Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The 1822 Herb Garret: St Thomas’s Hospital, London

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.


Pill-making gadget

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.

Plague mask

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!

Leech jar

It is all fascinating but I came out very relieved that I live in the 21st century.

A happy New Year to you all.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Christina Courtenay said...

What a wonderful place - thank you for this fascinating post! I really must go there some time :-)

Just Another Bloke said...

Simply fascinating! I wish my leg could cope with the stairs.

Thanks for a great post.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for your comment, Christina. It's attached to the Old Operating Theatre - equally fascinating - but gruesome.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you for dropping by, Just Another Bloke. I'm afraid that the stairs are not user-friendly; the brochure describes them as 'a narrow 32 step spiral staircase' hidden away in the 1703 attic of St Thomas's church only accessible via a narrow door in the corner of the church porch.

But I'm delighted that my post was able to give you a taster of what's up there at least.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful account of your journey back in time. I've always wondered how one would make and apply a poultice, be it to an ailing horse, or to a gouty foot belonging to a peppery general in Harrogate. And I now understand how one might sugar the pill! I'd also vaguely pictured the bandage rolling, undertaken by so many women in times of war, to be a bit like rolling up a ball of wool, rather than involving a business-like gadget.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Anonymous, for your thoughtful comment. I suppose one could roll up a bandage by hand but it would be easier to have a gadget keep the ends in alignment, if it were a wide one. Just think what a mess one can make of rolling up a long sheet of Christmas wrapping paper!

wannabe a writer said...

What a wonderfully informative and visual blog post. Thank you Elizabeth, I feel like I learnt a lot!


Suzi Love said...

This is one of my favorite places in London. Loved it!

And I was also about to do a blog post on it. Great minds think alike. LOL.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Thank you, Wannabe a writer, for your kind comments. I hope you will be able to visit the place yourself - there's so much more there than I could cover in one post. Just along a small corridor, for example, there is the Old Operating Theatre, where the poet John Keats did his apothecary-surgeon's training; fascinating but gruesome!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I agree with you, Susi Love. I'm sure there's enough of interest for both of us to blog post! It would be great if you, too, could spread the word.

Joana Starnes said...

Thanks for a fabulous post Elizabeth, so fascinating and informative! Thank goodness for 21st century medicine though!

Elizabeth Bailey said...

My gosh, that is absolutely fascinating. Need to put that one on the bucket list. Even this blog has given me some great insights into medicines of the day. Might have to pick up that sugaring the pill thing and use it!

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

Just thank your lucky stars, Joana, that I didn't touch on the instruments they used to extract kidney stones or examine one in unmentionable places. Some of the equipment on display looked, frankly, terrifying. And there were no anaesthetics.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

What was worrying about the pill-making, Elizabeth, was that if you didn't mix the ingredients evenly, some pills might contain very few of the important ingredients whilst others might be too strong. It needed a skilled - and scrupulous - apothecary to judge it correctly. If you wanted to kill a character off, however....

Elizabeth Bailey said...

Hilarious and shocking, Elizabeth! And your remarks to Joana have me itching to know more. I do think a blog on these horrible instruments ought to be on your agenda!! I'll bet it will go viral!