Besides being illuminating about the practice of medicine and the attitudes and beliefs of eighteenth-century practitioners and patients, the letters give a vivid insight into the life of a close and affectionate family. (The exception is the step-mother, who the Weekes children were not particularly fond of.) They share advice on what to wear, who to make friends with, medical case histories, and local gossip. They discuss the weather (the Thames is “frozen over in part” in January 1802), horses, tenants, the family business. Hampton’s father scolds him about overspending and going too often to the theatre. It’s the ordinariness of the letters that opens the family’s life up to you, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the detail of what they sent back and forth to one another by carrier.
While Hampton was in London he was given all sorts of commissions from his family, and “Knowles’s waggon” was kept busy transporting goods ranging from the homely to the bizarre. A new carpet for the best parlour “that will not show the Dirt”, a chamber-pot stand, a sofa. Fish – not the sort people eat but counters for games – made of ivory, bone or mother of pearl, they came in various shapes, but fish-shaped ones were most popular.
For his brother Dick, who was interested in mineralogy and botany, came fossils, shells, plant cuttings, the “snout of a sawfish” killed off the west coast of Africa, an elephant’s jaw, and “philosophical ink” – invisible ink. For his sisters fashion advice – ladies are wearing “hair tippets forming a triangle upon, or between ye. shoulders”. Also for the girls lace, sheet music, and a shawl which they divided between them.
Food and drink featured a great deal. From London came a 60 pound-tub of “cambridge butter, excellent for toast”, a barrel of oysters which “I would advise you to eat the evening they arrive”, coconut, figs. To London from the country came hares and pheasants, pears (“eat them as soon as ever they are ripe”), hogs pudding, sausages, apples, and empty barrels to be filled with porter and sent back.
Being a medical family, it’s only natural that Hampton was given orders for medicines and equipment. He sent James Powders, a thermometer, blister salve, forceps, scalpels. He also sent human body parts. Most of them were dissected and prepared by Hampton himself. A femur. A leg and foot – Hampton was going to throw them away but thought he might as well dissect them. An entire “Skelleton”. The testis of a London Bridge watchman – as this specimen was “offensive we could not keep it in the surgery”, Hampton’s father told him. A box of bones with instructions on macerating and bleaching them. The bones of a sailor aged about 30 who died from “inflamm. Of ye. Mucose membrane lining ye. Trachea”. A stomach. To his friend William Borrer a female skeleton “by the Cobham stage” – what an image this conjures!
Eighteenth-century carriers must have been a tolerant breed. Or perhaps they didn’t bother to enquire too closely about what was packed in the baskets and boxes they transported. Imagine the consequences of one of these packages being lost, stolen or falling off the back of the wagon, especially in an age when people detested dissection of corpses and riots against it were not unknown. I can’t imagine Royal Mail showing the same tolerance today!
A Medical Student at St Thomas’s Hospital, 1801-1902: The Weekes Family Letters, John M T Ford, (Medical History, Supplement No 7), (London, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, 1987).