The Man Who Transformed the Health of Londoners

The Man Who Transformed the Health of Londoners

Edwin Chadwick is the man who transformed the health of Londoners.

In a time when diseases like smallpox, cholera, and TB were insatiable in their taking of human life Edwin Chadwick used his position to persuade the government to invest in public health. Chadwick must be credited with being Britain’s premier pioneer in public health reform.

In 1834, he was appointed Secretary to the Poor Law Commissioners. Unwilling to administer an Act he was largely the author of in any way other than as he thought best, he found it hard to get along with his superiors. These disagreements contributed to the dissolution of the Poor Law Commission in 1847. Chadwick believed that public health should be the domain of the local government who he said should train and select their own experts.

While still officially working with the Poor Law Commissioners, Chadwick took up the question of London’s sanitation in conjunction with Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith. Their joint efforts produced a salutary improvement in the public health.

Chadwick’s report on The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population (1842) was researched and published at his own expense. A supplementary report was also published in 1843. The formation of the Health of Towns Association and the creation of various city-based branches followed rapidly. These national and local movements contributed to the passing of the Public Health Act 1848.

In 1848, Chadwick was appointed Sanitation Commissioner and a new Central Board of Health. The Board of Health was created with the powers to clean the streets and improve both the water and sanitation systems. Chadwick had many ideas on how he could improve the lifestyle of the poor. His priorities were a constant supply of fresh and clean water, toilets in homes and a sewage system that would carry the sewage from the cities.

One of his innovations was the use of glazed earthenware pipes for sewage, which reduced the possibility of contamination of drinking water. He also ensured that shallow drinking wells were abolished and replaced by a mains water supply.

Chadwick’s efforts were acknowledged by at least one health reformer of the day: William James Erasmus Wilson who dedicated his 1854 book Healthy Skin to Chadwick “In admiration of his strenuous and indefatigable labors in the cause of Sanitary Reform”.

Chadwick and Florence Nightingale corresponded on methodology. He encouraged her to write up her research into the book Notes on Nursing. He promoted it among well-placed intellectuals, making her much more visible.

Thomas Robinson Leadam 1809 – 1881 MD Cleveland 1853 MRSC Eng 1853 LRCP Edin. was the descendant of John Leadam surgeon of Tooley Street who inspired my series of Tales of Tooley Street. He was a British orthodox physician who also practiced homeopathy. He was the Surgeon to St. Olave’s Union, Surgeon Accoucher the London Homeopathic Hospital, Surgeon, and Surgeon Accoucheur to the Marylebone Homeopathic Dispensary.

In 1848, Thomas Robinson Leadam was a witness called before the Metropolitan Sanitary Commissioners. Leadam was the Medical Officer and Surgeon to the Poor Law Union of St. Olave’s, Southwark, and present during the Cholera and Typhus epidemic in 1848, when he partitioned off part of a workhouse to become a Cholera Hospital.

In his report to the Commissioners on this epidemic, Leadam described his district as a very poor area with no water supply beyond a few street taps, with cesspools and open stagnant ditches such that the stench outside his house was terrible.

Leadam continued that the effluvia often floods into the houses. This local doctor’s recommended was that Parliament should instruct landlords to connect the houses of Southwark to the sewers and initiate appropriate sanitation and drainage, as well as street paving.

Volume One, Tales of Tooley Street by Julia Herdman is available on Amazon worldwide.

The Portland Vase – An 18th Century Obesssion

The Portland Vase – An 18th Century Obesssion

The story of the Portland Vase encapsulates so much about the 18th century. It is a story of fascination with the classical world, the acquisition of antiquities and of technological and artistic excellence of British manufacture.

The vase that is known as the Portland Vase is a Roman cameo glass vase, dated to between AD 1 and AD 25. Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador in Naples, purchased it in 1778-1780 from James Byres, a Scottish art dealer, who had acquired it after it was sold by Cornelia Barberini-Colonna, Princess of Palestrina. Hamilton brought it to England and sold it to Margaret Cavendish-Harley, widow of William Bentinck, 2nd Duke of Portland.

The vase is a Roman two-handled glass amphora dating to between the second half of the 1st century BCE and the early 1st century CE. It has a cameo-like effect decoration which perhaps depicts the marriage of Peleus and Thetis from Greek Mythology.  Standing  24.5 cm in high and 17.7 cm at its maximum width it was made by blowing the dark cobalt blue coloured glass covered with a layer of opaque white cased glass. Large areas of the white glass were then removed to reveal the underlayer of blue. Areas of white were left and carved in relief to depict the scenes. The style of the decoration has led scholars to date the piece to the reign of the first Roman Emperor Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE). The fineness of detail of the decorative scenes is comparable to the highest quality Roman cut-gems and so it must be the work of a superbly talented gem-cutter or diatretarius.

The scenes on the vase are divided into two parts by a bearded head (perhaps with horns), one under each handle. The first scene has four figures which include a young man leaving a shrine in the countryside and wearing a cloak. The man holds the arm of a semi-naked woman sitting on the ground preoccupied with stroking an animal resembling a snake. Above the woman is the flying figure of Eros with his customary bow and a torch in his right hand. On the right is a bearded male standing between two trees and depicted in a contemplative mood with his chin resting on his hand.

The second scene on the other side of the vase shows three figures all sitting on rocks with a background of a single tree. On the left is a young male next to a column or pillar, whilst in the centre is a young woman with her arm raised to her head and holding a torch which hangs down to the ground. On the far right is another half-dressed woman who holds a sceptre or staff in her left hand.

The two-handled amphora vase is incomplete as it has lost its pointed base and the mouth of the vessel is curiously uneven in the cut. The base was repaired using a similar coloured disk carved in the same style and depicting Paris. Although it is remarkable that such a delicate object has survived at all from antiquity, the vase is not unique, as a similar type vase has been found at Pompeii which dates to the mid-1st century CE and depicts scenes from a grape harvest. However, these cameo-cut vessels are regarded as something of an experiment in Roman glassware, carried out in a limited period spanning just two generations, so they were almost certainly not commonly produced.

It was sold again in 1786 and passed into the possession of the duchess’s son, William Cavendish-Bentinck, the 3rd Duke of Portland who lent it to Josiah Wedgwood who copied it in his new jasperware.

Wedgwood devoted four years of painstaking trials to achieve the perfection required to replicate the vase. He had problems with cracking and blistering and the sprigged reliefs ‘lifted’ during firing. In 1786 he feared that he would never be able to apply the Jasper relief thinly enough to match the glass original’s subtlety and delicacy. However, his copy of The Portland Vase was placed in a private exhibition in Greek Street, Soho, during April and May 1790. The exhibition was so popular that visitor numbers had to be restricted.

Wedgewood’s success inspired a 19th-century competition to duplicate its cameo-work in the glass, with Benjamin Richardson offering a £1,000 prize to anyone who could achieve that feat. Taking three years, glassmaker Philip Pargeter made a copy and John Northwood engraved it, to win the prize. This copy is in the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York.

After a long history of changes in ownership, disaster struck in 1845 when the vase was smashed to pieces in the British Museum. Fortunately, it has since been painstakingly restored so that it can once more take its rightful place amongst the very finest masterpieces of Roman art.

The Wedgwood Museum, in Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent, contains a display describing the trials of replicating the vase, and several examples of the early experiments are shown.

The original Roman vase can be seen in the British Museum.



Chocolate and treachery – The drinking dens of St James’s

Chocolate and treachery – The drinking dens of St James’s

Chocolate Drinking in St James’s

For a city with little tradition of hot drinks, chocolate was an alien, suspect substance drink associated with popery and idleness. The principal chocolate houses were Ozinda’s and White’s, both on St James’s Street, and the Cocoa Tree on Pall Mall. As befitted their location their interiors were a cut above the wooden, workmanlike interiors of the City coffeehouses. They boasted Queen Anne sofas, polished tables, dandyish waiters and, at least in Ozinda’s case, a collection of valuable paintings for the customers to admire.

The St James area was the invention of Henry Jermyn in 1661. St James’s Square was a self-contained aristocratic estate of ‘great and good houses’ for nobles and gentry. It was within spitting distance of Charles II’s favourite London palace and replete with its own Christopher Wren church. The physical fabric of the area was revolutionary. St James’s was an urban paradise of wide, paved streets, lamps encased in crystal globes. Fleets of sedan chairs were carried around a central terraced square of fine neoclassical townhouses. The communal garden was renowned for its firework displays and perfumed sheep.

St James’s became the meeting place of crypto-Jacobites, secret supporters of the ‘King overseas’ who huddled together, sipping chocolate, and plotting the Hanoverian’s downfall. At the height of the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715, the king’s messengers burst into a packed Ozinda’s and dragged away its proprietor along with some of his customers. They were taken the Newgate and charged as traitors.

The Cocoa Tree was thought to be more respectable. In the early 18th century, it was the informal headquarters of the Tory party. Policy and parliamentary strategy were concocted over chocolate and newspapers. However, it may not have been that respectable after all. 18th century Tories were always prone to a treachery. In 1932, The Manchester Guardian reported that workmen drilling into St James’s Street discovered a secret underground passage (or ‘bolt hole’) leading from the site of the Cocoa Tree to a tavern in Piccadilly for Jacobites to flee to safety.

For Samuel Pepys, chocolate was the perfect cure for a hangover, relieving his ‘sad head’ and ‘imbecilic stomach’ the day after Charles II’s bacchanalian coronation. The commonest claim, however — one inherited from the Aztecs and still perpetuated by chocolate companies the world over today — was that chocolate was a supremely powerful aphrodisiac. Chocolate Houses, unlike the Coffee Houses, never took off except for around St James’s Square. Chocolate houses were for the super-elite, unlike the mercantile coffee houses. They became known for ‘kamikaze-style gambling.’

The inner room at White’s Chocolate House was depicted in the sixth episode of Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress in all its debauched glory. It is a picture of greed and despair; the posture of the ruined rake, hands held high as though pleading for divine intercession. White’s was depicted a man-made ‘Hell’ where the rich and reckless were the authors of their own destruction.

The legendary White’s betting book, an archive of wagers placed between 1743 to 1878, by which point the chocolate house had evolved into a club, lends credence to Hogarth’s attacks. Much of the time, it reads like a litany of morbid and bizarre predictions: ‘Mr. Howard bets Colonel Cooke six guineas that six members of White’s Club die between this day of July 1818 and this day of 1819’, reads one typical entry (Colonel Cooke won). Elsewhere there are bets on which celebrities will outlive others; the length of pregnancies; the outcomes of battles; the madness of George III; and the future price of stock.

White’s still exists today as a super-exclusive private members’ club at 37 St James’s Street with 500 members and a nine-year waiting list; the only woman ever to have visited is a certain Elizabeth Windsor in 1991.

Source: Dr. Matthew Green, The Daily Telegraph, 11 March 2017


The Man Who Took the Knife to London’s High Society

The Man Who Took the Knife to London’s High Society

By the 1780s John Hunter was the leading anatomist in Europe and an influential figure in Georgian high society: he had married a beautiful bluestocking poet, Anne Home, and was surgeon extraordinary to King George III.

During the day, the carriages of his wealthy patients blocked Leicester Square, where he lived with his family. In the evening, while Anne entertained London’s literati (“literary debates were decidedly not his idea of fun”), the Resurrectionists, or “Sack ‘Em Up Men”, would deliver corpses from London’s cemeteries to his back door. He was, as historian Wendy Moore says, “the Jekyll and Hyde of the Georgian period”.

At his country house in the “tranquil village” of Earl’s Court, Hunter kept an exotic menagerie: zebras and mountain goats grazed on the front lawn, prompting some to say he was the model for Dr. Dolittle. Hunter would sometimes be seen driving a carriage containing fresh supplies of fruit and vegetables from Earl’s Court to his Leicester Square townhouse, pulled by three Asian buffaloes. On the return journey, it would carry a gory cargo of dissected corpses. It was at Earl’s Court, he conducted experiments on animals of which Dr. Moreau would have been proud. The squealing of pigs and dogs vivisected in the name of science competed with the roar of his lions. In one of his more bizzare experiments he successfully grafted a cockerel’s testicle into the belly of a hen.

The place in British society of a man like John Hunter was rich in contradictions. As a surgeon, he treated some of the prominent men of his age – men like Adam Smith and David Hume (who called him “the greatest anatomist in Europe”), Gainsborough, Hickey, and the baby Byron, possibly James Boswell too. Many of these and other celebrities were personal friends of his and Anne’s – men like Joseph Banks, Joshua Reynolds, and Daniel Solander – highly respected members of civilised society.

Hunter kept a careful record of his surgical operations. This extract from his notebook details an unfortunate patient’s neck tumour:

‘John Burley, a Rigger, thirty-seven years of age, of a middle size, dark complexion, and healthy constitution; about sixteen years ago, fell down, & bruised his cheek on the left side, above the parotid gland. It was attended with a good deal of pain, which in four or five weeks went off, and the part began to swell gradually, and continued increasing for four or five years, attended but with little pain. At this time it was increased to the size of a common head, attended with no other inconvenience than its size and weight. He again fell and received a wound on its side, which gave considerable pain at first, but it got well in eight or nine weeks (This part is marked in the Drawing.) After this, the tumour increased without pain, on the lower part; as also at the basis, extending itself under the chin to the amazing size it now appears. Lately, he had perceived that its increase is much greater than what it was some time ago: he says he can perceive it bigger every month. The tumour is in parts the colour of the Skin, in other parts of a shining purple, where the Skin of the cheek is elongated. The beard grows upon it and is shaved in common. When by accident it is wounded, it heals kindly, because it is only the Skin that is wounded; and has sensation in common with the skin. It is hard to the feel some places, and in others softer, as if containing a fluid. It seems quite loose and unconnected with the skull or lower jaw and may be moved easily without giving Pain.’ 

Hunter performed the operation to remove this monster of a tumour on Monday, October the 24th, 1785. It lasted twenty-five minutes, and the man did not cry out during the whole of the operation. The Tumour weighed 144 ounces.

John Hunter died on October 16, 1793, after yet another heated argument with the out-dated surgeons at St George’s Hospital. He left huge debts, having spent all his money building up his unique anatomical collection which was opened to the public in 1788 at his Leicester Square home. The 14,000 items collected over 40 years – including Burley’s immense tumour – demonstrated the interrelatedness of all life on Earth. It also proved the originality of Hunter’s thinking. Seventy years before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, monkey and human skulls were placed together in a series, and he told visitors that “our first parents, Adam and Eve, were indisputably black”.

He had hoped the nation would buy his collection, but William Pitt the Younger exclaimed: “What! Buy preparations! Why I have not got money enough to purchase gunpowder.” Hunter’s wife and children were left with nothing. His brother-in-law seized his unpublished works and plagiarised them ruthlessly to carve out a career for himself as a surgeon. The man whom Hunter had taught the art of anatomy then burnt his priceless research notes.

I gave the eponymous hero of my latest novel, Sinclair, a brush with Hunter at St Georges Hospital. Here are a few of Sinclair’s thoughts on London voluntary hospitals.

“I’ll have to look for a position at one of the voluntary hospitals. I was hoping that I’d never had to go into one of those sanctimonious places again. It’s not the patients that get me down, they can’t help being sick or poor, it’s all the praying and grovelling. Those hospitals are full of the most unpleasant people, Frank. Pompous and incompetent men, self-satisfied arrivistes and simpering clergymen.”

“Oh, life’s full of grovelling and doing what somebody else wants, in my experience. Just try being in the Army.”

“I know it has to be done from time to time, but I’m not good at it. Those poor patients have to pray for their souls and give thanks to their benefactors at least three times a day no matter how sick they are. A lot of them are at death’s door, but they still have to get on their knees and give thanks to God and their wealthy benefactors.”

“But it’s better than being left to die alone and without any care, isn’t it?” said Greenwood.

“Aye, I suppose when you put it like that it’s a small price to pay for a warm bed, medicine and a bowl of broth, but it sticks in my craw. Why should these people be grateful for so little when the undeserving seem to have so much? Besides, this so-called charity work is false. It’s the very thing that enables surgeons like Hunter to build their reputations and make fortunes in the City.”

“So why can’t you be like them, Jamie?”

“Because staff appointments aren’t made on merit, they’re made through connection and patronage, and I won’t prostitute myself for these corrupt men of money. I put my principles aside to join the East India Company. I thought I could make myself happy by getting rich in the colonies, but thankfully I was saved from that folly. I now realise a man must be happy with his conscience if he’s to be happy at all.”

“That’s the trouble with principles; they’re very expensive for a poor man. Most of my father’s friends, who are rich of course, claim to have principles, but somehow they make sure that they never have any that stop them making money or for which they cannot get others to pay.”

“I think you’re an even greater cynic than me, Frank.”

“Oh, that’s quite possible. My whole life has been spent in the company of politicians: I don’t need the newspapers to know how they think.”


Source: The Knife Man: The Extraordinary Life and Times of John Hunter, Father of Modern Surgery by Wendy Moore

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon 

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The Apothecary Poet

The Apothecary Poet

Like my hero Sinclair, the Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) studied to become doctor but unlike Sinclair’s his heart was not really in it. Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne are among the most famous love letters ever written. As next-door neighbours, they exchanged numerous short notes, and occasionally more passionate letters.

Fanny Brawne

Keats trained as an apothecary at Guy’s Hospital from 1815 to 1816 and attended lectures on the principles and practice of surgery by the famous surgeon Sir Astley Cooper who also makes a brief appearance in my novel. In 1816, Keats received his apothecary’s licence, which made him eligible to practise as an apothecary, physician, and surgeon.

Keats’s desire to become a poet led him to abandon medicine soon after he completed his training. In his ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ recalls his experience of caring for the dying:

The weariness, the fever and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last grey hairs,
Where youth grows spectre-thin, and dies.

Ironically, it was his medical training that made him such a good carer for his brother Tom when he died from tuberculosis. In giving that care Keats became infected with the disease himself; there was no inoculation at the time, the now well-know BCG vaccine was first used in humans in 1921. Infection for Keats meant certain death but not before, he fell in love and wrote some of the world’s greatest poetry and love letters. Here is one of them.

“25 College Street, London

My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my Mind for ever so short a time. Upon my Soul I can think of nothing else – The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you again[s]t the unpromising morning of my Life – My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of every thing but seeing you again – my Life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorb’d me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving – I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love – You note came in just here – I cannot be happier away from you – ‘T is richer than an Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more – I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet – You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.” I can do that no more – the pain would be too great – My Love is selfish – I cannot breathe without you.  Yours for ever, John Keats

Their love story was made into a film – Bright Star in 2009. It stars Ben Whishaw as Keats and Abbie Cornish as Fanny. It was directed by Jane Campion, who wrote the screenplay inspired by Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats; Motion served as a script consultant on the film. The film was in the main competition at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, and was first shown to the public on 15 May 2009.The film’s title is a reference to a sonnet by Keats titled “Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art”, which he wrote while he was with Brawne.

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Julia Herdman writes #historical #fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29  Also available on:

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