poppies may be made by depriving of their seeds, poppy-heads, 9 ounces; reduce them to a coarse powder, moisten them thoroughly with diluted alcohol and digest for 48 hours; then transfer the whole to a percolator, and gradually pour upon it diluted alcohol until 2 pints of the filtered liquor are obtained; then evaporate by means of a water-bath to 8 fluid ounces, filter, add sugar, 15 ounces; proceed in the manner directed for simple syrup. When cool, add best French brandy, 2 fluid ounces, and mix (C. W. Epting). (See also Syrupus Papaveris.)

Many medicines were made up in the form of syrups, and pills could be rolled in powdered sugar to make them more palatable. By the nineteenth century when sugar was plentiful doctors would sometimes simply sell sugar pills. Given that a placebo may be effective in about one third of ailments this is not as callous as it may sound, although such a deception is now regarded as unethical.