PILLS, SHOCKS & JABS. Peter Cullimore.

Book review by Rob Pritchard Bristol Historical Association. 14th September 2021

The book costs £12 and is available from independent bookshops, which will either stock it or order copies for you. Or you can order directly from the publisher Bristol Books via their website www.bristolbooks.org and they will post it to you. ISBN number:  9781909446298

Pills, Shocks and Jabs is a worthy sequel to Peter Cullimore’s book Saints, Crooks and Slavers. As one would expect from a journalist, the book is extremely well written. It is also superbly illustrated and is an ideal read for anyone interested in 18th century Bristol, the history of medicine or the fascinating story of Quakerism.

In the early eighteenth century there were about a thousand Quakers in Bristol which had a population of about 20,000. Given their number the Quakers seemed to have had a disproportionate influence on the life of the city. Until about 1700 they were persecuted and even imprisoned for their beliefs which included pacifism. Like all nonconformists (dissenters) they were excluded from politics, the civil service and the army and navy. Like many nonconformists the Quakers turned their energies towards business. Some of them had made money from Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade but by the middle of the century they had become passionate about abolition. This was after all the Age of Enlightenment. As philanthropists Bristol Quakers used their money to invest in good causes such as health care for the poor.

The Bristol Quakers were a tight knit community. Women played a leading role in Quaker society. Peter Cullimore’s book has an extremely interesting chapter on what he calls Quakerville which lay to the north of the old city around Stokes Croft. There is a very useful map which takes you around places such as Brunswick Square, King Square, Broad Street and of course Quaker Friars. The magnificent website Know Your Place will be very useful in this respect. I can recommend this walk to our readers. I always feel very sad about the loss of St James Square which was damaged in the Blitz and then destroyed by post war developers. By the end of the eighteenth century the affluent classes had moved up the hill to Clifton.

The Bristol Quakers spent a great deal of time together. Much of what we know about them comes from their diaries and letters. Peter describes Sarah Champion Fox (1742-1811) as the queen bee of the Quaker community. She kept an excellent diary for half a century and we have Madge Dresser to thank for editing this in 2003. The Quakers were not keen on portraits but there are some delightful illustrations by Dr Thomas Pole of life in the Quaker house at 14 St James Square.

The core of Peter’s book is the story of eighteenth century medicine. In an age before anaesthetics, antiseptics and the germ theory, medical practitioners  struggled to help their patients. There were apothecaries, surgeons, physicians and druggists. Many were well meaning. Some were qualified. A few were effective. The Bristol Quakers such as Shurmer Bath, Dr John Till Adams, Ann Till Adams, Dr Abraham Ludlow and Dr Thomas Pole stand out for working hard to help patients both rich and poor. Their story is supported by non-Quakers such as Dr Edward Jenner and John Wesley.

For chocolate lovers there is a chapter on Fry’s chocolate which claimed to have medicinal qualities. Then there were the medical conmen. There is the cautionary tale of William Broderip who made a fortune oversubscribing pills and powders. The chapter on the use of electric shock treatments is quite shocking. Nevertheless, John Wesley and others advocated the use of electricity because it was seen as a multi-purpose remedy that had come from God, a kind of divine fire.

Many eighteenth century remedies may have had a placebo effect but the story of Jenner’s smallpox vaccination is very relevant in an age of vaccine passports. Dr Abraham Ludlow had already established an ‘inoculating house’ at Barton Hill.

Healthcare for the poor was virtually non existent but Quakers such as Dr Ludlow worked at the new Bristol Infirmary and helped set up the Bristol Dispensary (with Methodists). As well as providing free medical care the Dispensary used midwives to deliver about 1.000 babies. Some of the new generation of midwives were men. By the end of the century many women preferred man-midwives.

In my perambulations up Johnny Ball Lane, I had never realised that I was walking past the original Bristol Infirmary burial ground. The chapter on body snatchers shows how surgeons and students raided such burial grounds to obtain bodies for medical dissection. Even Quaker doctors played the role of resurrection men. The story of ‘Long Jack’ shows the risks they took.

The chapter on the Bristol Infirmary is poignant at a time when developers are keen to get their hands on Bristol’s older hospital buildings. Quaker medical men played a key role in the establishment of one of the first hospitals in England outside London. It may surprise readers to know that the surgeons and physicians were elected! The story of the election of a new surgeon at the city’s Merchant Tailor’s Hall in 1767 is hilarious. Political allegiances seemed to matter more than medical skills. Nevertheless, change was coming. By 1774 women had the right to vote in the Bristol Infirmary elections.

Many Quaker practitioners were pioneers in other fields. Dr Edward Long Fox petitioned parliament to abolish the slave trade in 1788, tended the wounded after the Bristol Bridge riot of 1793 and argued for a peace treaty with Revolutionary France in 1795. Not surprisingly he was not popular with more conservative forces in Bristol. His key work however was his construction of a revolutionary asylum at Brislington House in 1806. Peter’s book shows how ground breaking Dr Fox’s asylum was when compared with asylums such as the infamous Bedlam.

The book ends with the story of Dr Thomas Pole who had parallel careers as a travelling Quaker minister, surgeon, physician and obstetrician.

The Quakers were ‘movers and shakers’ in eighteenth century Bristol. They had a wide range of interests and played a vital role in the Age of Enlightenment.

I would like to finish this review with a family memory of Quaker ‘good works’. My grandparents worked for the Fry family at Failand House in the 1920s. My grandfather was Lady Fry’s chauffeur. One of his jobs was to drive her to Horfield Prison where she gave lantern slide talks to the prisoners. My grandfather’s job was to set up the projector and change the slides. Meanwhile back at Failand House Lady Fry’s daughter Agnes set up a small school where she gave my four aunts (who were all going to work in service) additional school lessons.

Enjoy the book. I certainly did.

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