Plagues, pandemics and narrative …

Like much of the world we are in lockdown due to Covid-19. Fortunately we have a garden, and we live in a small town with a reasonably stocked supermarket, and a populace, who, on the whole, observe social distancing measures.

However, autumn is here, and has brought days of lashing rain interspersed with the occasional fine clear  day.

Lockdown of course means no going out to meet with friends for a coffee or a drink, so I’ve been catching up on my reading backlog.

By coincidence a two or three of the books in my backlog are about either the Black Death or the Great Plague in London. The internet is of course full of articles drawing parallels between those times and the current pandemic.

I’m not going to rehash them, but I’ve found a couple or three things quietly fascinating about the Black Death in particular.

Firstly, that once it had began to spread in Europe the bishops of the English church realised that it would inevitably come to England – after all the church hierarchy maintained a pan European network of correspondence – and took the extraordinary step of sending out a letter warning of the plague to all parish priests to be read out in English, not Latin, so that their congregations were aware.

They also advised the laity that in times of plague, if no cleric was available, any man or woman could hear the victim’s final confession, something extraordinary in those pious times.

Secondly, once the pandemic passed, in many places there was an attempt to transfer land and other property to the survivors in an orderly manner by the normal rules of inheritance.

Of course, with up to half the population in their graves, it was impossible to go back to the old ways. Peasants had more land than they had ever had before, and with fewer people to work the land, were reluctant to spend time discharging their feudal obligations by working their feudal superiors’ land, something that led to the rise of the medieval English wool trade – marginal land ceased to be intensively farmed and was turned into pasture used to raise sheep. And in a game of consequences, indirectly to  the Peasant’s revolt of 1381 – the tax base had shrunk and there were fewer people to pay the poll tax to fund the King’s household and wars in France.

And of course it wasn’t only peasants who died. Skilled craftsmen also died meaning that those that survived could name their price, increasing the prosperity of what remained of urban society.

The third thing that I found fascinating, or perhaps the most fascinating, was that many writers of contemporary accounts of the plague used Thucydides’ account of the plague of Athens as a model.

Not having ever had to compose a history of a pandemic, they fell back on the only model that they had.

They had no ready access to accounts of the plague of Justinian, which were mostly written in Byzantine Greek, and even if they had access to the best known account (Procopius’ s Secret History – with its well known passages about the Empress Theodora that might well have excited the scriptoria – I have this fanciful vision of monks reading the dirty bits out to each other – they would have found that Procopius had also used Thucydides as a template)

This shouldn’t surprise us – for example, the monks who wrote down the story of Fergus Mor Mac Erc and the Gaelic invasion of Dalriada in the sixth century clearly knew of the Aeneid and the Iliad and used these as templates  to give some form and shape to a perhaps rambling and repetitive oral history.

Of course, in using Thucydides as a template they missed out information that we might find interesting. It also shows that Thucydides must have been known to educated men, and like other parts of classical canon as known in the Middle Ages, provided a lens through which they saw and understood the world …



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The decline and fall of the Australian pharmaceutical industry

Needless to say, the project’s currently on hold due to Covid-19 restrictions, so this is perhaps a time to take stock, given that I’m now about three quarters through documenting the contents of the pharmacy.

Back in August 2018 I wrote about the change in the nature of the stock over time based on what we hold.

Any analysis based on the current contents of the pharmacy is inevitably hand wavy – while we know what we have, and can say with some authority that it includes some early pre world war I items and definitely contains items from between the first and second world wars, we can’t say what else they might have stocked at these times.

This is because, while they didn’t, or seem not to have thrown anything out, we don’t know what they originally had and had  sold out of. You could argue that the older items are those that didn’t sell because they were either too expensive or not particularly popular.

So, the consequence of this is that most of the shelf stock dates from the very late 1940’s through to the mid sixties when they closed the pharmacy.

If one looks at the over the counter medicines, cough medicines for example, most of them are made in Australia, and by Australian owned companies that were gradually taken over and absorbed by multinational manufacturers, many of whom continued to manufacture in Australia.

Offshoring of manufacture happened later – in the sixties Australia was one of the few relatively developed economies in the region.

The other interesting thing is, when looking at those items from the 1940’s, import substitution had clearly taken place with locally made products, such as Happy Jack liver salts in place of the previous imported brand


And the case of Happy Jack is quite interesting – the product was made by a small company – Alpha laboratories of Woolhara who clearly saw a gap in the market

happy jack liver salts

I’ve not been able to trace Alpha laboratories – like many of these small pharmaceutical companies they appear and then disappear – but their existence shows that there must have been a number of small, now vanished, patent medicine manufacturers who had the capacity to step up …

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Wiping your bottom in bygone times

Let’s be honest here – almost everyone is secretly fascinated by the question as how people wiped their bottoms in times past, and the recent world wide burst of pandemic inspired panic buying of toilet paper has inspired lots of articles along the lines of this one from Country Life in the UK.

These articles all cover some fairly standard material – the Roman sponge stick, Gayetty’s invention of toilet paper in the mid 1800’s, and how people were originally resistant to the idea of spending good money to wipe your bum, when cheap disposable printed material was readily available.


Gayetty claimed (falsely) that printers ink gave you haemorrhoids and that using his medicated paper lubricated with aloe would avoid the problem.

Most people ignored him and continued to use newspapers and the like – the invention of cheap wood pulp based paper by Charles Fenerty in the mid nineteenth century led to a vast expansion of paper production and cheap printed material, meaning that most people had easy access to scrap paper to use in the toilet.

And of course the toilet would have most likely been a cess pit or bucket type arrangement than a flushing toilet – as in this example in an officer’s house on Norfolk Island


Prior to then most paper was relatively expensive rag based paper (which is why the paper in pre-1860 books and documents is less prone to decay and brittleness and lasts better than many post 1860 papers), and too expensive to be used for such a mundane purpose as cleaning one’s bottom.

Stories from the English Civil War and elsewhere about soldiers profaning prayerbooks and psalters by ripping them up and using them as toilet paper are most likely propaganda from one side or the other – in a religious age the idea of someone using the Book of Common Prayer for such a practice would have seemed sacriligeous in the extreme.

I’ve no doubt that it may have happened – I’m sure that most people would have simply used what was to hand and prayerbooks might have been it – but on the whole most people would have used leaves or bits of rag and moss, and perhaps occasionally bits of scrap paper, but on the whole there wasn’t that much paper around.

The elite might have had access to paper, and scholars might have repurposed used bits of scrap paper, but on the whole most people would simply have used scrap material or leaves.

I suspect, but have no proof, that is one was to compare rural seventeenth and eighteenth century cesspits between those in towns and those in the country one would find more use of scrap material in urban contexts and of organic material such as leaves in rural contexts.

Given the stiffness of most early rag papers, paper in the seventeenth century might not  have been as effective as you might hope and  like Izal and other early hard toilet papers – more suited to scraping than wiping.

Izal of course, horrible hard paper as it was, had the advantage over newsprint that it did not block drains, so it and other similar products gradually took over as people moved from having pit toilets to flushing toilets, even if they were still outside in the back yard and was still in common use until the 1960s and beyond.

Forestry Commission toilets in Scotland well into the seventies used to have this Izal look alike that was printed Government Property – Now wash your hands, and public toilets in England retained Izal style paper for a long time – basically it was thought that it was so unpleasant to use that no one would steal it.

So what we see is a union of two technologies – woodpulp paper to make paper cheap enough to be treated as a disposable product, and flush toilets which required the use of something that could be flushed down the drain without causing a blockage …



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PTSD in the Crimean War ?

I’ve been looking at the fallout from the Madeleine Smith trial and had come across this summary of the annual report of the Royal Edinburgh Asylum from the Scotsman of 24 February 1858:

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which is interesting – unfortunately the reports don’t give the gender of the afflicted individuals, so I can’t say if the first person mentioned was a member of the legal profession (presumably male) who was stressed by the (for 1857) extremely salacious nature of the trial and depositions and suffered from stress akin to facebook content moderators dealing with confronting content.

However there was another interesting part of the report. Unfortunately it’s spread over two columns

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which sounds rather as if there was a recognition that not only could serious injuries to the head result in changes in behaviour, but also that the stress of combat could result in mental disturbance.

It would be interesting to look into this further, but while the records are available, they have not yet been digitised, and are inconveniently on the other side of the planet …


I was sufficiently intrigued by this to do a little more digging.

The topic has been under researched, but it looks as if a number of Crimean War soldiers we diagnosed as having an irritable heart – perhaps the same as was later described as Da Costa Syndrome during the American Civil War.

Other than a paper researching the occurrence of suicide in Crimean war veterans, I’ve been unable to find other substantial research into the effects of traumatic stress on Crimean war soldiers, although I did find a paper detailing a case of stress related chronic fatiguein a single Chelsea pensioner after service both in Crimea and the 1857 Indian rebellion…




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Another Moncur bad boy

I probably need to get out more, but a few days ago, I ran my surname through querypic, looking to see if there were any reports relating to George or Thomas Moncur.

I didn’t turn up anything relating to them but I did turn up this notice about an absconding Moncur in 1828:

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As a notice it’s quite informative – it tells us that John Moncur, who was transported on the Minstrel – which sailed and arrived in 1825, and that when he absconded from the road gang he was 21 years old, making him seventeen or eighteen when he arrived in 1825.

Well our old friend the Scots Magazine with its record of court proceedings helps tie this down:

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but as you can see, it’s one of these cases where digitisation went a little askew.

A bit of hunting showed that there was also a report of court proceedings in the Scotsman, but the Scotsman digital archive wants to charge you eight quid for two days access, which I thought was a little excessive for a couple of column inches.

Fortunately the Scotsman is included in the State Library’s Proquest subscription, so after a few minutes scratching about to find my login details I had my report:

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The Scotsman described him as fifteen or sixteen, assume he was sixteen when convicted in December 1824, he could plausibly be seventeen when he arrived in August 1825.

Given that a lot of poorer classes – labourers, farmworkers etc, – in the Georgian era were a bit vague about their age and date of birth, it’s quite possible that he didn’t know his birthday and was judged to be sixteen.

So, he should have been easy to find. But he isn’t. No John Moncur shows up in the convict register.

It’s another good old transcription error – he’s listed as John Mancor

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on the convict records website, albeit with Moncure being given as an alias.

His conviction record ties in with the report in the Scotsman

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so we can be reasonably certain it’s him.

Unfortunately I can’t trace him beyond 1828 – none of the newspapers report him (as Moncur, Mancor, or Moncure) as being recaptured – it’s possible he’s in the convict records somewhere, but I havn’t looked very hard.

There’s a takeaway to this – be aware of aliases, different spellings and just plain old transcription errors, especially when searching old records …

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Chinese Herbalist advertising in 1924

Came across this little curiousity in the West Gippsland times of 1924:

chinese herbalists in 1924

two Chinese herbalists (they probably couldn’t call themselves apothecaries) advertising to the white anglo population in rural Victoria.

And of course the obvious question is how much use was made of Chinese medicine as opposed to western medicine in the 1920’s ?

This is quite an interesting question because in the nineteenth century, the reliance of western pharmacy on herbal based cures was marked, and many of the common patent medicines sold were essentially packaged versions of traditional herbal cures.

A little digging suggests that in the 1870’s some Chines practitioners in Ballarat sought to have their Chinese qualifications recognised, but the was rejected by the Medical Board at the time meaning they had to describe themselves as herbalists.

There’s also some evidence that this refusal was as a result of racism and a failure of the western practitioners to recognise that Chinese practitioners had undertaken a rigorous course of study.

However, most people couldn’t afford doctors.

They would often buy a preparation, or a patent medicine, based on a recommendation by the pharmacist as still happens in some countries today.

And having seen Chinese miners go to a Chinese herbalist when they were sick (distrust goes both ways) they seem to have been happy to try Chinese medicine if all else failed.

And the adoption of Chinese medicine seems a reasonably widespread phenomenon in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Australia – a search of the digitised newspaper collection on Trove turns up over a hundred thousand references.

Using querypic shows a sustianed interest over our period with a peak in the second decade of the twentieth century:

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perhaps as a result of a reduced availability of western preparations during the first world war …

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And some were bad boys …

While I was looking for eighteenth century Moncurs I came across George and Thomas Moncur, who were convicted in 1799 at the Perth Court of Justicary in September 1799 and transported to Australia on board the Glatton arriving in 1803.

This is unusual in two ways – firstly, relatively few Scottish convicts were transported to Australia, and secondly, people brought before the Court of Justicary were guilty of doing seriously bad things – murder, rape, sedition, counterfeiting, violent robbery and the like.

Now, in 1798, there were various demonstrations in Scotland inspired by the rebellion of the United Irishmen, as well as other radical demonstrations following on from the failed insurrection in 1797, so at first I wondered if there was any connection, given that the Justiciary court was reserved for serious crimes.

Well as always the truth was rather more mundane. George and Thomas were thugs and tried for robbery with violence, as in this account from the Scots Magazine of 1799:

moncur bad boys

However, they didn’t hang for their crime – again from the Scots Magazine:

bad boys pardoned

The fact that one of them fainted somehow makes them more real …

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