Author: Lisa Smith

Suffering from Colds in the Eighteenth Century

I apologise for my unexpectedly long absence from the blog, occasioned by a nasty cold followed by an even worse chest infection. But now that I’m on the mend thanks to a course of antibiotics, I have the luxury of sufficient oxygen in my blood stream to reflect on colds in days of yore.

A sick man with a cold. Coloured lithograph, 1833. Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While nobody ever dies from the common cold, complications from colds can be debilitating or even fatal: chest infections, pneumonia, pleurisy… And these sorts of problems regularly developed in eighteenth-century patients. For fun, I trawled through the database for symptoms nearest my own to see how patients would have treated their colds. It’s not a pretty picture: lengthy and dangerous illnesses and ineffective and uncomfortable treatments.

Patients rarely consulted Sloane for recent or urgent problems, but colds often slipped into the chronic category. Elizabeth Southwell, in an undated letter,* noted that her cold had already lasted two weeks. In 1708, Elizabeth Howland referred to hers lasting three weeks. Lord Lempster, who had a chronic lung condition, had already been suffering from a cold for two weeks when his doctor James Keill wrote to Sloane on June 22, 1710. As if that wasn’t long enough, the winner of these misery sweepstakes was the Earl of Thanet who reported on July 31, 1712 that he had been taking remedies for is cold since June 12.

These weren’t just gracefully fading colds, moreover, but ones that worried sufferers. Keill had anticipated Lord Lempsters’s death, given his laboured breathing; the patient remained seriously ill when Keill wrote again on July 9. Lord Lempster, Southwell and Howland had all started to spit occasional blood in their phlegm. Southwell’s cough was so violent she had given up on taking most remedies, except diacodium (a painkiller made of poppies). The Earl of Thanet and Howland both suffered from chest pains, which can indicate the onset of a serious chest ailment, while the Earl and Southwell had sore throats. Howland was also constantly hot, which she attributed to a sharpness and heat in her blood. Colds that wouldn’t clear up might have different–and apparently hot–effects, as Dr. Keill suggested when diagnosing Lord Lempster’s problems as a stoppage of blood rather than the more serious inflammation of the lungs. Either way, these were serious complications from what started as a cold.

Although there were other remedies used, the treatments focused primarily on diet, bleeding, blistering and purging. The Earl and Howland both drank milk, then known for its healthful benefits in lung ailments. The Earl and Southwell ate fruit–possibly to keep their bowels regular. Southwell had eaten figs, while the Earl had tried and rejected oranges (proposing instead pears). All four patients were bled. Southwell, for example, had been bled twice and Lord Lempster at least three times (10 ounces, 8 ounces, and 8 ounces). Keill also suggested that Lord Lempster try blisters and purging; the Earl initially used blisters, but thought a bit of purging could also be useful. Other remedies described included powder of pearl (the Earl), chalybeates to cause vomiting (Lempster), barley water, linseed oil, sarsaparilla and China tea (Howland). The main goal of the remedies was to reduce inflammation of the lungs, break up the stoppages of the blood, or to cool the blood.

The fates of these eighteenth-century patients? Elizabeth Howland (c. 1658- 1719) and the Earl of Thanet (1644-1729) lasted many years after. Elizabeth Southwell (1674-1709) was the youngest sufferer and she died within a few years of her illness (though not necessarily related). Lord Lempster (1648-1711) was already chronically ill before he contracted his cold, and continued poorly for another year and a half before he died.

Whatever the rationale behind eighteenth-century explanations of and treatments for colds, I’m just glad that I didn’t have to suffer bleeding, purging, and blisters in addition to the misery of a chest infection!

*After 1705 when she had a son. The letter refers to visiting her young ill son.

An Eighteenth-Century Case of Hair Voided by Urine

“Honourable Sir!” wrote Thomas Knight to Sloane in February 1737 (British Library, Sloane MS 4034, ff. 34-5). He wished Sloane’s advice on an “uncommon Case”—the discovery of hairs discharged by a man who suffered from a burning pain during urinating. Knight thoughtfully enclosed the matter in a pill box for Sloane’s examination.

The patient must have been in great pain as all the adjacent parts, internal and external, were swollen and irritated. He had tried bleeding, clysters, emulsions, and opiates, all to no avail; he was only relieved when he finally passed the “hairy Substance with the gritty Matter that adheres to it”. Importantly, the patient had “kept a strict Regimen” for many years because of gout and “incontinency of urine”. As part of his regimen, he regularly drank cow’s milk.

L. Beale, Kidney diseases, uinary deposits, 1869.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Knight theorized that the fine hairs had come from the skin of some animal that had gotten into the patient’s body and then circulated through the body until reaching the renal glands. “It is more possible”, he thought, “that they were extraneous, than that they were generated in the Urinary Passages”. He recognised that the veins in the body were indeed very small, but damp hairs “become very flexible, pliable and susceptible of being contorted and of assuming any Figure”. Perhaps “some of the downy-hair about the [cow’s] Udder might got along with the Milk”.

The oddity of the story is itself intriguing, but so too is the afterlife of the letter and sample. The details noted on the back of the letter by Sloane (or on his behalf) suggest the process of cataloguing in his collections.

Apr 27 1738

Ent’d in L.B.

Knight of Hair voided by Urine.


Ph. Tr. No. 460

VIII IX A letter from Mr T Knight to Sir Hans Sloane

pr. R. S. &c concerning Hair voided by Urine.

The letter and/or the sample were kept and entered into one of the collections in 1738. The letter was also passed on to the Royal Society and it was published in Philosophical Transactions no. 460.

So, what did the Royal Society make of Knight’s report? The Phil. Trans. editor in 1739, Cromwell Mortimer, remarked after the letter: “I doubt of these Substances being real Hairs; I imagine they are rather grumous Concretions, formed only in the Kidneys by being squeezed out of the excretory Ducts into the Pelvis”.

Painful enough, in any case, but at least no need to fear drinking milk!

Bed-wetting in the Eighteenth Century

Sometimes the embarrassment and frustration of eighteenth-century sufferers seems to seep from their letters. One such case is that of a young boy, John Plowden. A Mr John Manley of Winchester wrote seven letters to Sloane in 1723-4, asking advice about the child’s lack of bladder control. The relationship between Manley and John is never made clear in the letters. The boy did not seem to be an apprentice and his father was still alive. His age was also not given, though it seems likely that he was at least the age of reason (seven)–but perhaps not much more. John’s own letter was composed in grammatical sentences, but he retained a childish script.

A man carrying a child’s commode. The child has just had an accident, according to the picture’s text. (1769) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In October 1723, Manley complained that John “has several times bepiss’d his Bed, & when ever that happens, it is always but midnight. He has also bepiss’t his Breeches about six times a day.” A month later, John and his nurse insisted that she had been “very careful & vigilant in complying” with providing John with his remedies. The real problem, though–as Manley claimed–was that John “is so negligent that he has sometimes bepiss’t his Breeches in the day time. I say tis his own negligence, for he is never deny’d leave to do down whenever he askes it”. A strong statement.

John reported in January 1724 that his control had improved. He was now able to wake himself up in the night when he needed to urinate and “don’t do it in my Sleep so often as I us’d to do”.  Manley noted that John had occasional mishaps in bed the previous month, but the nurse had spotted a pattern: the “mischances happen chiefly on those nights [when] at going to bed he makes but a small quantity of urine.” With the cause identified, it became possible to change John’s behaviour. Having John write his own letter to Sloane may also have been an attempt to make him take responsibility for his problem.

Setting aside the fact that toilet training is obviously a desirable goal, this case highlights the importance of bodily control from an early age in the eighteenth century. John’s guardian must have been deeply concerned about the “mischances” if he was consulting one of England’s leading physicians: few people wrote to Sloane about children and consulting Sloane was expensive (a guinea per letter). Manley saw this as a troubling matter.

In John’s case, his physical symptoms suggested a potentially worse problem–an underlying lack of self-control. By the early eighteenth century, there was a growing emphasis on masculine self-management in terms of mind, body and behaviour. Young boys were particularly vulnerable to learning bad habits that could have long-term effects. Manley’s letters reveal a tone of increased impatience with the boy’s repeated “negligence”, while John himself recognised a need to regain control of his own body. And this mastery needed to be as much mental as physical, including even the ability to wake himself when asleep. Much was at stake for young John Plowden.

I also discussed this case in “The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth-Century England and France”, Gender and History 23, 1 (2011): 26-46.

Update October 24, 2013: Hannah Newton has an excellent post up at earlymodernmedicine on remedies and explanations for bed-wetting (“Wet Beds & Hedgehogs”).

Gender, Bowel Movements and Data

A diverting weekend on Twitter, at least if you’re a medical historian. It all started when John Gallagher (@earlymodernjohn) wondered:

On #earlymodern diaries: do #twitterstorians worry that our information about individuals is heavily weighted towards their bowel movements?

A fine question, which several Twitterstorians pondered. Elaine Chalus (@EHChalus) suggested that this was a gendered concern, since:

Bowels have never featured much in the women’s letters/corresp I’ve read over the years. ‘Face ache’ though does.

I had never paid much attention to the bowel movements of the patients I study, but had a memory that women discussed bowels frequently in a medical context. But what might my Sir Hans Sloane’s Correspondence Online have to offer by way of insight?

First, that I do not have a category for tracing patients’ discussions about their excretion. That said, “bowels”, “stomach”, “diarrhoea”, “constipation”, “stool”, “urination” and “urine” all appear as key terms.

Second, after a quick search for “bowels”, “stool” and “diarrhoea” (sixty-eight out of 713 medical letters), I found that men were indeed much more interested in bowel movements overall. Twenty-six of these letters involved women: most were written by medical practitioners (15) or by male relatives (6). The remainder involved women writing on behalf of other females (2) or male relatives (3). No women wrote about their own bowel movements. In contrast, sixteen men wrote about their own and eighteen wrote about other sufferers’ (eleven males and six females). Medical practitioners wrote for an equal number of male and female patients.

What surprised me most is how few letters discuss this issue. Perhaps there might be more references in the 164 letters mentioning “stomach”. However, it could also reflect the categories chosen for the database and a further choice on the part of individual researchers not to input this data because it is so common. As with any database, decisions must always be made.

Only, I’m left with a lingering question… Would it be meaningful to be able to trace the number of references to bowel movements in the eighteenth century?

An Eighteenth-Century Rogue

A letter that begins “Since the Unfortunate Affair in Kensington whereby I lost all my Substance, My Expectations and my friends” caught my attention while I was rooting through documents in the archives.

Botanist Richard Bradley found himself strapped for cash. He was managing to scrape by “at the publick Expence”, but publishing was an expensive business and all of his money had gone to paying off booksellers. He was even considering going abroad: “my Inclinations are for it, Even into the Most Dangerous country”. Bradley was unsure which was worse: “to live upon Expectations at home is as bad as it can be to venture one’s Life among Savages abroad”. What he truly wanted was “to have a Garden of Experiments for General Use”—something, no doubt, that Bradley hoped would capture Sloane’s attention, given his interest in and support of the Chelsea Physic Garden. He concluded that such a garden would allow him to “gain an Improving Settlement” and to “do my Country some Service without restraint of Booksellers”.

As a scholar, I was struck by his indebtedness to booksellers, but what on earth was his “Unfortunate Affair”? I just had to explore the letter’s background! A bit of digging revealed Bradley to be a bit of a rogue who constantly asked for (and received) money from his friends. Historian Frank Egerton has taken a sympathetic view; Bradley was a man who lived in an age when there was no government support for scholarship and, lacking personal wealth to support his investigations, he ended up in a cycle of constant debt. A fair point… though Bradley seems to have been particularly bad at managing his affairs.

Cannons Park, Middlesex (destroyed). Engraving from Vitruvius Brittanicus, vol. 4, by J. Badeslade & J. Rocque (London, 1739), plate 24. From Wikimedia Commons.

Born in 1688 to a middle-class London family, Bradley received a good education, but never attended university. He published widely on popular medical and scientific topics. He was known for his expertise in botany and managed to attract high-ranking patrons, including James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos (and husband of Cassandra Willughby). Brydges hired Bradley to oversee the planting of gardens at his estate, Cannons Parks, and even helped him out financially in November 1717, sending money to pay off personal debts. Then, in 1719, Brydges found that Bradley had mismanaged a substantial sum. It seems likely that this is the “Unfortunate Affair”. But he recovered and by 1724, William Sherard had recommended him for the position of Professor of Botany at Cambridge. As part of the Professorship, Bradley promised to found a botanical garden.

Bradley was, perhaps, generally unreliable. The Royal Society notes that “his ignorance of Latin and Greek and his failure to perform his duties caused great scandal”. Yet, despite his many problems, Bradley was still able to persuade people to invest in him. If his relationship with Sloane is typical, I can understand why. Bradley comes across as likeable in his correspondence. Starting in 1714, he occasionally sent Sloane news (e.g. of a hermaphroditic horse) and illustrations (e.g. a lizard from Sloane’s cabinet). In return, he sometimes asked Sloane for advice or employment recommendations.

Bradley again found it difficult to make ends meet by 1726. He had not founded his botanical garden and had trouble attracting students (whose fees were needed to support him). He wrote to Sloane offering him a saffron kiln in return for a favour: help in—of course—getting free from the “booksellers’ hands”. The following year, Sloane noted at the bottom of another letter from Bradley: “Sent him a guinea”. In 1729, Bradley’s financial problems appeared to have been sorted he married a wealthy woman. But within a short time, Mary Bradley’s money had gone to pay off his many debts, and the unlucky couple was forced to sell off household furnishings and move into more modest lodgings.

Bradley died as he lived in 1732, after a long and expensive illness that left his wife and child in debt. The last letter about Bradley was from his widow, asking Sloane for support. And, given his history with Bradley, Sloane likely provided the widow with assistance.

Perhaps Mrs Bradley was better than her husband at money management, as she was never heard from again.


F. N. Egerton, “Richard Bradley’s relationship with Sir Hans Sloane”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 25 (1970), 59–77.

F.N. Egerton, “Bradley, Richard (1688?-1732)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2005.

Eighteenth-Century Ear Worms

In 1702, Mr. Hare, the Vicar of Cardington in Bedfordshire, wrote to Sloane with a “matter of fact”: a case of ear worms. Gory it may be, but this tale tells us much about domestic medical practices and popular scientific interests!

Hare reported that a young man—who lodged in the same house as him—had been suffering from some running humour and pain in his right ear, which he’d tried to treat with clean wool and honey. After several days, a maid in the house examined the lodger’s ear when she noticed it was bleeding. She “saw something working in his Ear like maggots” and promptly sent for a neighbouring woman to help. The neighbour’s remedy: an application of the steam of warm milk.

Hare took a look at the ear later that day, describing the worms inside as “large maggots in shape & Colour like those that commonly breed in putrefied flesh.” He began to pick out “a great number of Insects”, counting twenty-four. Although there were more worms in the ear, Hare could not extract them; they had burrowed in too deep during the operation. Instead, he left the patient “for about an hour in which time he was very uneasy & full of pain”, with a “thick bloody matter” in the ear. Fortunately, the remaining worms had started to work their way out and Hare “pickd out nine more” during a second attempt. The patient “found himself more at ease upon which we concluded that there were no more.” By the following day the young man had entirely recovered.

Illustrations from the English translation of Nicolas Andry’s An Account of the Breeding of Worms in Human Bodies, London, 1701 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Hare provided several details about domestic medical practices. The young man started off with self-treatment. A maid in the house examined his ear. A neighbouring woman and a clergyman (Hare) administered further treatments. This was typical of the process of seeking medical advice. Physicians and surgeons were seldom the first point of medical assistance—and some problems might be sorted out before their help was even necessary.

We also have some clues as to what sorts of treatments they tried. The honey and cotton wool would have been readily available and were the sort of basic application that one might try to treat an ear problem. According to the Countess of Kent’s A Choice Manual (1687), various types of simple applications for inflammations or injuries included honey. The milk steam also makes sense. In popular thought, milk was thought to draw worms out. But there were various ways this might be administered. In An Account of the Breeding of Worms in Human Bodies (1701), for example, Nicolas Andry referred to injecting warm women’s milk into the ear.

The timing of the letter suggests that the observation was offered in response to Nicolas Andry’s treatise, which had been published in English only the year before. Andry identified the different types of bodily worms, which he attributed to eggs hatching inside the body. In the human head, for example, worms might occur in the brain, nose, eyes, teeth, or ears. An Account detailed Andry’s experiments with a microscope as he explored the inner world of the human body and its many worms—including spermatozoa. Hare called his letter as a “matter of fact” (eyewitness testimony about an observation), but it was of limited scientific value and never appeared in the Philosophical Transactions. His keenness to share his account about a timely subject, however, suggests a man who was deeply interested in science and medicine.

And the account itself reveals a man who had a very steady hand…

An Invitation to View a ‘Monster’

Amidst Sloane’s letters is a handwritten advertisement:

An admirable Curiosity of Nature being a Surprising Instance of a monstrous and preternatural birth lately in France to Children Joyned together in the Body. With Two Backs one Breast one Heart and Two Entrails one Head and Two faces Three Tongues in one mouth. The Bodies having their Proper Members so that Monster has Four arms and Four hands on which are sixteen Fingers and Four Thumbs Four Thighs Four legs and Feet and Toes proportionable with perfect nails on both Toes and Fingers. It being at full birth and lived the Space of Four Days. This wonderful curiosity may be brought to any gentleman’s House.

It is an intriguing note, lacking an author’s name or date. But it makes me wonder: did Sloane arrange to view this curiosity?

There are several accounts of unusual births—severely deformed children or animals—in Sloane’s correspondence, some of which appear in the Philosophical Transactions. Monstrous births were a source of great fascination to early modern people; besides being the subject of many treatises and pamphlets, such curiosities were regularly exhibited (for a fee) across Europe.

Nicolaus Tulpius, Conjoined twins (1652).
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

The term ‘monster’ comes from Latin, meaning portent or warning. And this was how many people understood them—as a message from God that indicated the mother’s sins or served to caution the wider community about its morals. Other people were simply curious and wanted entertainment, keen to pay the money to see something so unusual. Natural philosophers such as Sloane, however, wanted to understand why such births occurred. Perhaps they were part of the natural world after all, just a matter of excess, or one of God’s secrets placed in nature for man to uncover. But first, natural philosophers needed to distinguish the real from the fake. Given the possibilities of profit and fame, trickery was certainly possible.

Sloane did not indicate that he saw the curiosity. He was a busy man and probably would have relied on word of mouth to decide whether or not it was worth his while to view it. Nonetheless, it is interesting that he bothered to keep the invitation at all. It is arguable that this was simply a random scrap of paper that was caught up in his papers, but I think it is more likely that the invitation acted as a memory device, either to recall that a particular curiosity had come to London or that it was one he had seen. Most significant of all, however, is that he never printed an account by anyone in the Philosophical Transactions that matches the description of this curiosity.

Not all monsters, apparently, were interesting—either as a hoax or medical case!

An Old Sick Gentleman and a Family Scandal

I first discovered the Newdigate family when I was a Ph.D. student. Elizabeth Newdigate’s medical letters to Sloane read like a soap opera, filled with heartache and family disapproval. But it wasn’t until several years later that I realised just how dysfunctional the family was.

This week, I’m giving a paper on her father, Sir Richard Newdigate, who wrote a curious pamphlet that gives a fuller picture of the family’s problems: The Case of an Old Gentleman, persecuted by his Own Son (1707). For several years, he had been embroiled in legal difficulties with his children, including financial disputes, an attempt by two of his sons to have him declared a lunatic, and a complaint by four of his daughters in the House of Lords about his “cruel Severities and unreasonable Usage and Practices”. Newdigate hoped to defend his tarnished reputation.

Throughout his account, Newdigate referred to himself as an “Old Sick Gentlemen” – which indeed he was. When the troubles started in 1701, Newdigate was in fine health. He had just undertaken a lengthy tour of France with no ill effects. But his health steadily deteriorated at pace with the arguments, leaving him a broken old man before he died in 1709. Although Newdigate did not mention the physical pains of ageing, he repeatedly identified himself as “old” and used terms of emotional suffering (“persecuted”, “afflicted”, “lacerated”). What seemed to wound him most was the attempt to have him declared a lunatic. This would have removed all his legal authority over his estates and person.

Sir Richard emerges as a sympathetic character in his account, an old man who was being bullied by his children. The story evokes images of King Lear, although Newdigate specifically referred to the Bible (Genesis 9: 18-29): Ham’s shaming of Noah by refusing to cover his father’s nakedness. In pursuing their demands, the Newdigate children had allowed their father to be roughly assaulted by ruffians, chipped away at his paternal authority, accused him falsely, and stopped providing care. Fear and social isolation exacerbate physical pain and cause emotional suffering. Newdigate’s accounts centered on two main anxieties associated with old age: the steady decline of authority and the absence of caring children.

Biographers of Newdigate, such as Eileen Gooder (The Squire of Arbury: Sir Richard Newdigate, Second Baronet and His Family, 1644-1710) roundly condemn Newdigate’s children, providing evidence of what a good father he had been – of course basing their interpretation on Newdigate’s accounts of himself as a poor old man. But the story may not be so simple. Two adult children had also been committed, hinting at a real strain of mental illness in the family. And the suggestions in medical records that the daughters’ darker allegation of “unreasonable Usage and Practices” might have been true. Tracing the truth of the story through the Newdigate family records is part of my ongoing research.

Sir Richard Newdigate’s success in fashioning himself as an elderly victim reveals much about the wider cultural anxieties about aging. The real suffering that came with old age was not mere physical discomfort, but the fear of being abandoned or preyed upon by one’s family. Newdigate drew on these concerns to elicit sympathy from his readers and to re-establish his reputation: who could blame an “Old Sick Gentleman” who had been vulnerable to his demanding children?


On Sloane’s assistance to Elizabeth Newdigate, see my article, “Reassessing the Role of the Family: Women’s Medical Care in Eighteenth-Century England”, Social History of Medicine 16, 3 (2003): 327-342.

Glimpses into Daily Life: The Earthquake of 1703

In January 1703/4, Ralph Thoresby (an antiquary of Leeds and fellow of the Royal Society) sent Sloane a collection of accounts of an earthquake in the north of England on Childermas Day (December 28th) around five in the evening. Thoresby’s letter, and a second one on the earthquake, appeared in the Philosophical Transactions 24 (1704). The earthquake had been strongest in Hull, so Thoresby wrote first to the “most suitable person I know” there: Mr Banks, The Prebendary of York and Vicar of Hull. Thoresby also had accounts from friends and relatives across the north of England: his sister (a Parson’s wife), a minister who was related, and a minister named Mr Travers. The story is interesting on its own merits, but it also reveals much about the overlap between religion and science, the collection of scientific information and the activities of daily life.

Wenceslaus Hollar, Hull (17th century). Source: Wikipedia, Courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection, University of Toronto.

Mr Banks had relatively little to say for himself, having been walking through the noisy town streets on his way “to visit a sick Gentleman”. His Reader, however, the “ingenious good man” Mr Peers, had been writing at his desk and was “affrighted” when the desk and chair began to heave and the chamber and window shook. Mr Banks had twenty more such accounts from tradesmen. Mrs Banks had been concerned about the china in her closet [small private room] falling on her, while the rest of the family heard the pewter and windows rattling. Some of the accounts were more amusing. A neighbouring gentlewoman found her chair lifted so high that she thought her “great Dog had got under it”. And in a nearby ale house, the company was so merry that they did not even notice the chimney falling down. Only the landlady’s mother, who was in a chamber on her own, “felt the shock so violent, that she verily believ’d the house to be coming down” and nearly fell over. The accounts from Thoresby’s relatives and friends were similar.

The earthquake came one month after the largest natural disaster in the British Isles, the Great Storm of 1703. Mr Banks concluded that “Famines, Pestilences and Earthquakes, are joined by our Blessed Saviour, as portending future calamities.” In this case, he feared “the approach of some more dreadful Earthquake” and he prayed “God of his infinite mercy to avert his future Judgments.”

As Thoresby’s reports suggest, the exploration of the natural world and a firm belief in God went hand-in-hand in the eighteenth century. Thoresby had a longstanding interest in natural events such as unusual weather or earthquakes, and several of his letters on these subjects were published in the journal. Thoresby was typical of his time. Like Mr Banks, he believed that these events were signs from God. But these were not merely punishments. By Divine Providence, God might show his favour by protecting people from the worst. The terrible storm and the recent earthquake were warnings to be heeded. But if one could uncover the cause of these events, it might be possible to prevent them in the future.

NPG D27320; Ralph Thoresby by J. Baker, after George Vertue, after James Parmentier, line engraving, circa 1696 (with permission of the National Portrait Gallery)

Thoresby’s letters also reveal his information gathering process. Although Thoresby had not been in Hull, he knew just who to ask. In less than a month, Thoresby had heard back from Mr Banks, who had spoken to at least twenty-five people about their experiences. Thoresby then passed it on to Sloane who, as Secretary of the Royal Society, might publish the account in the Philosophical Transactions. It was, nonetheless, important to establish the credibility of one’s sources. Mr Banks was “suitable”, Mr Peers “ingenious good” and several of the others were listed as ministers, gentlewoman, or “Parson’s wife”. These were the accounts that received precedence, being from people considered reliable. This list also highlights Thoresby’s wider social and intellectual networks. Thoresby might be a fellow of the Royal Society and have access to Sloane’s attention, but his own information gathering occurred primarily within his own social group, the middling ranks of clergymen and tradesmen.

The accounts also tell us what was going in Hull at five in the afternoon when the earthquake happened. Mr Banks was walking through the lively town centre, on his way to visit a sick person. Mrs Banks kept the china in her closet, which is where she was, and many of the family members were at home. The Banks family were also obviously comfortable in their domestic arrangements, owning as they did both pewter and china. Mr Peers, Mr Travers, and twenty tradesmen were busy writing at their desks. A neighbouring woman kept a large dog, which was clearly known for causing similar domestic havoc. The nearby ale house, run by a woman, was thriving, and at least one member of her family lived above. Thoresby’s relative the minister was visiting a gentleman and his sister was “sadly frighted” while alone in her room. The drama of the earthquake contrasts sharply with the homeliness of regular activities.

A short scientific report, perhaps. But one that offers a fascinating glimpse into the daily life of Thoresby and his friends – encapsulating their religious beliefs, information networks, social status, family relationships, and cozy domesticity.

Sloane, A Camden Character

By Kim Biddulph

“I will like history more.” This was the response from one of the schoolchildren I worked with on a project about Sir Hans Sloane. He had been asked how the project would change what he will do in the future. This boy had been difficult to engage and had struggled with reading primary sources. He had done his own thing when we were doing designing activities, and he didn’t even want to go to the celebration event at the end of the project. But it meant a lot when I read his feedback, and that is what he said. It made my day.

I highlighted this response in the evaluation report I sent to the UK Heritage Lottery Fund, which had provided the money for the project. Healing Histories took place over the academic year 2011-12 and, as project coordinator, I was based in the London Borough of Camden‘s School Improvement Consultancy Service. I worked with students from two secondary (high) schools on a debating project about herbal medicine and with another primary (elementary) school class on designing and planting a physic garden in Bloomsbury Square.

The physic garden in Bloomsbury Square.

But the most challenging and exciting part of the project was to get a class of twenty-four Year 5 pupils (aged 9-10) to research, write and design a trail leaflet about Sloane in Bloomsbury.

St Georges Bloomsbury with a statue of George I on top of the steeple.

Sloane lived at 3 and 4 Bloomsbury Place (then Great Russell Street) from about 1695 to 1742, and his collection was, of course, the basis of the British Museum. Through their research (prepared in advance by a freelance historian, Katie Potter), the kids found out that the Duke of Bedford had a house north of Bloomsbury Square and that there had been a market south of Bloomsbury Square when Sloane lived there. They also found out that he had been a vestryman at St George’s Bloomsbury, which was a new church, opened in 1731.

We also had a professional writer, Dr Michael McMillan, who helped the kids get into the research through poetry and drama. The pupils really enjoyed dramatising major events in Sloane’s life, like his trip to Jamaica and meeting the ex-pirate Henry Morgan, and the attempted arson attack and burglary at his house in 1700. Michael also challenged them to do the best writing they’d ever done. It really worked. They wrote a day in the life of Hans Sloane as he went for a walk around his local area.

The final trail as researched written and designed by 10 year olds.

Then they designed the leaflet itself, with the help of Sav Kyriacou of digital:works. I found some pictures of Georgian interiors for them to use as a guide to creating a colour swatch for the leaflet, and we did a very basic and fun cut and stick activity with all the elements we needed on the trail.

The trail was launched at a great day in Bloomsbury Square, and the Mayor of Camden attended, as well as Sir Hans Sloane himself (well, an actor)! The pupils had prepared part of the trail as a walking tour and gave it to pupils from another school. Then, as one final treat, I had organised for them to go into 4 Bloomsbury Place, one of Sloane’s houses. He had originally moved into number 3, but as his collection grew he needed more space so leased the house next door as well. Various businesses are now housed in that same building and two of them let us look around, including Prestel Publishing, who gave the pupils access to the roof!

We found so many sources and stories for the children to work with, including Old Bailey records of the attempted burglary and other crimes in the area, vestry records at St George’s Bloomsbury, and accounts of Handel leaving a buttered muffin on one of Sloane’s priceless manuscripts. There were all of his c.80,000 collected objects in the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum to look through, too. Sadly, we didn’t find the correspondence, which now fills me with regret!

The pupils got a lot out of the project, though. They looked at an array of historical sources, which the teacher has packaged up to use as a topic with subsequent year groups; they became amazingly confident in their writing; they contributed something to their local area; and their hard work was rightly celebrated.

There was something special about Hans Sloane that kept their interest. He led a fascinating life at a fascinating time in history, meeting pirates, Samuel Pepys, Handel, Linnaeus, and kings and queens. He was a high-achiever from a relatively modest background–and William Stukeley described him as not being able to speak in public at all. He had a tangible impact on the local area, with the British Museum standing as a testament to his collecting zeal. He popularised milk chocolate and he had a stuffed giraffe in his living room (both winners with kids).

Sign on the pavement outside the British Museum during the Olympics.

I have moved on to pastures new, but later this term the pupils who were involved in this project will do a series of talks at neighbouring schools to tell their peers what they have done and what they found out. Copies of the trail have been sent to every Camden school with ideas for teachers to incorporate them into their history or English classes, and the trail is being given out at the British Museum. So if you’re in London and you get a chance, go to the information desk in the Great Court and ask for a copy, then take a stroll round eighteenth century Bloomsbury through the eyes of Sir Hans Sloane. Until then, you can download the trail from the British Museum website.

Kim Biddulph trained as an archaeologist and now works as a museum educator. She coordinated two projects for the London Borough of Camden to engage children and young people with the heritage of Camden, an area of central and north London. Healing Histories was the second of those projects, funded through the UK National Lottery and it aimed to explore the heritage of Sloane, who lived in the borough for over 40 years. Kim also blogs at Archaeotext

Image Credits: Kim Biddulph