St Neots Museum Curator Liz Davies delves into the medical folk remedies recorded in Huntingdonshire
In 2020, the current COVID-19 pandemic is a major crisis gripping the world, but since biblical times, epidemics of highly contagious diseases have swept the world killing many millions of people. The most deadly recent world pandemic was the 1918 / 19 influenza outbreak, which is said to have killed between 20 to 50 million people, more than the total number who died fighting in the First World War!
In the medieval period the Bubonic plague (also known as the Black Death) swept across Europe and arrived in England in 1348, where it’s estimated to have wiped out almost half the population. The plague then reoccurred across Europe at regular intervals over the following centuries, particularly in Britain in the years 1665 and 1666 when it was known as the Great Plague. This outbreak ravaged London in particular, killing up to 200,000 people when the population of the capital was then around 500,000.
Since the 1600s, and without major advances in medical treatment, the world has continued to cope with a series of highly infectious diseases, including smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, measles, scarlet fever, malaria, influenza and many others. After the last serious outbreak of the plague in England in 1666, smallpox became the most feared infectious disease, killing and disfiguring millions with pox scars.
Doctors and medicine
In the medieval period, the only qualified doctors were physicians who had trained at a university. Most had little practical medical knowledge, although in their defence, there were very few useful remedies available! Surgeons, on the other hand, were not university trained, but would learn under an experienced surgeon and then gain further experience ‘on the job’.
From the medieval period, until well into the Victorian period, most treatments involved herbal remedies, bleeding, vomiting or purging patients, magical charms, or offering to say a prayer. It was only during the later 1700s that medical knowledge started to increase and surgeons began to make important discoveries about the body and how it worked. For instance, it was in 1796 that Edward Jenner, following up countryside folklore that milkmaids who caught cowpox never contracted smallpox, proved that a vaccination with cowpox could prevent smallpox.
Folk remedies still prevailed
Despite Jenner’s discovery, it was not until 1853 that smallpox vaccination for children was made compulsory in Britain and the disease started to decline. Until then, people would still rely heavily on local folk remedies. Drawing on local memories, St Neots historian Mr Tebbutt discovered that, in St Neots, it was believed that keeping a guinea pig could offer protection from smallpox because the animal would attract the illness and prevent the owner becoming infected. He also recorded that in 1943, a local Dr Cross had told him that in the early days of his practice, when a child was vaccinated against smallpox, it was not unusual to find that the parents had applied a cow dung poultice due to a folk memory of the link to cowpox.
From the Tudor period onwards, better off people would pay to see a doctor and poor people could use the workhouse surgeon or doctor. A chance survival in a local scrapbook reveals that the Overseers of the St Neots Poor paid Surgeon, Joseph Rix 1s 6d (about 7p) in July 1829 for treating a patient with ‘Pills and Powder’.
However, with very few effective treatments for any serious illnesses, patent medicines, folk remedies, religious prayers and magical charms were all widely popular. In rural areas, such as Huntingdonshire, belief in folk medicines and cures survived until the introduction of the National Health Service in 1948.
Tebbutt’s documentation of cures
It was the strong belief in natural remedies that inspired Mr Tebbutt to collect information about folk remedies and beliefs. In particular he knew Alfred ‘Doc’ Rowlett of Eaton Ford, who supplemented his income as a road sweeper and antique dealer by selling his own herbal remedies from a stall on St Neots Market. Life-long Eaton Ford resident, Betty Cambers, remembered seeing Mr Rowlett collecting plants in the meadows which are today the riverside park in St Neots. Betty recalled that the meadows were ‘a much more beautiful place than people nowadays would ever imagine.’ The grassy meadows were full of lovely wild flowers, depending on the season.
‘Doc’ Rowlett claimed he could cure warts, and Eynesbury resident, Bert Goodwin, once recalled that Mr Rowlett had cured a large wart on his knee. Bert recalled how Rowlett had cut a small twig from a bush he described as ‘Joseph’s Thorn’ which he shaped into a spatula, and then made the mark of the cross over the wart and said it would be gone by the next full moon. The next time Bert looked – the wart had gone!
In his booklet on Huntingdonshire Folklore, Mr Tebbutt recorded many of the folk remedies common in this area well into the last century. There were many different remedies for a common illness such as rheumatism including; carrying a moles foot or a hare’s foot with you, or using a lotion of adders fat. Alternatively, people who lived in Bluntisham believed that you could cure rheumatism by tying a red ribbon around the bad leg.
If you preferred to act before you became ill, you might carry a charm with you, or hang one in your house. ‘Doc’ Rowlett had a collection of charms which he had collected from local people: a white stone with a natural hole in the centre had been hung in a gypsy caravan to protect the horse, a leg shaped stone had been carried to protect the owner from gout, and a broken whelk shell had given protection against earache. In many cases, the charms seemed a much more pleasant alternative to some of the less appealing cures!