“A Second St Domingo”: Sickness during the Walcheren Expedition of 1809


Terrain of the Walcheren campaign, from France Militaire: histoire des Armees Francaises de terre de mer de 1792 a 1833…by A. Hugo, 1837.

In 1809, the British government sent an amphibious force of 40,000 men and 600 naval vessels to the Scheldt to destroy the French fleet and dockyards at Antwerp and Flushing. It was Britain’s biggest expeditionary undertaking since the beginning of the wars with France in 1793, part of the War of the Fifth Coalition and a diversion to assist the Austrians against Napoleon in central Europe.

The expedition, under the military command of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was a complete failure. The Austrian allies were defeated before the expedition left; although the British captured the island of Walcheren, they advanced too slowly across the neighbouring island of South Beveland, allowing the French to reinforce Antwerp. The expedition was finally withdrawn after a catastrophic outbreak of ‘Walcheren fever’, a combination of several diseases, including malaria.

The impact of this sickness can best be gauged through dry statistics. Of the 39,219 rank and file sent to Walcheren, 11,296 of them were on the sick lists by February 1810. By this time 3,960 were dead. A further 106 had died in battle, but those numbers were swallowed up in the sheer scale of the tragedy.

‘Walcheren fever’ struck the troops suddenly and savagely. One source, the anonymous Letters from Flushing, recorded fatalities from sickness as early as 12 August 1809, but on 8 August the British Chief of Staff reported ‘We have as yet no sick,’ and on 11 August the commander-in-chief Lord Chatham thought ‘the Troops upon ye whole continue healthy.’[1]

By 20 August, however, things had changed. The official Proceedings of the Army recorded on 22 August: ‘Sickness began to show itself among the Troops in South Beveland. On the 20th the number of Sick was 1564, and within the two following days it increased very considerably.’ The next day, the 23rd, the Proceedings recorded ‘Sickness increased very much within the last 24 hours.’ By the 24th the sickness had spread to Walcheren.[2]

At first the officers were not too worried. One of the aides-de-camp to Sir Eyre Coote (Chatham’s second-in-command) recorded in his diary on 24 August: ‘5000 French Troops are said to have fallen a victim to the climate last year, but I consider this as a very exaggerated statement, and at any rate, the constitutions of our men & their habits of life, are much better adapted to this moist atmosphere.’[3]

But by the 27th there were 3467 sick. The following day the officer compiling the official returns could not restrain his concern: ‘The sickness increased to an alarming Proportion, some of the General, and many other Officers were seized with fever, and the Number of Men on the Sick List was nearly 4000.’[4]


The evacuation of South Beveland, August 1809

The sickness was described by Lieutenant William Keep of the 81st:

The disease comes on with a cold shivering, so great that the patient feels no benefit from the clothes piled upon him in bed, but continues to shiver still, as if enclosed in ice, the teeth chattering and cheeks blanched. This lasts some time and is followed by the opposite extremes of heat, so that the pulse rises to 100 in a small space. The face is then flushed and eyes dilated, but with little thirst. It subsides and then is succeeded by another paroxysm, and so on until the patient’s strength is quite reduced and he sinks into the arms of death.[5]

The British army had been sent to Walcheren with medical supplies for only 30,000 men. It was caught completely off-guard by the scale of the sickness. Things were not helped by the fact that the British had bombarded one of Walcheren’s largest merchant towns, Vlissingen (Flushing), in mid-August, which restricted the accommodation available to the British troops. By 30 August there were nearly 900 sick in Flushing alone, ‘all of them laying [sic] on the bare boards without Paillasses & many without Blankets.’ Two days later Coote’s aide concluded in despair: ‘This island is a mere Hospital and an Inspector of Hospitals will shortly be a more useful officer than the General Commanding.’[6]


Flushing Harbour. Photograph by Jacqueline Reiter

All these circumstances contributed to an atmosphere of near-panic. Nobody knew who would be next, and no rank was exempt. ‘A considerable degree of apprehension of Climate and Disease has prevail’d too generally, and there has been much anxiety shewn to get away from this Island as if it had been a second St Domingo,’ the Chief of Staff reported disapprovingly, but by this time several generals (including General Mackenzie-Fraser, who later died) were dropping like flies.[7] By mid-September the Adjutant-General of the army was sending in daily (rather than weekly) sick reports, and Chatham decided to start sending the sick home ahead of official orders from the War Office.

According to one account, one doctor ‘and his assistant [had] nearly five hundred patients prostrate at the same moment … the whole concern was completely floored’. [8] By 23 September the army had almost completely run out of bark (now quinine, used to treat malaria) and the medical corps were of course also losing staff to sickness. Sir Eyre Coote (who took over from Chatham, who was recalled) reported to the Secretary of State for War: ‘I can assure Your Lordship, without any Fear of Exaggeration … that the Situation of the Troops in this Island is deplorable … The Sick are so crowded, as to lay Two in one Bed in several Places, and have no Circulation of Air.’ In Flushing, by contrast, many of these places had rather too much air circulation, owing to ‘the damaged State of the Roofs, never repaired since the Siege.’[9]

Totally overburdened, the medical corps became desperate in their attempts to stem the disease. They had no idea what was causing it: they knew it wasn’t contagious, but thought it was due to ‘local or endemic Causes, viz. the Miasmata or Exhalations from the Soil.’ They did, however, notice that the sailors on board the British ships remained healthy, with the exception of the ones who had gone ashore to help with the siege of Flushing (naturally, as mosquitoes do not breed around salt water). One proposed treatment therefore was to pack the British sick into ships and sail them around the islands, in the hope that the sea air and a change of scene would restore them to health. Unsurprisingly, this did not work.[10]

The impact of Walcheren fever on the British army was significant and long-lasting. The soldiers who had served on the campaign continued to relapse periodically for years after. In March 1812 Lord Wellington, in the midst of fighting in the Spanish Peninsula, lamented the fact that his troops had been ‘so much shaken by Walcheren.’ [11] The careers of the commander-in-chief of the Army, Lord Chatham, and the naval commander, Sir Richard Strachan, were destroyed by the disaster.

The British government that had planned the expedition under the Duke of Portland fell, and its successor nearly foundered during the ensuing parliamentary inquiry into the debacle. Two government ministers, Lord Castlereagh and George Canning, ended up fighting a duel. None of this, of course, was especially comforting to the four thousand men who had died from ‘Walcheren fever’.

[1] Letters from Flushing … by an Officer of the Eighty-First Regiment (London, 1809), p. 120; Sir Robert Brownrigg to Colonel Gordon, 8 August 1809, BL Add MSS 49505, f. 9; Chatham to Castlereagh, 11 August 1809, PRONI D3030/3220; John Webb to the Surgeon General, 27 August 1809, A Collection of Papers relating to the Expedition to the Scheldt (London, 1809), pp. 588-90.
[2] The National Archives WO 190, 22-4 August 1809.
[3] University of Michigan Coote MSS, Box 29/3, Diary of the Walcheren Expedition, 24 August 1809.
[4] The National Archives WO 190, 27-8 August 1809.
[5] Quoted by Martin Howard, Walcheren 1809, Barnsley, 2011, p. 161.
[6] University of Michigan Coote MSS, Box 29/3, Diary of the Walcheren Expedition, 30 August, 1 September 1809.
[7] Sir Robert Brownrigg to Colonel Gordon, 8 September 1809, BL Add MSS 49505 f. 69.
[8] Rifleman Harris, quoted by Howard, Walcheren 1809, p. 172.
[9] Sir Eyre Coote to Castlereagh, 17 September 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp. 137-40.
[10] Memorandum dated 25 September 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp. 623-5; Sir Eyre Coote to Lord Liverpool, 23 October 1809, A Collection of Papers, pp.177-8.
[11] Howard, Walcheren 1809. p. 215.

Further reading
Gordon Bond, The Grand Expedition (Athens, GA, 1971)
Martin R. Howard, Walcheren 1809 (Barnsley, 2011)
John Lynch, ‘The Lessons of Walcheren Fever, 1809’, Military Medicine 174(3) 2009, pp. 315-19
T.H. McGuffie, ‘The Walcheren Expedition and the Walcheren Fever’, English Historical Review jacquelinereiter_bookcover62(243) 1947, pp. 191-202

Jacqueline Reiter has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. She blogs at www.thelatelord.com and you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Her first book, The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, was published by Pen & Sword Books in January 2017.


“A Cesspool in the Palace”: Prostitution and the Church in Medieval Southwark


London Bridge, from Southwark facing north. Southwark Cathedral is in the foreground. Claes Van Visscher, 1616.

Prostitution flourished in medieval London, and in the 12th century, Southwark became the city’s official red light district by order of Henry II. His ‘Ordinances touching the gouerment of the stewhoulders in Southwarke under the direction of the Bishop of Winchester’ (1161) gave control of the Southwark brothels to the ecclesiastical authorities, which would allow the church to draw untold sums of money from them through the sale of licenses. At the time of the ordinance, there were eighteen licensed brothels in Bankside employing about a thousand prostitutes at any one time. As a result of the church taking control, most of London’s churches built during this period were largely financed by prostitution.

Why Southwark? By the 12th century, Southwark had already been a hot spot for prostitution since the Romans built the first known brothel in England at what was then an obscure military outpost. Southwark itself grew out of a brothel. More than that, Southwark had been a privileged borough for most of its history, its many churches creating a place of asylum that extended to protecting criminals and prostitutes from the full extent of the law. Southwark served as a “bastard sanctuary,” offering a kind of asylum to those rejected by society: prostitutes, criminals, lepers, and the poor lived among brothels, jails, rubbish tips, and the smellier trades, just far enough away from London that they could not be seen without a boat ride or a long walk across London Bridge.


The Last Hour. Florence Harrison.

While the church officially condemned prostitution and sexual promiscuity, they had no reservations about profiting from it. St. Thomas Aquinas himself compared it to “a cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace becomes an unclean evil-smelling place.” Southwark already smelled pretty evil; it was the perfect place for a ‘cesspool.’ Prostitution was accepted as a necessary evil, and from the end of the 12th century onward, regulated to maximize revenue for the church.

As E. J. Burford explains:

“By this act of recognition, the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury gave certain advantages to the licensed brothelkeepers or stewholders. It was much easier for them to carry on business in a protected premises in a protected area. The regulations and penalties, although set out in great detail and with seemingly terrifying (or at least terrifyingly expensive) punishments, were of little practical consequence. Most infractions would be hard to prove, and all could be nullified with a little judicious bribery.”

Brothels or “stews” had been traditionally run by bawds, but Henry’s ordinance put their management into the hands of (mostly male) brothelkeepers licensed by the church. Single women were not allowed to own brothels with exceptions being made for those who had inherited one from a relative or left one by a husband.

The ordinance was devised both to protect the women employed in the sex trade and to limit certain behaviors. One of these protections was freedom from accusations of consorting with the devil. It sounds obvious to us (and convenient for them), but at the time, witchcraft and prostitution had been almost synonymous in the public mind since King Edward the Elder linked them in the 10th century.

Prostitutes were no longer individually licensed as they had been in Roman times and did not have to wear special clothing to set themselves apart. They could not be bound to or enslaved by bawds or brothelkeepers, with limits placed on how much they were allowed to borrow from their employers at any one time (six shillings and eightpence) to prevent them from being imprisoned for debt or obliged to remain in the employ of their moneylender.

Brothels became boarding houses that rented rooms to prostitutes without board. Like the provisions preventing women from borrowing large sums of money from the brothelkeepers, this was designed to protect them from those looking to take advantage of them through inflated food prices, keeping them in poverty and confined to the precinct where they worked. Brothels were closed on holy days to encourage the women to attend services. They were refused Christian burial, but could still receive Holy Communion.


“No grabbing!”

In return for these protections, prostitutes were ordered to refrain from aggressive soliciting on penalty of imprisonment. They were not allowed to grab or call out to potential customers, or curse or throw rocks at them if refused or cheated. As Burford puts it, Southwark “was a dockside area with dockside manners” and prostitutes were known not only to throw stones but chamber pots at any customers who thought to make a run for it without paying their fee.

Quarterly inspections were ordered to ensure no women were working unwillingly and to reduce the spread of venereal disease. Gonorrhea and “burning sickness” (likely chlamydia) were common and even expected; those found to be infected were fined twenty shillings and sacked. Symptoms were treated by washing in white wine, animal piss, or a mixture of vinegar and water. Many cases of gonorrhea are asymptomatic in women, so it would have been impossible to remove all infected parties, as evidenced by the epidemic of 1160.

In his Compendium Medicine (1190), physician Gilbert Anglicus described another kind of sexually transmitted disease resembling leprosy. If what he saw was syphilis, this would have been one of the earliest documented cases of it in Europe, three hundred years before Columbus is thought to have brought it back with him from the Americas.

Bizarrely, the harshest punishment was reserved for prostitutes who had lovers on the side. Men were permitted to whore out their wives and married women could sell themselves to their hearts’ delight, but any prostitute discovered to have a lover not paying for her services would be fined six shillings and eightpence, imprisoned for three weeks, and subjected to the humiliating punishment of the cucking stool – being tied to a chair and publically immersed in filth. Naturally the woman’s lover would not receive any punishment for his involvement with her; the rule would seem to have been in place to maximize profits while cutting down on her leisure activities.

Another interesting rule is that for the last customer of the day, once the woman had taken his money, she was obliged to lay with him all night. Brothelkeepers were prohibited from keeping boats and the boatmen that worked the Thames were not allowed to moor their boats on the south side of the river after dark. Once customers were in Southwark for the night, there was no leaving until morning. Burford suggests the reasoning for this is that political plotters or criminals were easier to monitor with reduced traffic on the river. Anyone needing to cross would have to go via London Bridge and they would be seen on the way.

While the Bankside brothels flourished with Henry II’s statues, Southwark’s reputation for vice was cemented when Edward I cracked down on those he deemed undesirable* a century later. He believed that these “women of evil life” attracted criminals, so prostitutes were no longer allowed within the city of London at all. Any woman found breaking this rule was subject to forty days in prison. This effectively forced any and all prostitutes well south of the river where they would stay for centuries. Although Covent Garden became something of a red light district with Harris’ List in the 18th century, the vast majority of London’s prostitutes lived south of the river through the 19th century.

Jessica Cale

* Prostitutes, Jews, the Welsh, the Scottish…how long have you got?

Further reading
Arnold, Catharine. The Sexual History of London. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Burford, E.J. Bawds and Lodgings: A History of the London Bankside Brothels c. 100-1675. Peter Owen, 1976.

Hysteria and Medicinal Masturbation: The 19th Century Origins of the Vibrator

M0017861 Vaginal examination , from Maygrier, Nouvelles...1825Yes. You did just read the words ‘medicinal masturbation’ although it certainly was never called that in the 19th century! But more of that later. To start this little article, I need to talk to you about first about ‘hysteria’, a medical condition which was recognised and widely believed for two thousand years. The condition was blamed for causing all manner of maladies in women from nervousness and stomach pain to lunacy.

It was probably the Egyptians who first believed it was a medical problem, but we have to blame the Ancient Greeks for all of the nonsense which came later. The term comes from hystera, the Greek word for uterus, and eminent Greek physicians who followed the teachings of Hippocrates had some funny ideas about this particular female organ.

Aretaeus of Cappodocia describes it thus:

“In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscous, closely resembling an animal; for it moves itself hither and thither in the flanks… it is altogether erratic. It delights, also, in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it had an aversion to fetid smells and flees from them; and, on the whole the womb is like an animal within an animal.”

Scary indeed.

tumblr_kpz8iinokh1qztiu5o1_500Hysteria, or wandering womb, was caused when this fidgeting strange little animal was not sufficiently ‘irrigated with male seed.’ Left to wander too far, it could interfere with the delicate female brain. Hippocrates believed hysteria needed to be treated with smells, foul ones at the nose and perfumed ones around the nether regions, to coax the nomadic beastie back into the pelvis, and recommended regular coupling with a vigorous man. Male seed, after all, would prevent it wandering in the first place.

This ridiculous theory persisted through time. By medieval times they had mixed the flawed science with religion as they did with so many things. Hysteria was the Devil’s work and needed to be treated with prayer or penance. Persistent hysterics might even have to be executed for their lustful, unruly, wayward wombs.

By the 17th century as science began to usurp the power the church had over medicine, treating hysteria rather than punishing it became the norm. But with physicians estimating at least three quarters of the female population suffered sporadically from the malady, treating it became a daily part of every doctor’s life.

It was, in many ways, like lancing a boil. Every physician worth his salt knew that if the poison could be drawn from a festering carbuncle, within a few days the surrounding skin would be back to normal. Hysteria simply needed expunging. If smelling salts or a brisk gallop across the fields on the back of a horse did not work, the most effective way to do that was ‘pelvic massage’- a very scientific term for masturbation. The subsequent ‘Hysterical Paroxysm’ would quickly relieve all of the patient’s symptoms. Thanks to the medieval church, masturbation was still considered a sin in the 19th century and one which would very likely send you blind, but if it was a bonafide medical procedure, there was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was positively encouraged! As a result, doctors earned a fortune doing it for the masses who required it.

This practice was not only widely accepted by the prim and proper 19th century society, it was lauded for its health-giving benefits and the most skilled physicians were inundated with repeat business. Unfortunately, it was time consuming and hard work. Physicians from the time complained about the toll it was taking on their poor wrists and arms. Some women, they lamented, took almost an hour to achieve the necessary hysterical paroxysm, and with so many patients in dire need of their services, the poor fellows were physically exhausted. Some even complained of such persistent symptoms, which today would be called repetitive strain injury, they were unable to work. It went without saying that if a hysteria doctor was not in any shape to be working then he could not reap the bountiful financial benefits from the huge proportion of women suffering from wandering wombs! Something had to be done.

This led to a variety of labour-saving devices being created with the express
purpose of mechanically ‘alleviating’ hysteria while saving the doctors’ joints in the process. And they invented some corkers.

horse-machineGeorge Taylor’s steam powered manipulator involved a coal fired engine in one room connected to a peculiar table-like contraption in another. In the middle of the table was a convenient hole which the hysterical woman sat astride, while the steam made a metal ball vibrate in the cavity. As beneficial as many patients found it, the doctors complained about the amount of coal they had to shovel in the engine, so it’s time was scandalously cut short. There were several hand-wound devices but as they also required the physician’s energy to vibrate, the hunt was on for something easier.

Vigor & Co’s Horse-Action Saddle could be used in the privacy of one’s own home. As could the hilariously named ‘Chattanooga’. I could not for the life of me find a picture of that one, but learned it was almost five feet tall and so cumbersome they mounted it on wheels.

Finally, in 1869, Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville, a man horrified at the idea of using his hands to perform pelvic massage, patented the first electromagnetic vibrator, The Percussor (a term used now for the sort of tools doctors use to test reflexes). The Precussor was the modern precursor to today’s buzzing buddies and was known affectionately–and to its inventors mortification–as ‘Granville’s Hammer’ because it was exactly the right tool for the job!

sears_vibratorsBy the late 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century, a huge variety of vibrating personal massagers came on the market to treat women and they were even widely advertised in newspapers and periodicals, claiming all manner of health benefits and directly aimed at women. They didn’t hide from what it did either. One advertisement in the Sears catalogue of 1903 called a vibrating massager “a delightful companion… that will throb within you”!

Since then, even though the theory of hysteria has been debunked and forgotten, the world continues to feel the good vibrations of Granville’s invention. I just wish I could find a way to put all of this into one of my books!

Virginia Heath writes witty, fast-paced Regency romantic comedies with a modern twist for Harlequin Historical. The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide is out now.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon


Death in the Walls: How Scheele’s Green Poisoned Victorian Britain


The Arsenic Waltz. Punch, 1862. Cartoon mocking the popularity of arsenic dyes.

Now held up by some as people of taste, the Victorians were magpies, associating clutter, knickknacks, and complicated patterns with comfort. Minimalism was not part of the conversation, and behind the dozens of paintings, engravings, and reproductions you could expect to find on the walls of an upper middle-class household, the walls would be bursting with a kaleidoscope of color.

Mass production allowed people on almost any income to paper and carpet their houses cheaply. Cylinder printing and the development of artificial dye following chemist William Perkin’s discovery of mauveine in 1856 meant that even the most modest of Britain’s houses could be colorful. Elaborate patterns with multiple colors were popular, the brighter the better. Plaids and three-dimensional flower patterns sold well, and many of the more expensive patterns were detailed with gold leaf that would fade to brown with the passage of time. To the modern eye, many of these would be frankly nauseating, and we are not the only people to think so.


The Great Exhibition of 1851. If you listen closely, you may be able to hear William Morris vomiting outside.

As a response to the wildly popular French Industrial Exposition of 1844, Britain held the Great Exhibition of 1851. Intended to showcase industrial design from around the world, it ran from May until October in the Crystal Palace, a temporary structure erected for the purpose in Hyde Park. It was so popular that an estimated six million people–one third of Britain’s population at the time–visited, generating enough revenue in ticket sales to not only cover the cost of the event, but the surplus was used to found the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum. Queen Victoria herself visited three times.

The exhibition was a hit, but not everyone enjoyed it. William Morris attended and according to Liza Picard, he “so deeply, viscerally, deplored the examples of modern taste on view there that he had to leave, and be sick outside.” That’s right, the decorative arts on show at the Great Exhibition were so horrible that William Morris vomited. When he recovered, he got to work. Ten years later he founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Company (later known just as Morris and Co.).

William Morris became a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, a response to the haphazard aesthetic resulting from mass production, cheap materials, and artificial dyes cluttering the nation’s sitting rooms. As a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Morris viewed the middle ages with a certain nostalgia, longing for a time of artistic and moral integrity before the advent of disposable furnishings. He founded Morris and Co. to produce furniture, tiles, textiles, and other household items using high quality materials and traditional methods. Although his ideals were socialist at heart, only the very wealthy were able to afford them at the time. One of their most popular products that remains popular to this day was their wallpaper. Morris’ Acanthus pattern from 1876 was printed with thirty blocks and fifteen different colors of dye.

Decor to Die For


Embroidery Woman. Georg Kersting, 1817

Scheele’s Green was a vibrant, arsenic-heavy pigment so popular it could be found throughout Britain and much of the Continent throughout the nineteenth century. It was used as a dye in wallpaper, carpet, paint, clothing, children’s toys, candy, cake decorations, and artificial flowers. Everyone used it to dye their products, including William Morris. It was so popular, Britain was said to be bathed in it. It is estimated that by 1858, there were one hundred million square miles of Scheele’s Green wallpaper in Britain alone.

As early as 1839, German chemist Leopold Gmelin noted that damp rooms papered with the color produced a toxic acid within the walls and warned the people of Germany against using it by publishing his findings in Karslruher Zeitung, the daily newspaper. Reports of illnesses and deaths in Britain supported his findings.

Soon after Gmelin published his report, four children from London’s Limehouse district tragically fell ill and died of respiratory troubles after their room was papered in green. When the paper was tested, it was found to contain three grains of arsenic per square foot, a lethal dose for anyone, let alone children. Girls employed in the construction of artificial flowers in Clerkenwell were poisoned over time by the arsenic used to dye the leaves.

In 1857, physician William Hinds reported extreme nausea, cramps, and light-headedness every night in his study after he had papered it with Scheele’s Green. Suspecting the paper, he had it removed and his symptoms resolved. He concluded that, “a great deal of slow poisoning is going on in Britain.”

Although arsenic was found in many common products, it was the wallpaper that caused the most serious issues. They didn’t have to lick it to fall ill, either. Wallpaper dyed with Scheele’s Green could poison the house’s occupants slowly by releasing poison dust into the air. The dust was inhaled or absorbed through the skin. The Lancet reported that the playroom of a three-year old boy who had died from it was covered in arsenic dust. His was not the only room full of it; arsenic dust could be found lining the picture frames, shelves, knickknacks, and all of the eclectic clutter that covered the Victorians’ walls and floors.

Unfortunately, Arsenic poisoning could not be prevented by a thorough dusting. In 1891, Italian physician Barolomeo Gosio confirmed the damp and mold living in the wallpaper paste and the walls of the houses metabolized the arsenic to produce a poisonous gas later identified as trimethylarsine.

Throughout the nineteenth century, there were countless reports of related illnesses and deaths. People wasted away in bright green rooms, or died suddenly when green candles were lit. Arsenic is also a powerful carcinogen, so those not poisoned quickly could still face serious health problems over time. The toxicity of the dye was compounded by the fact that windows were kept closed against the pollution in the air outside, keeping the occupants boxed inside walls emitting poison gas.


William Morris’ Trellis pattern (1862) was one containing arsenic pigment

Even William Morris, the champion of quality furnishings, used the pigment in many of his pieces produced between 1864 and 1875. It’s worth noting that Morris also owned Devon Great Consols, the largest arsenic producer in the world at that time, and his profits from it made the founding of Morris and Co. possible. Although his own workers in DGC were frequently ill and periodically dropped dead of lung disease, Morris dismissed the suggestion that arsenic might be the cause. The toxicity of Scheele’s Green had been suspected since the 1830s, but Morris assumed if the danger was real, it would have been publically confirmed. Fortunately, the company that produced his wallpaper, Jeffreys and Co., were convinced enough to change their green dye in 1875. Morris also resigned as director of DGC the same year.

The turning point for Scheele’s Green came in 1879 when a foreign dignitary visiting Queen Victoria became seriously ill in a guest room papered in the color. Victoria was so horrified, she ordered all the green paper to be removed from Buckingham Palace immediately. Following the queen’s example, the public stopped buying green wallpaper or sought brands that used arsenic-free dye. Years after it was replaced with the far less toxic zinc green, Scheele’s Green was repurposed as an insecticide.

After fifty years of deaths appearing to be caused by the wallpaper, the National Health Society drew up a bill asking for a total ban on the use of arsenic in household products in the 1880s. Unfortunately, arsenic production was extremely profitable, and the bill was rejected by the physician MP who received it. Parliament dismissed it and did not discuss it again.

No legislation was ever passed in Britain preventing the production of arsenic wallpaper.

Happy Halloween,

Jessica Cale


Ball, Philip. William Morris Made Poisonous Wallpaper. Nature, June 12th, 2003.

Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home. Norton, 2003.

Haslam, Jessica Charlotte. Deadly Decor: A Short History of Arsenic Poisoning in the Nineteenth Century. Res Medica, Journal of the Royal Medical Society. Volume 21, Issue 1.

Meharg, Andy. The Arsenic Green. Nature, June 12th, 2003.

Paterson, Michael. Life in Victorian Britain. Constable & Robinson, 2008.

Picard, Liza. Victorian London. St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Further Reading: If you’re curious about The Great Exhibition, click here to view Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851 online. Loads of wonderful colored illustrations.


Attempted Mass Murder at Sea: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson


Map of route through the Bahamas. Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853). Used with kind permission of Collectie Tresoar

When 208 passengers boarded the William & Mary in March 1853, they had no idea of the drama that would ensue after the ship set sail from Liverpool for New Orleans, or that violence and murder were in their future. Captained by the relatively inexperienced Timothy Stinson, it soon became clear to the emigrants that they were in a very vulnerable position, not least because the crew refused to give them enough food. Fourteen died as they crossed the Atlantic, a relatively high mortality rate, due in part to Captain Stinson’s failure to engage a ship surgeon for the voyage. Instead, when people were confined to their berths with fever, he consulted a pamphlet he carried in his breast pocket and prescribed them bacon, which did precious little to help those suffering with measles and typhus below deck.

Many captains skimped on surgeons and provisions, and got away with it, but it was when the ship reached the Bahamas that Stinson’s true character – or lack of it – was revealed. He chose to sail through the treacherous shallows of the New Bahama Channel, an area notorious for its hazards and shipwrecks, and the William & Mary was soon impaled on a rock. The ship was washed onto another rock nearby then an enormous wave freed her, allowing the water to pour in through the hole in the hull. They were sinking.


Lotgevallen van den Heer O.H. Bonnema (1853)

Stinson strode about the crowded deck in his slippers, threatening the emigrants with his own desertion, and lying about the depth of water in the hold, doubling it and panicking the passengers. The exhausted emigrants pumped through the night while the crew devised a plan of escape and quietly removed provisions (and themselves) to the least leaky lifeboat. The distress flag was taken down from the mast and hidden, ensuring that any passing sailors would assume all was in hand, and while the passengers were distracted, Stinson changed his slippers for boots and abandoned ship. Some of the unlucky emigrants attempted to follow, swimming for the lifeboat, only to be hacked at with hatchets and murdered before their families’ eyes. The captain stood, raised his hat, and called “Friends, may you fare well” as his crew rowed him to safety.

Stinson’s lifeboat was soon picked up by a ship on its way to New York. He reported the William & Mary as lost before his eyes, then disappeared when journalists pressed for details. The New York Times of 18 May 1853 smelled a rat:

“…the cause [of this wreck] is traceable to culpable negligence and carelessness. Had the officers in charge kept a bright watch for dangers, there is nothing to indicate that the reef might not have been avoided; had the Captain taken more effective measures for the preservation of his passengers and his papers, the loss would have been less serious. And, finally, the silence and speedy exodus of Captain STINSON argues that there is little to be offered in extenuation. That a sea-captain should coldly report that his vessel had ‘gone down’ and ‘it is supposed that all on board perished,’ is altogether too systematic and provokes disagreeable emotions. It was at least due to the public that a statement duly authenticated by the survivors, should have been prepared and published by the Master, before he found it convenient to leave New-York for his home in Bowdoinham. If there is a reason for this silence, or an explanation for this seeming carelessness, the public will be glad to hear it.”

Newspapers gave brutal assessments of his character, and the Irish newspaper the Freeman’s Journal of 31 May 1853 referred to the incident as “convincing proof of the cowardice or insensibility of Captain Stinson”.

Why, in a time of chivalry and strict salvage laws, would this captain and crew have done such a thing? It is impossible to tell for sure after over 160 years have passed, but it appears as if Captain Stinson, whose father-in-law was part-owner of the ship, was attempting to bury all evidence of his mistakes – and save the owners money while he was at it. If the passengers died, little or no compensation would have to be paid out, and by leaving the people in his charge on a sinking ship with no provisions Stinson could be reasonably sure that only his version of events would survive.

He must have been shocked to the core to find his attempt at mass murder had failed.

“No news item of the month has been so worthy of rejoicing over, as the intelligence of the rescue and safety of the emigrant passengers of the ship William and Mary, wrecked amongst the Bahamas on its way from Liverpool to New Orleans. About one hundred and seventy human beings, given up to the waves and monsters of the deep, rescued by wreckers, it seems, while their sinking coffin was tumbling about among rocks and breakers and just ready to make the fatal plunge, are thus happily saved.” (Spirit of the Times, 7 June 1853)

Thanks to the courage of a crew of wreckers who saw the sinking ship two days after the hull was holed, and the perseverance and sheer will to survive of those on board the William & Mary, the majority of the emigrants were saved. The cowardice of Captain Stinson did not kill them, and the story of what happened on this ordinary emigrant ship full of extraordinary people is lost no longer.

The Lost Story of the William&Mary - Gill Hoffs - hi res image.jpgGill Hoffs is the author of Wild: A Collection (Pure Slush, 2012) and two shipwreck books, The Sinking of RMS Tayleur: The Lost Story of the ‘Victorian Titanic’ (Pen & Sword, 2014, 2015) and the recently released The Lost Story of the William & Mary: The Cowardice of Captain Stinson (Pen & Sword, 2016). She lives in Warrington, England, with Coraline Cat. If anyone has any information regarding these shipwrecks and the people involved, they can email her at gillhoffs@hotmail.co.uk or find her on twitter @GillHoffs.


Cleopatra’s Eyeliner (Recipe)


Men and women pictured wearing eyeliner in the tomb of Nakht, 15th Century BC.

Not only were cosmetics used in Ancient Egypt, but they were considered to be so important that they were among the few items buried with the dead for use in the afterlife. The Egyptians were remarkably advanced and along with face masks and exfoliants, they also had effective anti-aging cream made from frankincense (an anti-inflammatory) and puncture tattooing not unlike what we use today. Perhaps the most famous of Egypt’s contributions to beauty, however, is eyeliner.

Eyeliner, or “kohls,” were worn by men, women, and children of all social classes. They were black or green, and made from galena (ore of lead) or malachite (green ore of copper) mixed with oil and applied with wood or ivory. Kohls were believed to have healing properties by invoking the protection of Ra and Horus, and may have actually worked to prevent disease. Eye infections were common when the Nile flooded, but the lead-based makeup was so toxic that it killed infection before it could reach the eye. In addition to its antibacterial properties, the copper ions in the malachite protected the eyes from sunburn.

Although eyeliner was very common, today we probably most associate this iconic style with Cleopatra, a woman of such legendary sex appeal she is still very much a presence in popular culture today. Plutarch tells us that she was not exactly a beauty, but her presence and charm made her irresistible. Goodness knows it would take both to win over both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and pass yourself off as the reincarnation of the goddess Isis. She had mad language skills (speaking at least nine languages), a signature scent (henna oil), and wicked awesome eyeliner.

This Halloween, why not have a little fun with history and make some Egyptian eyeliner? Whether you’re rolling yourself in a carpet to seduce a foreign dignitary or just passing out candy to trick-or-treaters, give yourself a little ancient world smolder with this modernized recipe developed from Sally Pointer’s in her magnificent The Artifice of Beauty.

Fortunately for us, this recipe does not include lead or anything known to be toxic. Before applying anything to your face, please do a patch test on your arm in case you are sensitive to any of the ingredients. You don’t want to mess around with your eyes!

img_6542Kohl Paste

2 teaspoons of cosmetic grade black iron oxide
1 milliliter of liquid gum arabic*
.5 milliliter of vegetable glycerin
.5 milliliter of boiled water, cooled
Small sterile jar

Mix the gum arabic and glycerin into the iron oxide powder, then add water a drop at a time until the mixture turns into a smooth, thick paste. You can apply it immediately or allow it to set.

*Pointer’s recipe uses ½ teaspoon of powdered gum arabic, but I could not find this so I substituted the liquid version.


The Egyptians applied this with ivory or wood, so I used a toothpick (pictured) because I’m difficult. You will probably get better results using an eyeliner brush. I used the toothpick to stipple the liner all around my eyes, and extended the line with the wider end of the pick. This liner is as easy to rub off as put on, so it’s more effective to build it up slowly, allowing it to dry as you go. It dries quickly and the color is very dark. It wears surprisingly well, but will flake easily if you rub it. Mercifully, it is very water-soluble and will come off will come off with soap and water.

img_20161008_201950In addition to the eyeliner, I am also wearing a dark green eye shadow the color of malachite (pictured right). Although depictions of Cleopatra often show her wearing a bright, peacock blue color on her eyes, malachite is actually a vibrant emerald green.

I ordered the iron oxide for this recipe off of Amazon, thinking I could find the other ingredients easily enough around town. Unfortunately, gum arabic is not that easy to track down. After trying several stores, I found some liquid gum arabic in the watercolor paint section of Michael’s. I used vegetable glycerin I found in the skin care section of Whole Foods. All of the ingredients can be found easily online if you have time to order them.


If you don’t happen to have the ingredients lying around, this project might be on the expensive side. The iron oxide was about $13 with shipping, the gum arabic $17, and the glycerin $7. For $40, you could walk into Sephora and buy pretty much any eyeliner(s) you’d like that would deliver similar results and last longer. This is not very cost-effective, but if you want to know what it’s like to fix your own kohl paste and how it feels drying on your face (for research or just curiosity), it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Jessica Cale


Bhanoo, Sindya N. “Ancient Egypt’s Toxic Makeup Fought Infection, Researchers Say”. The New York Times.

Lucas, A. Cosmetics, Perfume, and Incense in Ancient Egypt. 

Pointer, Sally, The Artifice of Beauty.


Suffering in Some Strange Heaven: An Introduction to Laudanum


Illustration for the cover of The Goblin Market. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1862

“– I should much wish, like the Indian Vishna, to float along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, and wake once in a million years for a few minutes – just to know that I was going to sleep a million years more.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge

While the medicinal properties of opium have been known since prehistoric times, it was 16th century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus who first developed laudanum. He discovered that when mixed with alcohol as opposed to water, opium’s pain-killing properties were heightened. He mixed it with crushed pearls, musk, saffron, and ambergris* and called it laudanum, from the Latin word laudare: to praise.

Now thought of as primarily a Victorian drug, laudanum first reached England in the 1660s when physician Thomas Sydenham developed his own recipe. While Sydenham left out the ambergris, the fundamentals remained the same: alcohol and opium was a potent cure-all and in his Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases (1676), he gave it the praise Paracelsus had predicted a century before. Laudanum took off during the eighteenth century and by the nineteenth, it could be found in almost every home in Britain.


“Papine,” an opium tincture

Although the recipe was flexible, it remained at heart an uncomplicated but potent combination of alcohol and opium. It was an over the counter drug cheap enough to be used across the social spectrum and simple enough to be brewed at home. Laudanum was used for an endless list of ailments including but not limited to teething, insomnia, anxiety, nerves, hysteria, menstrual cramps, pregnancy pains, mood swings, depression, stomach upset, diarrhea, consumption, cough, heart disease, and cholera.

It was certainly an effective cough suppressant; related opioids such as morphine and codeine are still prescribed for cough today. It was a potent painkiller, induced deep sleep and vivid dreams, produced feelings of euphoria, and was addictive as it was cheap. Not to be limited to medicinal purposes, laudanum was taken recreationally or mixed with other alcohol such as absinthe to stimulate creativity among artists. Some notable fans of the substance include Dickens, Bram Stoker, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Elliott, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Rossetti’s wife, model Elizabeth Siddal, who tragically died of a laudanum overdose.

Women tended to be medicated more than men, and many opium-derived medications were known euphemistically as “Woman’s Friend.” Likewise, Godfrey’s Cordial, a mixture of water, treacle, and opium specifically for infants was knows as “Mother’s Friend.”

Charles Kingsley describes opium addiction in Alton Locke (1850) as ‘elevation’, a particular problem of women:

“Oh! ho! ho! — yow goo into druggist’s shop o’ market-day, into Cambridge, and you’ll see the little boxes, doozens and doozens, a’ ready on the counter; and never a ven-man’s wife goo by, but what calls in for her pennord o’ elevation, to last her out the week. Oh! ho! ho! Well, it keeps women-folk quiet, it do; and it’s mortal good agin ago pains.” “But what is it?” “Opium, bor’ alive, opium!”

There were several different laudanum varieties available and they could be made at home. It was dreadfully bitter, so sweeteners like honey and spice were added to improve the flavor. Sydenham’s recipe from 1660 was still in use by the 1890s when it was published in William Dick’s Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes:

“Sydenham’s Laudanum: This is prepared as follows: opium, 2 ounces; saffron, 1 ounce; bruised cinnamon and bruised cloves, each 1 drachm; sherry wine, 1 pint. Mix and macerate for 15 days and filter. Twenty drops are equal to one grain of opium.”

Dick’s Encyclopedia contains dozens of recipes for homemade laudanum, and even more for other remedies containing opium. As relatively appealing as cinnamon and cloves sound, by the 19th century, laudanum could also be mixed with mercury, ether, chloroform, hashish, or belladonna; if it didn’t kill you, it would make you see some very interesting things.

Whether or not the malady justified the use of such a powerful drug, laudanum and other opium derivatives were used frequently and without a great deal of hesitation. It was a good cough suppressant, kept children quiet, and induced restful sleep. Rhapsodic descriptions of its effects make it sound like magic.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde conveys the horrors and pleasures of an East End opium den in a single paragraph (it isn’t exactly laudanum, but it’s the same active ingredient):


Opium Smokers in the East End of London. Illustrated London News, 1874.

“As Dorian hurried up its three rickety steps, the heavy odour of opium met him. He heaved a deep breath, and his nostrils quivered with pleasure. When he entered, a young man with smooth yellow hair, who was bending over a lamp lighting a long thin pipe, looked up at him and nodded in a hesitating manner. […] Dorian winced and looked round at the grotesque things that lay in such fantastic postures on the ragged mattresses. The twisted limbs, the gaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes, fascinated him. He knew in what strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells were teaching them the secret of some new joy.”

Strange heavens aside, laudanum was not a friendly substance. In 1889, The Journal of Mental Sciences published what was purported to be an anonymous letter by the wonderful title of Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker which describes at length her experience of addiction:

“It got me into such a state of indifference that I no longer took the least interest in anything, and did nothing all day but loll on the sofa reading novels, falling asleep every now and then, and drinking tea. Occasionally I would take a walk or drive, but not often. Even my music I no longer took much interest in, and would play only when the mood seized me, but felt it too much of a bother to practice. I would get up about ten in the morning, and make a pretence of sewing; a pretty pretence, it took me four months to knit a stocking!

“Worse than all, I got so deceitful, that no one could tell when I was speaking the truth. It was only this last year it was discovered; those living in the house with you are not so apt to notice things, and it was my married sisters who first began to wonder what had come over me. By that time it was a matter of supreme indifference to me what they thought, and even when it was found out, I had become so callous that I didn’t feel the least shame. (…) My memory was getting dreadful; often, in talking to people I knew intimately, I would forget their names and make other absurd mistakes of a similar kind. As my elder sister was away from home, I took a turn at being housekeeper. Mother thinks every girl should know how to manage a house, and she lets each of us do it in our own way, without interfering. Her patience was sorely tried with my way of doing it, as you may imagine; I was constantly losing the keys, or forgetting where I had left them. I forgot to put sugar in puddings, left things to burn, and a hundred other things of the same kind.”

While this anonymous writer did recover, laudanum addiction was difficult to beat. People became tolerant to it quickly, and recovery was more likely to be achieved by tapering doses. Although laudanum was a common cough suppressant, it could work too well by causing shortness of breath and respiratory depression, or keeping the user from breathing at all. It can also inhibit digestion, cause constipation, depression, and itching. It was so potent that it was easy to overdose accidentally as an adult, and many infants and children died from it, as well. Tragically, it was also a common method of suicide.

laudanumWe might not understand the appeal of such a debilitating and ultimately lethal substance, but for most people in the nineteenth century, laudanum must have felt like a godsend. Disease, poverty, and hunger were widespread, and those lucky enough to be employed suffered through long hours in terrible conditions to earn their pittance. Even for the wealthy and well-to-do, Britain was cold, wet, and overrun with discomforts that may necessitate its use. Menstrual cramps, insomnia, anxiety, nerves, cough, stomach upset, cholera, tuberculosis — if one drug could treat them all and that drug happened to be miraculously affordable and so common there was little to no stigma attached to it, there was no reason not to rely on it from time to time.

Laudanum is still in production today, but it is no longer available over the counter. Now referred to almost exclusively as Tincture of Opium, it is listed as a Schedule II substance due to its highly addictive nature and is used for stomach ailments, pain, and to treat infants born to mothers with opioid addiction.

Jessica Cale


Anonymous. Confessions of a Young Lady Laudanum-Drinker. The Journal of Mental Sciences January 1889

Berridge, Victoria. “Victorian Opium Eating: Responses to Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England,” Victorian Studies, 21(4) 1978.

Dick, William B. Encyclopedia of Practical Receipts and Processes. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, Publishers, 1890.

Diniejko, Andrzej. Victorian Drug Use. The Victorian Web. http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/science/addiction/addiction2.html

Kingsley, Charles. Alton Locke (1850).

O’Reilly, Edward. Laudanum: A Dose of the Nineteenth Century.

Sydenham, Thomas. Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases (1676)

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).

*presumably crushed diamonds would have been too extravagant