In Sickness and in Health – Part Two


The seventeenth century had medical men and women of all sorts, to suit all conditions and most purses. There were some who were licensed, some not, and some who probably should not have been. There were physicians, all university men; surgeons (or as it was spelt then ‘chirugeons’) who had been trained through an apprenticeship to perform basic surgery, treat injuries and set bones; apothecaries who dispensed drugs to physicians and also attended patients independently; and barber-surgeons, with practical skills in bone-setting, blood-letting and treating minor injuries, but who were men of little learning and generally held in low regard.  Finally there were midwives, who learned ‘on the job’ and were licensed by the Diocese on the recommendation of ‘six honest matrons’, their minister and a churchwarden.  Rich people could shop around and choose a practitioner of their liking, inside or outside the town, as most covered a wide area. The poor, as always, made do.

In fact, the practitioners who called themselves ‘physicians’ in Hythe were not university men at all, but only licensed surgeons or barber-surgeons. The terminology was loosely applied, and by the end of the century the word ‘doctor’ was generally applied to all medical men.

They offered different services and treatments. Arnold Hall seems to have specialised in providing remedial diets to patients, and also employed nurses to attend the sick. Between 1626 and 1642 he built up an extensive practice covering the Romney Marsh, Cheriton, Alkham and as far afield as Sittingbourne. William Stace, a barber-surgeon at about the same time, let blood and prescribed poultices and potions. When the blacksmith John Gately was taken ill at Rye in 1625, it was Stace he summoned from Hythe to treat him (unsuccessfully as it turned out).  James Arthur was licensed as a surgeon in 1635, over the objections of Arnold Hall. Whether the objections were on professional grounds or whether he thought one surgeon in Hythe was enough is not recorded. Arthur practised in the town for nearly fifty years, finding time also to serve as jurat, mayor and churchwarden. Sick people then, as now, sought second opinions. Elias Bassett, during his last illness in 1684, was treated by both James Arthur and Richard Jacob.

Medical men prescribed a range of treatments, nearly all thankfully unfamiliar today. Blood-letting and purges were very popular. So were poultices. In the 1630s, John Hall, Shakespeare’s son-in-law, described how he treated a man with gout: he applied a poultice of mallows, a fomentation of frogspawn and a plaster and purged him with senna powder. One must assume that the placebo effect was at work if any of these treatments relieved the condition.

Medicines were often herbal in origin, perhaps with the addition of opium, and often infused in an alcoholic beverage.  Brandy, port wine, beer, cider and ale were all popular, and spices and sweeteners were added for taste and smell. Fumigants were prescribed to banish noxious miasmas. One such, said to drive out plague, was a concoction of brimstone, saltpetre and amber which was ground and burned. The stench may well have been successful in driving rats out of the house, to say nothing of the inmates.

One Hythe surgeon, John Grove, had a most unfortunate record of prescribing.  In 1595, two years after he was licensed, he admitted to a court purging Anne Pierce, a widow, with two ounces of diacatholicon, two ounces of diafinicon, and one ounce each of electuarum rosarum and confectio hamech. Each of these mysterious-sounding compounds was a powerful purgative in its own right, and between them they contained antimony, wormwood, prunes, rhubarb root and senna.  One medical book of the time suggests six drams, or about a third of an ounce of confectio hamech alone as a purgative to cure any one or all of leprosy, madness, ringworm or scabies.   The dose prescribed by Grove was probably enough to purge an elephant, and if the unfortunate patient did not die, she would certainly have been very ill indeed.

Grove’s defence, used by schoolboys across the ages, was that he only did it once. The court took a dim view, said he was ignorant and audacious, fined him five pounds and imprisoned him – but did not remove his licence. He practised thereafter in Hythe, where as surgeon, gentleman, jurat and mayor, he achieved respectability.

Happily, physicians were starting to take a more scientific and empirical approach to investigating the workings of the human body. In 1628, William Harvey, who had been born in Folkestone, just down the road from Hythe, described for the first time the circulation of the blood. Not everyone believed him, though. He said that his medical practice dropped off after his publication because people thought he was mad.


The Middling Sort – Part Six

Increased literacy should have meant, for those who could afford it, increased book ownership, and we do see in the probate inventories more books making an appearance. John Gately, the blacksmith had a bible and ‘four small books’ when he died in 1625. John Barnes, a carpenter, and Richard Beane, a yeoman had two bibles apiece when they died in 1668, and Beane had other books besides. Almost at the end of the century, Peter Johnson, a baker, also had a bible and some small books.  Book ownership, on the evidence of probate inventories, was not yet common. Rather worryingly, the physician brothers, Richard and James Arthur, did not own one book between them. Nor did the successful businessmen siblings Elias and Ferdinando Bassett.

The bible is the most frequently mentioned book in inventories, and Protestants made a point of publishing cheap editions so that the scriptures could be available to as many as possible. Before 1640, monopolies kept prices high, but when they collapsed a small bible which would fit in a pocket could be bought for two shillings and fourpence. Despite the exhortations of the church, owning a bible was not the same as reading it, and for some at least it must have had a purely talismanic or display purpose. However, there were some good stories in the bible, and it has been suggested that the painted cloths used to cover walls in the houses of the middling sort and in inns would have had biblical scenes depicted. Since none of them survive, we don’t know for sure, but Shakespeare describes Falstaff’s room in the ‘Garter’ as ‘painted about with a story of the prodigal’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor).

Other books are mentioned in Hythe inventories, but never named. The most widely available to the public were chapbooks, bought from travelling chapmen, or at fairs. These could be the broadly humorous merry-books, instruction manuals on family life or running a household, or Godly books, which tended to be terrifying tracts about the imminent arrival of the Grim Reaper and eternal damnation for the sinner.  No wonder the youthful John Bunyan, preferred the merry-books:

‘ give me a Ballad, a News-book, George  on Horseback or Bevis of Southampton,  give me some book that teaches curious Arts, that tells of old Fables; but for the Holy Scriptures I cared not’.

For many boys of the middling sort, an apprenticeship followed classroom education.  This generally started when a boy was fourteen, and lasted for seven years, although tradesmen in a craft requiring manual labour, such as tanners, bakers, blacksmiths or bricklayers might prefer a lad of fifteen or sixteen. It was usual to send one’s son away to be trained in a trade or profession, even when he was following in his father’s footsteps. John Gately apprenticed his son William to a blacksmith outside Hythe, possibly in Wye, about sixteen miles away, since William eventually married a Wye girl. William himself later took on an  apprentice from Lyminge, about six miles distant..

Some occupations were determined by family tradition, notably medicine and fishing.  James Arthur and his brother Richard both practiced as surgeons and physicians in Hythe in mid-century and James’s sons, also Richard and James, followed suit.  The Hutson and Wallop families produced generations of Hythe fishermen.

The choice of trade or profession was not always that of the father, but could depend on the boy’s aptitude and on the family’s resources. It cost money to set up in a trade. Blacksmiths and tanners needed large premises. Mercers, selling cloth wholesale and retail, needed a large stock to start out. Shoemakers, on the other hand, could work at home, and, though poorly paid, would always be in work. Sometimes a boy was just not cut out for his father’s work and followed another trade entirely.

Some men never stuck to a single trade at all, but seemed to live, and thrive, on their wits. Ferdinando Bassett was one such. Arriving in the town from Sandwich in the 1620s, when his sister Michele married into the Hutson family, Ferdinando turned his hand to anything which would make him a living, and started by making himself useful to the corporation by doing odd jobs.  He then worked consecutively, but not exclusively, as town drummer, town gunner, town sergeant, haberdasher, yeoman and innkeeper. This seemingly erratic career was a success. By 1648 he could afford to buy the ‘White Hart’, the inn favoured by the corporation for post-sessions feasting, would later be able to lend considerable sums to the corporation and eventually became mayor himself.  His probate inventory of 1663 described him as ‘gentleman’. Not bad for the man who had started out by mending a drum for the corporation.

The White Hart in Hythe
The White Hart in Hythe

His younger brother Elias took a more conventional, but equally successful route to wealth. He became a fisherman, got his own boat, then later bought collier ships and ran coal down the coast to Hythe. By 1649, he was landlord of the White Hart’s main rival, the ‘George’, and he, too became mayor and a significant landowner.

Ferdinando and Elias were both married three times.  Elias’s third wife was Joan, the widow of Richard Pashley, which made Elias the step-father of James Pashley, the cousin by marriage of Henry Oxinden of Denton. Both Bassett and Pashley were jurats. James Pashley’s daughter married Edward Rucke, another jurat. He also wrote to Oxinden and addressed him as ‘cousin’. Historians have noted that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the rise in towns of the oligarchy, government by the few, in which members of the ruling group were interconnected and often interrelated. This was certainly the case in Hythe.

To give just one more example:

Alice March, the daughter of  William March, three times  mayor of Hythe,  married  in 1619 John Knight, by whom she had three daughters and two sons.  John died in 1634 and six years later, Alice married Edmund Bedingfield a widower and the brother of Thomas Bedingfield, twice mayor of Hythe. Edmund’s son by his first marriage, Thomas, became Hythe’s town clerk who on his death was succeeded by his son, another Edmund. Meanwhile, Alice’s daughter by her first husband, Alice Knight, married Michael Lushington, who was, inevitably, also twice mayor of Hythe.

‘Cousin’ was a very useful word to describe such complicated relationships, and indeed the town was run by a cousinship. They married each other, witnessed each others wills, acted as overseers and executors of wills, sold each other land and property and, until the conflict-ridden years of the civil war, generally acted as a united body to run the town as co-operatively as possible.

In the next few posts I will look at how the sea affected the lives of the people of Hythe

The Middling Sort – Part Two

The houses the middling sort  lived in were, some of them, like the modified hall house described earlier, with a hall and parlour downstairs and stairs to the upper chambers.  If the chimney was centrally placed, visitors could be shown either to the hall or to the parlour, and it could help support a staircase. Glazing was becoming affordable, and dormer windows were introduced to utilise roof spaces more efficiently. In more modest houses, there were fewer rooms of specialised use and rarely more than one chamber for sleeping. First floor rooms might be reached by a ladder rather than a staircase well until well into the century.  Not all the hall houses in Hythe had been converted by the early seventeenth century. In 1625, John Banbury, a carpenter, was leased a house by the corporation on condition that he built a chimney and flue in brick, with fireplaces in two rooms.

Most houses were completely or largely wooden, with oak favoured.  Wattle and daub was used to infill between the timbers, but by the seventeenth century exteriors were being improved. Sometimes brick was used to enclose a timber structure and the use of weatherboarding and tiling increased.

Houses were also workshops, places of manufacture, offices, warehouses and retail shops. Almost the whole of trade was small scale and domestic, although from inventories we can tell that domestic quarters were separate from workshops.  In seventeenth century Hythe there was no commuting to work unless you were a fisherman.

Some houses had gardens, but often these had been used for building a cottage or two to rent out. Those householders who found themselves without a garden often leased one elsewhere to grow vegetables for the kitchen, like Robert Foster, a fisherman who kept a garden at the back of the ‘George’ inn (now the ‘King’s Head’). Some had small orchards too. There was also a physick garden maintained by John Jacob, which supplied the town’s physicians with the herbs they needed for their remedies – perhaps pennyroyal for vertigo, burdock for flatulence, fleabane for itchy bites, pennywort for bladder complaints, or rue, for almost anything. Jacob also diversified with land ownership on the Romney Marsh ‘which he manures with sheep and some other land he sows with flax’.  Flax needs soaking, or retting, before it can be used to make linen.  Jacob unwisely chose the town ditch in which to ret his, blocking it and causing a terrible stink, metaphorically and literally.

The universal presence of timber and thatch combined with the use of fire for domestic cooking and heating resulted in a huge fire risk. In 1655 the corporation issued a decree against carrying fire in an uncovered container. If a household fire went out, the simplest way to get it alight again was to fetch a burning log or coal in a bucket from a neighbour, rather like borrowing a cup of sugar.  This resulted, as the corporation minutes eloquently put it, in the ‘sad spectacle of God’s judgement upon several places by the Rage and Power of that unmerciful element of Fire’.  The order was clearly unsuccessful, as during the next five years there were several more fires. In 1660, the corporation changed their focus and ordered that all houses whose thatch touched another house should be tiled instead.  All rate payers were to pay an additional tax so that the corporation could provide buckets, hooks and chains for carrying water to fight fire.  Hythe would not get a proper fire brigade until a hundred and forty years later.

The possessions inside the houses depended on the wealth of the occupant, and as the century wore on people of the middling sort can be seen to be acquiring more home comforts and articles which were purely decorative. In 1625, John Gately, a blacksmith, had three pewter cups, but another blacksmith, John Clement, who died in 1696 had pewter, but also two silver cups and silver spoons.  In 1647, Baker Godden, a husbandman, had a pair of playing tables (for cards) and five pairs of pictures; in 1653 Thomas Hooker, a butcher left his ‘gold ring with deathly heads’ to his daughter Susan (memento mori rings had been popular since the beginning of the century) and Catherine Littlewood, the miller’s widow, left silver spoons to her children. The most noticeable increase is in ownership of looking glasses and chairs. Chairs were a  rarity among ordinary people at the beginning of the century, but most houses had at least one by the end of it.Peter Johnson, a baker, even had one upholstered in turkey-work, a sort of woollen tapestry, and he also, unusually, had ‘a small brass clock’  On the other hand, inventories can also show that disaster was never far away.  Michael Hammon who died in 1622 has goods worth only three pounds one shilling and sixpence, but he owed money totalling three pounds eight shillings and tenpence to four creditors. Robert Wakelin, a tanner,  left goods and money worth over a hundred and twenty pounds in 1693, but of that, over half was in money owed to him.

A seventeenth century memento mori ring