Last Updated on 10th November 2021 by Mike@bitaboutbritain
Herb Garret sounds like it should be a band leader (perhaps of a similar vintage to the chap pictured below). In fact, the Herb Garret acts as a kind of anteroom to the Old Operating Theatre, perched in the roof of the baroque St Thomas’ church in London’s Southwark. The Operating Theatre is probably the main visitor magnet, but there’s actually much more to linger over in the Herb Garret.
It is thought that the garret was used as an apothecary store, or possibly a place to dry herbs, but the evidence seems to be limited to a few withered old poppy heads found in the rafters. What the owners/managers of the museum appear to have done is to procure as many genuine medical artefacts as possible, as well as others of a dodgier heritage, and cram them into the space between the floorboards and ceiling. The result is a joyously eclectic mix of ‘medical’ paraphernalia that fascinates, amuses and horrifies – in equal proportions.
Some of this stuff is as far from modern medicine as you can imagine. Amongst other things, there is a ‘cabinet of curiosities’, which includes cures and treatments from the animal kingdom – such as deer horn, which is allegedly an aphrodisiac (I find drinking beer invariably makes the opposite sex look more attractive, if that’s any help). There are bunches of herbs, mortars and pestles, jars that once contained tinctures of this and that, a whiff of chloroform and ether, rats tails, a spoonful of sugar… (I might have made some of that up). In the middle of the floor is an old operating chair that looks as though it has escaped from Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory. There are cases of hideous-looking medical instruments, gleaming and, to those who have even just a little imagination, eye-watering. But my own damp eye was drawn to “A treatment for venereal disease”, called Snailwater – a recipe by Dr Richard Mead, physician at St Thomas’ Hospital 1703-1715.
“Take Garden Snails cleaned and bruised 6 Gallons.
Earthworms washed and bruised 3 Gallons.
Of common Wormwood, Ground-Ivy and Carduus
Each one pound and a half.
Penniroyal, Juniper-berries, Fennelseeds, Aniseeds,
Each half a Pound.
Cloves and cubebs bruised, each 3 ounces,
Spirit of Wine, and Springwater, each of 8 gallons:
Digest them together for the space of 24 Hours.
And then draw it off in a common Alembick.”
No one is suggesting for one minute that my reader has any need for this treatment; but the recipe might come in handy if you notice anyone nearby at risk of going off the rails. They’d certainly be more careful in future, wouldn’t they? Mind you, a cold bath when danger presents itself would undoubtedly be easier, and cheaper. Some of those ingredients look fairly expensive to me – the local witch tells me that the price of snails (and bat wings) has rocketed recently. And you’d need a very large saucepan – maybe a cauldron – there’s more than 25 gallons volume in this recipe. Perhaps Dr Mead intended to treat the entire Royal Navy of the time. He also doesn’t say how the treatment is administered; do you drink it – or rub it in?
I didn’t have a clue what some of the ingredients were, so here is an attempted explanation for people basking in similar blissful ignorance:
Carduus – is a type of plant, probably a thistle;
Penniroyal – also a plant, a bit like mint, with various medicinal properties claimed for it. The oil is highly poisonous;
Cubeb – a plant from the Far East with alleged medicinal properties, including antiseptic. The recipe might refer to seeds;
Spirit of wine – distilled alcohol, probably brandy (8 gallons – good grief!!);
Alembic – a type of still.
You’ll just need to visit the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garret for more ideas.
This is an amazing place. I love learning about herbs and I have my own herb garden. Thanks for taking us!
You obviously had a good visit down to Southwark.
Wormwood – pennyroyal – cloves – juniper berries – spirit of wine. It won’t actually make you any better, but you probably won’t care. And ultimately it’ll drive you mad. (Wormwood being the main ingredient of absinthe – thought to cause megalomania through long-term use. Definitely induces hallucinations.)
And somewhere in the vast output of Terry Pratchett there’s an attempt by someone to make a pun after someone else drops a piece of glass laboratory equipment. “Marry, t’was a sharp retort.” The first guy (who dropped the glass) turns to him and says: “But it was an alembic.”
(It’s amazing the kind of stuff I have in the darker corners of my brain.)
Eclectic and very strange!
Fascinating. I want to visit. Never heard of the place before.
There’s lots of intriguing places in SE1.
I was just indexing how the VD cure was administered when you asked the same question! There must have been a great need for it, considering the quantity that recipe would produce.
In all seriousness, STDs were a huge problem, I believe.
The Herb Garret looks a fascinating place to visit – what is surprising is the fact that so many of the old remedies using herbs and plants etc are returning. Leeches are being used again to heal skin grafts and restore circulation, and maggots gobble up all the nasties in wounds.
Can you imagine cleaning and bruising 6 gallons of snails?
I knew about the use of maggots, but not leeches. How would you bruise snails anyway??