Recently, I visited the 1822 Herb Garret of St Thomas’s Hospital near London Bridge, founded in 1552 after the Reformation by King Henry VIII. (It had once been part of an Augustine Monastery.) As I climbed up the steep spiral staircase and ducked my head to avoid a low door frame, I found myself inside a large attic. My first thought was: this is a time warp! I was inside a vast wooden structure of roof timbers, rafters and beams, with a plain wooden floor, and crowded wooden shelves contained boxes, jars, bottles and a medieval alembic. Bunches of dried poppies, lavender and meadowsweet hung everywhere. The very air smelt herby. This is how it must have looked and smelt in 1822! And for us Regency Novelists, it was almost exactly in period. So I thought you might like to hear about it.
Dried opium poppies hanging from rafters
The Herb Garret was where the hospital’s herbs were carefully dried, turned into tinctures, pills, etc. and stored. Up here they would be less vulnerable to vermin, and the huge timbers would help to absorb extra moisture and stabilise the temperature.
The plant collection was wide-ranging; for example, there were boxes of willow bark, cinnamon and ginger root, as well as numerous seeds, leaves and flowers. 70% of modern medicine still comes from plants, and knowledge of their medicinal properties goes back hundreds of years.
Plants could be prepared as infusions, teas, tisanes, decoctions, tinctures and syrups, depending on what was needed. Tinctures, for example, used alcohol, vinegar or glycerine as solvents. The chosen herb was finely ground and added to 40% proof alcohol, say, and carefully shaken every day for two weeks. The liquid was then decanted, wrung out in a muslin cloth and stored in a dark bottle.
Apothecary at work on preparing a poultice
We were shown how to make a poultice to draw out infection. (Georgette Heyer fans will have come across poultices being used to excellent effect on horses in Sylvester and The Quiet Gentleman, for example.) Here’s one recipe. Take a measure of linseeds and put them in a bowl and add boiling water – leaving plenty of space for the linseeds to swell.. After about twenty minutes, the linseeds will have absorbed all the water and the mixture will now be the texture of thick porridge.
Jug and bandage-roller
You then spread the mixture onto parchment, chamois leather or paper – whatever comes to hand, really - and bandage it onto the afflicted place. As the poultice cools and dries, it will draw out the infection. It is messy and time-consuming but it works.
We were also shown how to make pills, another time-consuming job. Even though there was a gadget to cut the pills to the right size, they still had to be rolled into balls individually and sprinkled with talcum powder to stop them sticking together. If they tasted particularly disgusting, they would be dusted with icing sugar (which naturally cost more). An apothecary could get through 10,000 pills a week – and usually it was the wretched apothecary apprentice whose job it was to make them. An apprenticeship lasted seven years – and it swiftly became obvious that there was an awful lot to learn.
The Herb Garret does not pull its punches about how disease used to be treated. There was also a leech jar on display and a plague mask!
It is all fascinating but I came out very relieved that I live in the 21st century.
A happy New Year to you all.