The Eighteenth-Century Medicine Man who Fascinated Virginia Woolf

‘Post-graduate researcher and current School of English MA student, Thomas Flint, who is working on the heritage garden at Furnace Park, casts the spotlight on the diary of Parson James Woodforde: a clergyman with an inclination towards medicine and a tendency to prescribe a ‘dram of gin’ as a cure to the ailments of his congregation.’  – Adam J Smith

We might think that we know the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Much of our knowledge, however, comes from the history books; texts written much later with the benefit of considered and thoroughly informed hindsight. Some might thing they can come to know the past by observing its artefacts, now lying silently in museum cabinets or siting on display in stately homes, or by looking at paintings and drawings from the time. Historians might look to the record keepers of the past for this crucial insight, poring over accounts, ledgers, census information, marriage and death certificates or army & navy muster rolls. For those of us concerned with literature, the novels or poetry of the time promise an glimpse of the social concerns of authors and readers, as do newspapers, letters, pamphlets, and, occasionally, diaries.

It is the diary that I want to consider in this post. Diaries offer an unparalleled utility to those interested in the everyday lived life of our ancestors, and perhaps one such diary is that of James Woodforde; a pastor of a tiny parish of about thirty homes in Norfolk from 1775 to 1803.

Fascinatingly, this wasn’t always the case. When Woodforde’s diary was first published in 1924 his editor, John Beresford, noted that “the [book’s] welcome was immediate and widespread”. Prior to this, though, Woodforde had lived a life of anonymity. He isn’t even recorded by the Historical Manuscripts Commission.

The diary itself amazes. Woodforde provides a new entry to his work every day for nearly fifty years. He keeps an immaculate record of his household finances and his activities as a parson, whilst also using it as private journal; recording all the rumours, gossip and criticisms that he likely would be unable to express elsewhere. His personal routine is recorded with frankness and fairness, as are interactions with his family and parishioners, details of the weather and, very prominently, his dearest hobbies: cards, drink (as often as not purchased illegally from the local moonshiner) and good food.

While gambling, gastronomy and bootleg booze were clearly among the man’s keenest interests (he records his daily meals and their various merits and shortcomings with gusto, and in intricate course-by-course detail) he also allows space for another fascinating pastime: treating his sick parishioners with home medicine. The concoctions he would feed his ailing flock (or force upon his servants) sound exotic (sometimes barbaric) to our ears. His enthusiasm, however, for doses of “tar water” to treat consumption, henna powder for fever, and a dram of gin for just about anything else, places him amidst the transition from medieval witchdoctory to the standardised, scientific, researched approach that characterises Western medicine today. Indeed, often his practices seem more akin to the folk remedies championed by the wise women and quack doctors of the middle ages: a brush with a black cat’s tail clears up a particularly nasty stymie, the horn of a red deer ground and mixed into water and imbibed combats numbness in his hand and tongue, but “it made me very low on occasion all the day long”.

Despite his curious indebtedness to the arcane and his penchant for dosing the local farmers, the popularity of the complicated Parson Woodeford has dwindled in recent years. In some respects it is not hard to see why. His diary keeping was a miracle of self-discipline and consistency. Whether consumed by work or travelling or even on his death bed, Woodforde kept writing. Yet his life lacks the violence or excitement found in of those of Evelyn or Pepys. It contains no great events or tragedies that excite casual readers or thrill one to picture oneself in the place of the author.

As Virginia Woolf, who was fascinated by the books, put it:

“Looking through the eyes of Parson Woodforde, the different lives of men seem orderly and settled. Far away guns roar; a King falls; but the sound is not loud enough to scare the rooks here in Norfolk.”

His work was his diary, but his life he was neither adventurous nor ambitious. His diary is a record of everyday life in a small rural parish, in all seasons and moods, whether fearfully expectant of French invasion (the Parson himself comes across as remarkably unworried by the prospect) or facing the very real possibility of the assassination a revolt against the King. Woodforde is unmoved by the threat of bloody revolution and republicanism, concerned only with the daily life of a rural community in a time when technology was limited. Achieving an adequate harvest was the only thing that mattered.

Reading his work, one cannot help but better appreciate the perspective of these poor, struggling people as they battled weather, crop failure, decades of war-depleted national resources, and only the most limited understanding of (or interest in) what lies beyond the oceans, or indeed the village boundary. News travelled slowly. Travel was slow (17 hours in an uncomfortable coach to London) and a small cut could kill you (and a viral infection risked killing your whole family). Though not an exciting life, it is nonetheless a life worth reading of.

It is these challenges that the Parson reflects upon. Every ailment had a tried and tested cure, and more often than not he reports that the complaints of those subjected to his remedies recover (though perhaps more often despite his concoctions rather than thanks to them). And through all he finds his peace in a hefty three course meal, some decent plonk, a round of cards.

The importance of the lessons taught in the diary of James Woodforde bear great importance to the project unfolding in Furnace Park. His concern for the healing power of the natural world, and very real belief in the potions and powders with which he dosed his sickly neighbours, tell us of a time when man’s relationship with plants was unrecognisable to the one we share today. While the nobility of Europe laid out vast stately gardens to leisure in and spread court gossip, for the majority, in the countryside and the city, your garden was your pharmacy and your larder and not merely a pretty folly to swan around in. What your patch produced could and would extend your life. Physicians were distant, out of reach to all but the richest or those dwelling in the largest urban centres. Medicine was poorly understood and not to be trusted to your local barber or blacksmith.

This is the garden we are growing: one that would be recognisable to the everyman of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Sheffield. One familiar to the normal man or woman. A beautiful garden would be one with the potential for productivity, functionality and safeguarding your loved ones from sickness and hunger. This is the psychology of Parson Woodforde and his neighbours and it is what we seek to uncover in our project, two hundred and eleven years after his death.