Category Archives: Medicine

Mother’s Ruin

As regular readers will know, I like a drink now and again and again and again. The way I see it, it’s not an addiction if you’re still enjoying yourself. But even I must draw the line somewhere. Today I think I saw where that line was. In Sainsbury’s this evening I came across the disturbing discovery that, in their Basics range, the supermarket does gin.

It’s not that I have anything particularly against gin, you understand. Actually, I quite like it. But I take the view that spirits, below a certain price, are best employed in experiments to determine whether your tractor really will “run on anything.”

Gin enjoys something of an uneasy reputation these days. Scotch suggests manly sophistication, vodka suggests a fashionable cocktail lifestyle, Jack Daniel’s suggests maybe you aren’t quite ready for spirits yet. Gin, it seems, will be forever stuck with the reputation of being a drink for the elderly and terminally alcoholic.

Although it does tend to be historically associated with London, the origins of the present-day spirit lie with the Dutch physician and chemist Franciscus Sylvius at some point in the first half of the seventeenth century (though similar beverages are recorded as far back as the 10th century). It’s made of distilled grain alcohol and traditionally flavoured with juniper berries, and enjoyed great popularity in Holland as a medicine.

In 1688, William of Orange ascended the throne of England and brought with him this exciting new Dutch spirit. There were a number of contributing factors to its success within these shores. Firstly, William increased the taxes on importing booze and deregulated distillation in Britain, making gin cheaper and more readily available than any other form of spirit. Secondly, food had fallen in price recently, meaning there was more money to spend on life’s little luxuries. Thirdly, grain was particularly abundant at that time, and so gin production was an attractive way to get rid of the surplus, especially as the grain used in gin did not have to be particularly high quality. Fourthly, booze was a way of life in those days – in those days before effective sanitation, alcohol was far safer than water. And finally, gin was cheap and could get you ratted more quickly than beer. There’s also another interesting theory that folk took to drink as a result of being unable to adjust to city life, but that’s a minority view that I only mention for the curiosity value.

Anyway, the result was the Gin Craze, as memorably satirised in William Hogarth’s grotesque and blackly humorous Gin Lane, reproduced right. If you’ve ever been though Kingston-upon-Thames on a Saturday night, imagine that, only all the time. Lord Harvey noted at the time that “Drunkenness among the common people was universal; the whole town of London swarmed with drunken people from  morning ’til night.” Sick leave rose to an unprecedented degree as a result of people simply being too pished to make it into work, with the corresponding economic effects. Crime, too, rose drastically – it was observed by magistrates that gin was “the principal cause of all the vice & debauchery committed among the inferior sort of people” (though the lack of a police force didn’t help).  And of course there were the direct and indirect physiological effects of such widespread boozing – liver disorders, blindness, syphilis and a rise in juvenile alcoholism as a result of spirit-infused breastmilk. Daniel Defoe feared the creation of “a fine spindle-shanked generation.” There was even a (possibly apocryphal) reported increase in cases of spontaneous combustion.

Not helping matters at all was the poor quality of gin on sale. With the simplicity of production, the aforementioned lack of any police force to speak of, almost anyone could set up a still and go into business. And there were plenty of dubious ways to increase your yields if you were unscrupulous. If the buyer was lucky, their gin would be watered down. If they were unlucky, it might be padded out with turpentine. If they were really unlucky, industrial acid.

In desperation, the government introduced no less than eight Gin Acts to counter this between 1729 and 1751. However, what probably did for gin was one of the contributing factors in its initial ascension – the price of grain, which had begun once again to rise due to poor harvests. Just in time for the Industrial Revolution, in fact.

Nevertheless, the damage was done. Gin had gained such unflattering nicknames as “Mother’s Ruin” and low drinking dives were popularly known as “gin shops,” whether they sold gin or not.

Gin would enjoy a resurgance during the 19th century with the opening of the Victorian “gin palaces,” the finest surviving example of which is the Princess Louise in Holborn. I mention this purely because that’s my favourite boozer. Also contributing to its popularity at this time was the discovery of quinine’s anti-malarial properties. Quinine is quite a bitter substance, and so it was typically diluted to make what we now call tonic water. To make the tonic water more palatable, the colonials of the British empire would add gin, which I would imagine also alleviated the boredom of some of those Imperial outposts. And thus was the gin and tonic forged.

And I suppose this was the final nail in the coffin of gin’s reputation – that imperial association. Granted, it’s not regarded as the abomination it was in the 18th century, not least because the following century would see improvements in distillation and a corresponding increase in quality. But nevertheless, it is perhaps the least cool thing behind a bar south of the liqueur shelf.

Oh well. Here’s my recipe for a gin and tonic. G&T seems to be a matter of personal preference, so my word isn’t even close to the last on the subject. I favour Malawi for the gin – it’s a highly aromatic spirit with strong juniper notes, which is really what you look for in a gin. For the tonic, I go with Schweppes, the diet stuff for the sake of my waistline (the relative sweetness of the Malawi balances this out). And here’s where I get a little bit heretical – I don’t add ice. Rather, I chill the gin and the tonic beforehand. Then mix in a ratio of 2:3. Then drink. Then kill my children in a drunken stupor and spontaneously combust.


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Fairies, schizophrenia and other distractions

The other day I found myself at a loose end and so, as I’d been meaning to do for quite some time, I went with Hurricane Jack to the Richard Dadd exhibition at Orleans House in Twickenham, which as it happened was in its final week.

Richard Dadd is primarily famous for two things – fairy paintings and being insane. Outsider art, particularly that produced by the mentally ill, holds a strange fascination for me. I suppose it’s because art, perhaps more effectively than any other form of expression, offers a view into the mind. Art is heavily reliant on emotion and imagination, and as such is an ideal gauge of the mind. I’m not the first one to suggest this, of course, and art therapy is these days a popular form of psychiatric treatment.

In the 19th century, of course, there was no such thing as art therapy. Hell, there was hardly anything you’d even call therapy in the modern sense. However, during Richard Dadd’s periods in Bedlam and Broadmoor, he produced a number of works of art that are these days regarded as classics of outsider art – although given that he was an established and respected mainstream painter, it’s debatable whether you could really call him an “outsider artist.”

Come Unto These Yellow Sands, 1842

I’m getting a little ahead of myself here. Dadd was born in 1817 and, from a young age, was considered a highly talented artist. A number of his works were put on show at the Royal Academy and he received several commissions from wealthy patrons. Unfortunately, he also exhibited a number of unusual personality traits which were amplified during a trip to the Middle East. He became violent and deluded, hearing voices and developing the belief that he was descended from Osiris and obliged to fight the Devil. The Devil, he believed, was capable of taking human form, and one of the forms he took was that of Dadd’s own father. Therefore, on 28th August 1843, he murdered his father and fled to France. He was arrested and put in Bedlam. Among his personal effects were a number of sketches of friends and family members with their throats cut and a list of people who he felt had to die. The general consensus now seems to be that he was afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia.

The Fairy Feller's Masterstroke, 1855-64

During his period in Bedlam he produced his most famous works, including the intricate fairy painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke. This is commonly regarded as his masterpiece, inspiring a song by Queen and the Terry Pratchett novel The Wee Free Men. The intense detail in this and his other fairy paintings tends to be seen as a sign of an obsessive mind (although you might also argue that it’s a sign of someone with a lot of time and very little to do, but then, I’m not an art critic or therapist).

The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke wasn’t in the exhibition, nor were any of Dadd’s other fairy paintings. Actually, the exhibition seemed almost apologetic about this fact. I think this was unnecessary – it’s very often the case with artists, particularly notorious ones, that a particular work or type of work they did has been allowed to eclipse other, equally worthy works.

Sketch to Illustrate the Passions: Agony – Raving Madness

So what we have in this exhibition is, basically, The Rest. A selection of Dadd’s art from before his arrest and throughout his time at Bedlam and Broadmoor. Quite a lot of it is, I’ll be honest, rather pretty. If you didn’t know its origins, you wouldn’t be able to tell it was the work of a schizophrenic. I rather liked his stained glass work. However, there were a number of works seemingly produced as a deliberate expression of his mental state – the evocative “Passions” series stood out for me, which features allegorical figures representing various negative qualities. Some of these appear to have been painted from life, including a couple of representations of the architecture of Bedlam.

I wouldn’t have described the exhibition as what I was expecting from a Richard Dadd show, and that actually doesn’t bother me at all. I came away with what I felt was a fuller understanding of a very complex artist. Frankly, the chap deserves better than to be known simply as a mad artist.
Oh hey, look at this
Izzi has a new blog devoted to art. Take a look at it, do.

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I’m strangely fascinated by pseudoscience. Homeopathy, Young Earth Creationism, Scientology, all utter bollocks and yet I love hearing about them. I don’t know why. I frankly have nothing but contempt for all pseudoscience, particularly where it crosses into the realm of medicine.

Pseudoscience relies on ignorance to work its magic. You don’t understand quantum physics, do you? So when we tell you that this pendant will use quantum energy transference to resonate with your cellular integral field to reduce your risk of cancer, arthritis and diabetes, promoting weight loss, immunity to disease and essential wellbeing, you won’t know any better. You can’t say it won’t do that, so just run with this here. Only two hundred pounds to you, sir. A bargain if ever there was one.

Oftentimes, pseudoscientists work to actively promote ignorance – maybe those hoity-toity “legitimate scientists” claim to be able to understand quantum resonance, but why should you believe them? You can’t even understand what they’re talking about!

In the case of medical pseudoscience, or “quackery” as it’s more commonly known, I have particular contempt due to the emotional manipulation involved. Sure, quacks sound sympathetic, but that’s because they tell you what you want to hear. Doctors tell you cancer has no cure? Well, that just shows how callous they are, because I can cure it with simple-feng-shui-ley-line-type crap. There appears to be a concentration of toxins in your breasts, let me lay my hands on them. Even when quacks aren’t taking advantage of the desperate and incurable, they’re still emotionally manipulative. Diet and exercise are hard, wouldn’t it be far easier if you just used acupuncture to somehow, against all laws of physics, cause the fat to disappear? The worst aspect of all this is that people often reject conventional medicine in order to spend a fortune on the modern-day equivalent of a bottle of snake oil, endangering their chances of recovery and often their lives.

As quackery relies so heavily on people’s lack of scientific knowledge, it often employs whatever the latest weird and exotic science is to make suckers sit up and take notice. Potential patients may have heard of this new “magnetism,” “radiation” or whatever, but aren’t so likely to know the full range and scope of its abilities. Particularly given that many of these substances are used in legitimate medicine – radiotherapy, for instance.

For an awfully long time, the big thing was electricity. Luigi Galvani discovered in 1786 that passing electricity through a dissected frog’s leg would cause it to kick. This seemingly confirmed a popular misconception that electricity was a vital force.

Not that the quacks had been waiting for scientific confirmation, of course. James Graham (pictured below), for instance, had been convinced ever since seeing a demonstration by Benjamin Franklin in the early 1770s that electricity was worth paying attention to. He proclaimed it to be a force that “invigorates the whole body and remedies all physical defects.”

In 1779, he came to London and opened the Temple of Health and Hymen just off the Strand, at No. 4 Royal Terrace. This was showmanship of which P. T. Barnum would have been proud. No expense was spared. The place was filled with huge, exotic-looking machinery that promised to use electricity to blast “aetherial forces, vivifying air, and the magnetic effluvium into the whole body or any particular part of it.” Various other electrical and chemical treatments were available, including an electric bath and an electric throne.  Don’t try this at home, kids. If you fancied a takeaway, you could purchase Graham’s range of “Imperial Pills” and “Aetherial Balsams.”

If you were having a little trouble in the bedroom (cough), then you might consider a session on Graham’s notorious “Celestial Bed.” This was a large and magnetically-charged bed which vibrated, played music and released fragrances that were supposedly “aetherial” in nature (but frankly, what in the Temple wasn’t?). The unhappy couple would hand over a whopping fee of £50 and spend the night therein in the hope of relieving infertility. I suspect that any successes arising were purely coincidental.

Graham’s particular interest was matters of a sexual nature, and it certainly didn’t escape his notice that sex was a pretty good selling point. To that end, some of the most popular attractions in the Temple were the Goddesses of Health, delightful young ladies whose job was to assist Graham and to depict what physical perfection should look like. In the name of science, of course. Scantily-clad science. Rumour has it that one of the Goddesses, depicted right, would later marry into wealth, becoming Lady Emma Hamilton and later still Lord Nelson’s mistress.

The temple was, initially at least, a roaring success – so much so that within a couple of years, Graham was able to up sticks and move to fashionable Pall Mall. Alas, while Graham was a persuasive quack, he wasn’t so strong on the financial side of things, and his extravagance resulted just two years later in his having to sell up entirely.

He never quite managed to replicate the Temple’s success, and spent the rest of his days promoting ever more bizarre alternative medicines, such as being buried naked in mud and not eating for weeks at a time. He died in 1794 at the age of just forty-nine, which says a lot about the efficacy of his methods.

Fortunately, such quack electrical nonsense didn’t last long, because – oh wait, no, the belief in electricity’s mystical health-giving properties lasted until at least 1951, when the Food and Drug Administration in the USA banned the sale of electrical remedies. Hell, there are probably people even today who think you can cure impotence by electrocuting your gentleman’s prerequisites. There’s a sucker born every minute.


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Fashion and trends, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Regency, Science, Sports and Recreation, West End

I get a kick out of you, part 2

Hullo all, this is just a quick entry to alert you to something that may be of interest. Regular readers will be aware that the Wellcome Collection is currently holding an exhibition entitled ‘High Society,’ which Yr. Humble Chronicler recently visited.

Well, for those of you interested in exploring further, might I humbly suggest – if you find yourself at a loose end this weekend – that you take a stroll over there for an event entitled ‘High Society: Drugs in Victorian Britain.’ On Friday, there’s a magic lantern show on the subject and on Saturday there will be a series of discussions from eminent and knowledgeable folk on the subject of what got our ancestors high. For those of you with an interest in drug culture in Britain, who are into that whole Victorian decadence scene, or who are just curious about what the dickens Lewis Carroll was on, you should take a gander.

See the website for further details.

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Kill or cure

Now, if there’s one question I get asked more than any other, it’s “What, in your experience, is the best hangover cure?” Actually, that’s a lie, it’s “Are you sure you’re a qualified gynaecologist?” But that’s not relevant right now.

Hangovers are a bugger. Indeed, the Latin term for hangover is “sodomia summa sodomiae” or “bugger above all buggers,” and I’d actually be offended if after all we’ve been through, you felt the need to check to see that I hadn’t just made that up. Anyway, it’s the second day of January, and if you’re anything like me, you started the year badly in need of a hangover cure.

Usually at this point, someone says that the best cure for a hangover is simply not to drink. This is ridiculous. I mean, would you tell a cancer patient that the best cure for cancer is not to get cancer? In my experience, the fun of an awesome party far outweighs the agony of the hangover. If not, then that was a bad party and you should have left before you got drunk. If you’re having a bad time sober, you’ll have a bad time drunk.

But the fact is that alcohol is a holy thing. What did Jesus turn the water into? Here’s a clue: not Diet Coke.

[PARENTHESIS: Ah, but what about Islam? Well, there has been some debate over what exactly was meant by the prohibition in the Qu’ran. Some scholars have argued that drinking is fine as long as you don’t get drunk. Others have argued that “intoxicants” can be taken to mean any substance that affects the mind, which also includes coffee. Admittedly no interpretation really allows you to get roaring drunk, I just thought that whole passage was interesting]

If you want to go further back, you know how we raise our glasses to someone? That may actually be one of the oldest rituals humanity has. You see, alcohol actually dates back to the very early days of civilisation – one theory actually has it that we moved from hunter-gathering to agriculture purely so we could cultivate grain and make beer.

Whether you subscribe to this theory or not, alcohol was certainly one of our earliest inventions, and possibly our first interesting invention. To those early settlers, fermentation was a mystical process, not properly understood and believed to be the result of direct divine intervention. Thus, the custom was to offer part of every batch of beer to the gods who had provided it. And that, my friends, is why to this day we raise our glasses when we wish to salute someone.

17th century German hangover cure. Still in use in parts of Slough.

The most obvious religious comparison in the context of hangovers is that of karma. You have a wicked-awesome time the previous night, then you feel like death the following morning. Well, alcohol is technically a poison (so is water if you have too much of it, so there), so it’s probably going to have some negative effects. Your man alcohol is broken down in the liver into acetaldehyde and then into acetate. Once all the night’s alcohol is metabolised into acetate, you’re home and dry (literally). Unfortunately, the process of metabolising alcohol requires an enzyme known as  nicotinic acid derivative, which your body has in limited supply. If you drink enough alcohol to deplete your reserves of NID, you’ll get drunk and then you’ll get sick. Given that the average body can only metabolise one unit every two hours, expect happiness and then sadness if you’re out partying.

Alcohol is a diuretic, and will basically dehydrate you over the course of a night. It’ll also deplete a lot of the vitamins and minerals that the adverts are always telling us we need, and increased insulin production will see that your blood sugar levels will go way down. Your brain will readjust itself to the depressant effects of the alcohol, but will probably not have enough time to adjust back by the morning.

Complicating matters further are congeners – without getting too technical, these are what we’ll call impurities that make it much harder for your body to deal with alcohol. As a general rule, the darker your drink, the more c0ngeners it has. Port is very high, vodka is very low. This is the origin of the dread disorder known as “red wine headache.”

You should by now have some idea of why you have a hangover. Having said that, if you actually do have a hangover, you probably shouldn’t be staring at a computer screen.

Now, to combat a hangover. Firstly, it is recommended to have something to eat before you go out. This should top up your body’s store of what the hangover will take away. Some recommend eating something greasy to line your stomach. My great-granddad used to swear by two pints of milk before going out to the pub.

Then prepare yourself for the return. Do not allow yourself, upon returning to a party, to simply fall into bed. Yes, I know how tempting it is, but keep reminding yourself throughout the evening that you have to take preventative measures. Have them ready by your bed if needs be. The preventative measures I would recommend are:

1. Two pints of water.

2. A glass of effervescent vitamin C.

3. Two ibuprofen.

4. A sandwich, preferably something with protein. Chicken salad seems to work.

The water will take care of the dehydration, the vitamin C and the sandwich will take care of the nutrients your body will lose and ibuprofen is anti-inflammatory. Vitamin C will also take care of the congeners.

Now, if you haven’t done this before bed, you’ll have to do it in the morning when you actually have the hangover, in which case you have my sympathies. I’d recommend if possible doing these things and then returning to bed so you don’t have to think about how dreadful you feel while your miserable carcass mends itself.

If you have to go to work, you’re a bit screwed. Speaking as a hangover veteran, there are few things worse than being at work with a hangover. The classic folk remedy in such cases is black coffee. I disagree – caffeine can constrict the blood vessels. In Scotland they swear by Irn-Bru, which contains caffeine but also the life-giving substances known as quinine and sugar. A full English breakfast is highly recommended by many, but you may find this a little difficult to stomach.

Speaking personally, the hangover cure I favour goes thus:

1. Wake up. Drink two pints of water and take two ibuprofen. Return to bed.

2. Wake up again half an hour later. Have a shower, as you stink.

3. Walk to the supermarket. This will get oxygen moving around the body.

4. Acquire milkshake, aforementioned chicken salad sandwich, fruit salad and can of Pepsi, Cherry Coke or Irn-Bru.

5. Consume slowly.

6. Watch Withnail & I.

The simple fact is, though, there’s no hard-and-fast cure that works for everyone, and frankly a lot of curing a hangover simply involves gritting your teeth and enduring it. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and if you party hard then you’ve got to take the consequences. Sad but true.

One last tip: if you’re going to bunk off work, be creative. Every manager knows that “food poisoning” means “hangover.”

Anyway, assuming you’re feeling better, enjoy 2011. Here’s hoping it ends like 2010, in a drunken stupor.


Filed under Booze, Current events, Food, Medicine, Only loosely about London, Rambling on and on, Randomness, Science

I get a kick out of you

Last-minute changes of plan are always good for a laugh, as I discovered on Friday when the event upon which I had anchored my weekend was moved. I shook my fist and generally cursed the fates until I received a call from Izzi asking if I’d like to go to see the High Society exhibition at the Wellcome Collection.

The Wellcome Collection is a real oddity. I never know quite how to describe it to someone not already familiar with it. Describing itself as “a free destination for the incurably curious,” it’s part museum, part art gallery. The basic theme is medicine, human biology and their position in society. There are sculptures, art installations and historical artefacts relating to these themes. Its purpose seems to be to make you think rather than to supply you with information – there is no explanatory text beyond basic captions for most of the exhibits.

Morphinomane by Eugene Samuel Grasset, one of the paintings on display.

The High Society exhibition is the Wellcome Collection’s exploration of mind-altering substances. I hesitate to use the word “drugs” because one of the points the exhibition makes is that one man’s drug is another man’s mainstream stimulant. In this country, alcohol is generally considered to be a perfectly acceptable substance, provided you don’t make a tit of yourself. In many cultures, it’s considered to be four-star Satan fuel. Is the go-getter who takes a quadruple espresso to wake them up in the morning any worse than the stoner who lights a joint to relax? These are the questions the exhibition invites you to think about.

At the start of the exhibition, we’re presented with a load of drug paraphernalia, for the broadest definition of “drug.” As well as syringes and bongs, we see coffee and absinthe (which, incidentally, is nowhere near as crazy as it’s made out to be). We then go on a tour of drugs in medicine, in self-exploration, in social interaction and in law. We see prohibition posters, photos of pro-drug rallies, psychedelic light shows, tribal rituals, paintings and books, grouped by theme but not necessarily by stance or source.

No attempt is made at any kind of moral judgment, except that portrayed within the works themselves. The overriding message seems to be that nobody knows who’s right. We see that views on drugs depend who you are, where you are and when. The Victorians thought nothing of giving opiates to help baby sleep. In the Andes, coca tea is a popular cure for altitude sickness, seen as being no worse than regular tea over here. In the USA, coca leaf means cocaine (and Coca-Cola, but that tends to get glossed over when they take the moral high ground and spray defoliant over every back garden coca plot). Maybe none of us are right. Maybe Bob Dylan was right, and everybody should get stoned.

It certainly got Izzi and me talking. Like many people, I’ve done my share of experimentation, and Izzi’s done a lot more than me. I rather wish I hadn’t been talking about this experimentation so loudly, as while I was doing so I looked up and discovered that, by a million-to-one chance, my boss was attending the same exhibition. Shit.

Anyway, yeah, both Izzi and I are fairly liberal on the subject of drugs. Speaking personally, I think there’s quite a lot that could or should be legalised. I think it’s hypocritical that I could get in legal trouble for possessing a couple of joints’ worth of cannabis, but I could then drink two bottles of whisky and seriously endanger my life with no legal intervention whatsoever. Quite apart from such moral considerations, there’s the practical fact that with certain substances legalised, they can be taxed and policed more effectively.

But maybe I’m wrong as well. I invite you to take a trip (har har) to the Wellcome Collection to see for yourself. High Society runs until 27th February, entrance is free and it’s just a short walk from Euston and Euston Square stations. It might expand your mind.

Further Reading – The official website


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Snuff and nonsense

I see Terry Pratchett is working on a book by the title of Snuff. He says this title will play on the fact that the word “snuff” has more than one meaning (I can think of three). I’m guessing the scenario will be something along the lines of “snuff becomes popular in Ankh-Morpork and there’s a murder, also some candles need putting out fast.”

Snuff, perhaps sadly (perhaps not, depending who you are) is a habit that’s virtually dead in this country. Despite the fact that smoking is becoming less and less legal, there’s no sign of any major resurgence, either. Snuff, if you aren’t familiar with it, is powdered tobacco taken nasally. It’s normally taken either in the form of a pinch between the forefinger and thumb, sniffed from there, or snorted off the back of the hand. Particularly enthusiastic snuffers may choose to snort a line of the length of their forearm. It commonly induces sneezing, but I’m informed this is more common among beginners.

Enthusiasts of the brown stuff point out that it’s probably safer than smoking, and the British Medical Journal notes that it doesn’t involve taking carbon monoxide and tar into your lungs – they note that there may possibly be a risk of nasopharyngeal cancer. I’m going to put in the fact that nicotine – the most addictive substance on the market – is still a thing with snuff. However, one thing both its enthusiasts and detractors have to admit is that the habit is so uncommon these days that it’s impossible to come to any definite conclusions about it. Still, speaking as a non-smoker, it’s a lot less annoying to the rest of us than smoking. Just don’t sneeze on me, yeah?

Snuff first appeared in the sixteenth century, but reached the height of its popularity in the eighteenth. The reason for this was largely availability. During the 1702 Battle of Cadiz, Sir George Rooke seized fifty tons of fine Cuban snuff, which was distributed among the sailors and sold on dirt-cheap at the English ports. With the habit firmly established, a kind of snuff culture began to grow up. Accessories such as the rather exciting snuff box above began to appear (and now fetch a pretty penny at antiques markets). Rules and etiquette were established for the offering of snuff – depending on the person, you could offer them the Pinch Careless, the Pinch Surly, the Pinch Politick, the Pinch Scornful, and presumably some nice ones as well. There were those who condemned the habit on health grounds, but also those who believed it could be beneficial (for instance, the Gentlewoman’s Magazine advised that it could cure sight problems).

There were many varieties of tobacco available, and more could be created by careful blending. Later in the century, artificially scented varieties became available. Ingredients used included prunes, port wine, ale and even strong cheese. Why you’d want prune-flavoured tobacco, I don’t know. Mind you, I also don’t know why you’d want to wear a periwig, but people still did it.

I think I can safely say that the most devoted snuff-taker in England is one described by H. W. Morton, one Mrs Margaret Thompson of Burlington Gardens. Such was her enthusiasm for the powder that when she died in 1776, she stipulated in her will:

I desire that all my handkerchiefs that I may have unwashed at the time of my decease, after they have been got together by my old and trusty servant, Sarah Stuart, be put by her, and by her alone, at the bottom of my coffin, which I desire may be made large enough for that purpose, together with a quantity of the best Scotch snuff (in which she knoweth I had the greatest delight) as will cover my deceased body; and this I desire more especially as it is usual to put flowers into the coffins of departed friends, and nothing can be so precious and fragrant to me than that precious powder.

She also requested that the aforementioned Ms Stuart should walk in front of her bearers, scattering snuff in their path and on to the crowd. The said bearers should the six greatest snuff takers in St James, each of whom should carry a box of snuff from which they should feel free to take as much as they fancy. Instead of black, they were to wear brown.

I think if I were a smoker, I should demand similar arrangements as an up-yours to the healthcare profession.

What really killed snuff as a habit for all but a handful of devotees was the appearance of cigarettes in the middle of the nineteenth century, again as a result of war – British soldiers in the Crimea picked up the habit from their Turkish allies. Another contributing factor may have been a fashion for white handkerchiefs – without getting too detailed, it’s a little difficult to keep a clean handkerchief when you spend your day shoving brown powder up your hooter.

Will snuff ever make a return? I rather doubt it, unless cigarettes were banned outright. Still, it is worth noting that it’s not covered by the smoking ban, so you can get a snozzfull in the pub and no one can stop you. Try it some day.


Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Fashion and trends, History, London, Medicine, Notable Londoners, Regency, Stuart London, Westminster