Monday, 29 October 2012

Politics and Pills – an 1820 Medical Bill: Part 2

This is my second post about the 1820 medical bill I recently bought on eBay. You can read Part 1 of the post here.


1820 medical bill


The first thing that struck me when I saw the bill was that it covered a long period of time. The first entry was for treatment on 17 July 1817 and the last for treatment on 7 March 1820. I already knew that, during the Regency period, it was common for wealthy people to run up extensive debts with tradesmen, who often weren’t paid for years. I did not realise that this practice also extended to professional accounts.

In his covering letter, Dr Lowe said that he was “taking the liberty” of sending the account – suggesting that it was almost considered improper to ask for payment. My cousin in Canada has kindly sent me a copy of a letter, written to Dr Lowe in January 1819, in which a friend said, “I made particular enquiries about you & it gave me sincere pleasure to learn that you were so well employed & in such high estimation with the first class of society”. No doubt Dr Lowe was gratified to hear this but, if “the first class of society” were all so dilatory in settling their bills, it must have been difficult for him to support his growing family.


Dr John Lowe


Dr John Lowe was born in 1781, the eldest son of Robert Lowe, laird of Chapelton, Tullymet, Perthshire, an estate in the parish of Logierait, comprising a number of farms which had once belonged to the Duke of Atholl. For three years, from 1794 to 1797, John was apprenticed to Dr Alexander Stewart, a surgeon in Dunkeld, and in 1799 he was a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, although he never took a degree.

John joined the East India Company as an Assistant Surgeon and had just arrived back from a voyage to the East Indies when, in 1801, his father unexpectedly died. John inherited a considerable amount of landed property from his father but it was encumbered with debt and he was eventually forced to sell it. John left the Company’s service after his second voyage and in 1803 was working as a surgeon and druggist in Perth. By 1807 he had moved to Coupar Angus.

John Lowe married Janet Gillespie in Perth in 1806 and they had one child, Elizabeth, born in Coupar Angus in 1807. Following Janet’s death, John married Marjory Clark in Coupar Angus in 1810 and they had 13 children between 1811 and 1832. I am descended from their second son, John.


Calomel Pills


Returning to the bill, the next thing I noticed was that the bill contained three entries for “Calomel pills”, supplied in March 1818 and in March and December 1819. I had never heard of this medicine before and vaguely supposed it was something to do with calamine. Imagine my horror on learning from Wikipedia that it was actually mercurous chloride, a poisonous compound of mercury. Before the age of modern medicine, calomel was widely used as a laxative and purgative and was even given to teething babies!

Charles Tennant noted in his book, “The Radical Laird”:

George Kinloch had his own ideas about health and hygiene and, for most people, his advice was a good dose of "Dr Calomel”, as he attributed the usual complaints to constipation. “I wish you would get a box of calomel pills, three grains in each, of which you might take one when you have occasion for it. It is the best of all physic, and if taken in time often prevents serious diseases.”

In the summer of 1815 George wrote to his wife from London:

“I have been in perfect health since I left you, till Sunday last, when I had an attack of bile, which has not yet left me. I mean tonight to apply to Dr Calomel, who will rid me of it.”

The day on which Dr Lowe supplied him with his last prescription for calomel – 8 December 1819 – was the day before George left Kinloch for Edinburgh to prepare for his trial. He obviously wanted to take some of his favourite medicine with him – probably fearing a prison term - and Dr Lowe must have been one of the last people in the district to see George Kinloch before he left his home, not to return for over three years.


Use of the dental key


The bill also includes charges for bleeding – another horrific medical practice of the time – and for extracting teeth. Extraction was the normal way of dealing with persistent toothache and with problems such as abscesses which would nowadays be treated with antibiotics. The tooth was removed using an instrument called a dental key and, of course, it was done without any form of anaesthetic. I imagine the toothache must have been pretty bad before anyone would invite Dr Lowe to visit them with his dental key!

The bill covers treatment not just for George Kinloch but also for Mr Gray (a relative of the Smyths) and for two of George’s daughters. Ann was 17 when she had her tooth extracted and Eliza 16 when she was vaccinated. The vaccination took place a month before George’s family left to join him in Paris. 24 years after Jenner’s first vaccination, smallpox epidemics were still occurring in crowded cities. Sadly, Eliza contracted another scourge of crowded cities – tuberculosis – and died shortly after her return from Paris in 1822.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Politics and Pills – an 1820 Medical Bill: Part 1

Two weeks ago I received an email from eBay which caused me considerable excitement. Many of my Scottish ancestors came from the town of Coupar Angus in Perthshire and I have a “saved search” in “My eBay” which sends me alerts whenever the town’s name appears in an eBay listing.

Over the years I have bought a number of interesting items in this way, including the postcard which I blogged about in Postcard from the Past, which I now use as the header for my business website and my Facebook page.


Coupar Angus 1917


But the latest email from eBay led me to a treasure I had never expected to find – a bill, dated 22 November 1820, submitted by my 3x great grandfather, Dr John Lowe of Coupar Angus, for medical services to the family of George Kinloch of Kinloch, near Meigle, Perthshire. I’m happy to say that I won the eBay auction and my “new” family heirloom arrived this week.


1820 medical bill cover


The bill was addressed not to George Kinloch himself but to his brother in law, a writer (solicitor) called John Smyth of Balharry (who was probably also a cousin of Dr Lowe’s wife). And this is where the politics come in.

George Kinloch was born in 1775, the son of a poor half-pay Captain who unexpectedly inherited money from a brother in the Jamaican sugar trade. Both George’s parents died before he was eight years old and his sickly elder brother when George was 13. At the age of 21, George therefore took possession of the ancestral estate of Kinloch, situated on the banks of the River Isla in the beautiful Vale of Strathmore. That same year he married his first cousin once removed, Helen Smyth, the daughter of John Smyth, whose estate of Balharry lay directly across the river from Kinloch.

George and Helen lived quietly on their estate, raising their two sons and six daughters, born between 1797 and 1805. George sat as a Justice of the Peace, together with his close neighbour Charles Hay of Balendoch, my own 4x great uncle. In 1797, at the height of the fear of Napoleonic invasion, George was appointed to command the Coupar Angus volunteer militia, with Charles Hay and my 4x great grandfather, David Clark, as his subalterns.


George Kinloch


Despite these conventional roles as a member of the landed gentry, George Kinloch held liberal political views, was friends with the free thinking editor of the Dundee Advertiser and a correspondent of William Cobbett. In 1808 George resigned his commission with the Coupar Angus volunteers because he was opposed to the maintenance of a standing army. In 1812 he wrote an anonymous letter to the Aberdeen Chronicle attacking the Peninsular War because, “instead of fighting in the cause of the Spanish people, we have been fighting for a worthless King, an insolent nobility and a useless clergy”. He also supported the American cause in the War of 1812.

Following the defeat of Napoleon, George turned his energies to the reform of the franchise and the abolition of the income tax imposed during the Wars, which was depressing trade and employment. He attended radical dinners in Dundee and became known as a political orator. He drew attention to the enormous size of the National Debt, inveighed against excessive taxation and said, “I recommend retrenchment, cut off sinecures and diminish the salaries of Government Officers” – a strikingly up-to-date political platform to modern ears!

Radical agitation came to a head with the Peterloo Massacre in August 1819, when 15 people were killed and hundreds injured after soldiers charged a large but peaceful crowd which had gathered in Manchester to demand reform of the franchise. Protest meetings were organised all over the country and George Kinloch was invited to address the meeting in Dundee in November of that year. In his speech he described the government as “a contemptible Ministry” and asserted that “the House of Commons does not represent the people of these Kingdoms”. He called for annual parliaments and universal (male) suffrage. He said that, “We want no Revolution; on the contrary we want Reform to prevent a revolution” but, referring to the Peterloo Massacre, he also said that, “the time is near when we must either bow our necks to a military despotism, or be prepared to rise like men in defence of our liberties”. He also accused the Home Secretary of treason.

The speech was reported in full in the Dundee Advertiser and drawn to the attention of the authorities in London who, terrified of revolution, were engaged in a full scale crackdown on those who supported reform. Two weeks after the speech, George Kinloch was arrested on a charge of sedition. Bailed to stand trial in Edinburgh, he learned that the authorities intended to make an example of him by passing a sentence of transportation for life to Australia. He bought a large wig and, assuming the name of Smith, fled via Newcastle, London and Dover to Paris, where he arrived on Christmas Eve.

Before leaving Edinburgh, George had signed a legal document putting all his property into a trust, with his brother in law, John Smyth of Balharry, as one of the trustees. This was necessary because, when George failed to appear at his trial, he was declared an outlaw and all his assets became forfeit to the state. Using the trust, John Smyth was able to keep the Kinloch estate in the hands of the family and provide an income for George and his dependents.

George Kinloch remained in exile in France from 1820 to 1822. His wife and daughters joined him at the end of April 1820, after which John Smyth was asked to sell all their furniture and advertise for a tenant for the house. It must have been abundantly clear to Dr Lowe that his services to the Kinloch family were at an end and unlikely to resume in the near future. On 22 November 1820 he submitted his bill, which John Smyth settled the next day:


1820 medical bill covering letter


Coupar Angus Novr 22 1820


I take the liberty of inclosing you a small acct. of Mr Kinloch’s which you may settle at any time most convenient. I am


Your most obed. Servt

John Lowe


George’s wife and daughters returned to Scotland in May 1822. Helen hoped to bring pressure on the government to pardon George and one of their daughters – Eliza – was seriously ill with tuberculosis. Having received hints that a pardon might be imminent, George jumped the gun and himself returned secretly to England at the end of October 1822. The first news he received was of Eliza’s death in Scotland a few days earlier. After lying low in London until the New Year, with still no pardon in sight, George took an even bigger risk and returned to Scotland in February 1823. He remained hidden at Kinloch until his pardon finally arrived on 25 May.

George set about restoring his estate and took no active part in politics for some years. With the coming of Reform in 1832, views which had once been dangerously radical became mainstream and George Kinloch was feted as a hero of the movement. He stood for the new Dundee constituency in the first election after the passage of the Act and was duly returned as the city’s first MP.

In his own words:

“On the 24th December 1819 I was proclaimed at the Cross of Edinburgh a rebel and an outlaw … On the same day of December 1832 I was, by the same Sheriff L’Amy, proclaimed the chosen representative of the people of Dundee.” 

Sadly, George Kinloch did not represent Dundee for long. Having caught a chill in the old, draughty House of Commons, he developed complications and died in his lodgings in Parliament Street, London, on 28 March 1833. In 1872 a statue of George Kinloch was erected by public subscription in Dundee, “to commemorate a signal triumph of political justice”.


George Kinloch statue Dundee


If you would like to learn more about George Kinloch, I thoroughly recommend Charles Tennant’s book, “The Radical Laird”, published by The Roundwood Press, Kineton, 1970.

You can read the second part of this blog post here.