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Folk remedies and tonics

Folk remedies have always played an important part in healing, especially in rural areas. Whilst many people could not afford to buy medicine from the apothecary, others preferred to reach for tried and tested family remedies or follow the advice of a local wise woman who was experienced in herb lore. Some poor people were too ashamed to use the free services increasingly provided as the 19th century progressed.

Nicholas Culpeper (1616-1654) had trained as an apothecary and worked as a doctor for the London poor. Most pharmacological works were only available in Latin, making them the exclusive preserve of professional medical men. (The two main herbals available at this point were those of John Gerard (1597), and of John Parkinson (1640). Both were in Latin and both included many imported drugs. (E. J. Shellard, Foreword to Culpeper's Colour Herbal, edited by David Potterton, 1983, p. 6)) This monopoly on knowledge drove up the price of medicine, taking it beyond the reach of many. Culpeper was appalled and published a herbal listing simple remedies in English. Thus Culpeper's Colour Herbal, which included descriptions of over 500 plants, became extremely popular and was used for generations (Roy Porter, The Greatest Benefit to Mankind, 1997, p. 210).

Culpeper, the son of a clergyman and the grandson of a landowner, himself "supplied plant medicines at very low cost to his impoverished clients and in contrast to the practice of physicians, he never prescribed more than one plant medicine if only one was needed. Furthermore, he preferred the English plants over the more exotic imported plant materials and frequently indicated to his clients where in the nearby countryside the appropriate plants could be collected" (Shellard, in Culpeper's Colour Herbal, p. 6).

However, popular or folk medicine suffered greatly from constant attacks by the professional societies keen to carve out an exclusive preserve, similar in a way to the strife between traditional and alternative medical practices today. Recent research has demonstrated that many herbal remedies do actually work and in fact pharmacological researchers are travelling around the world interviewing medicine men/women from native tribes and collecting herbs and plants. In England, some families grew medicinal and culinary herbs in their gardens and some people collected suitable plants in the wild. Recipes were handed down from one generation to the next.

On the other hand it is easy to understand the necessity for the development of professionalism in the medical sphere. Not every village had a wise woman experienced in herbal remedies. Quacks and charlatans took advantage of people and often inflicted horrendous treatments on the unsuspecting patient. They also sold a variety of dubious or downright worthless tonics.

Travelling salesmen were another source of popular remedies and tonics in a time when quality control, clinical testing and trading standards were unheard of. Local newspapers and pamphlets were full of advertisements for a variety of pills and ointments. Some of the claims for the efficacy of the various remedies were outrageous. The word "cure-all" can be applied to a number of these medicines.

If you look at local papers and pamphlets you can see which products were advertised locally. One example is Dr. J. Collis Browne's Chlorodyne which was advertised as being able to ward off cholera and help with an astonishing array of illnesses including gout, cancer, toothache and rheumatism as well as epilepsy, colic, palpitation and hysteria. Holloway's Pills were another popular remedy alleged to cure indigestion, sore throat, all liver and stomach disorders as well as being "invaluable for the use of Females". Holloway's Ointment was said to cure every form of skin disease, piles, fistulas and glandular swellings. (Advertisements found in John Heywood's Illustrated Guide to Hereford, Hereford Library, Pamphlet Box 20, 663.1)

Another remedy purporting to be a cure for a wide variety of ailments, including malaria, sciatica, anxiety, gout, and rheumatism, was Phosferine. In fact, the enclosed instructions even helped you to justify a wee dram, in suggesting that the liquid form of this remedy was equally efficacious in whisky and water, port or sherry.


Cider, a fermented alcoholic apple drink, to this day features prominently in both the agricultural and manufacturing sectors of Herefordshire. The cider company H. P. Bulmer, already going strong in the 19th century, was eager to point out the beneficial properties of cider.

To this end several pamphlets were published extolling the medicinal virtues of cider. "Cider is not only wholesome in its general effects but is also particularly adapted for those who are liable to gout, rheumatism, stone, and the kindred diseases due to an excess of uric acid in the blood...  Its true properties gently stimulate the liver, cure the curse of constipation, dispel lassitude and disinclination to exertion, while the corpulent or those who put on flesh too rapidly, will find in it a drink, the use of which presents much advantage" (H. P. Bulmer & Co., The Revival of Cider, Hereford Library Pamphlet Box 20, 663.1).

The booklet also includes numerous testimonials by satisfied customers, of which these are a small selection:

"A solicitor writes: I am glad to say that your Extra Dry Cider suits me admirably, and I have to all intents and purposes entirely shaken off the effects of my very severe attack of rheumatism last summer, and have drunk little else than your Cider since then."

"W.S. writes: ... My wife finds that after drinking your cider, she is not troubled with backache (probably uric acid), and I am more free from gouty symptoms."

"An M.D., forwarding a repeat order, writes: ... I find your cider very good in certain forms of kidney trouble, dyspepsia, and rheumatism, also in eruptive disorders."

The development of pharmacology

At the beginning of the 19th century scientific investigation was making great strides, in particular in chemistry. When scientists started to isolate individual substances from plants and test their effect on organisms, the discipline of pharmacology was born. For example, in 1806 morphine was first extracted from the opium poppy, in 1818 strychnine from strychnos nux vomica and in 1820 quinine from Cinchona bark (Peter Hylands and Malcolm Stuart, "The medicinal uses of plants", in The Encyclopaedia of Herbs and Herbalism, 1987, p. 51). Another trend which started in the 19th century was the development of electrical and magnetic treatments and the use of chemical compounds. Thus the use of traditional herbal remedies became unfashionable, declining throughout the 19th century, and valuable knowledge of plant lore was lost.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2004]