The physician is in…

For children today being ill means skipping school, staying snuggled up under a blanket and watching cartoons, whilst your parents bring you all manner of hot drinks and soups, dishing out comforting hugs. But for the children of the Apprentice House at Quarry Bank, being ill meant a visit from Peter Holland and a brief respite from darting amongst the machines at the mill.

The Apprentice House Dormitory at Quarry Bank Mill, a National Trust property

Peter Holland had been the Greg family physician since 1795, but Samuel Greg quickly hired him to examine the new children who were brought to the Apprentice House to check their suitability for work at the mill, and their care thereafter. For his services Peter Holland was paid 12 guineas per year, and his appointment is believed to be the earliest known employment of a factory physician anywhere in the world, was still relatively unusual at the beginning of his career at Quarry Bank.

Historians, such as Mary B. Rose, have used the presence of Peter Holland as evidence for Samuel Greg’s benevolent attitude of care towards his workers, but of course we must not forget that healthy workers meant more productive workers and therefore more profitable workers.

In the Georgian era, the medical world still prescribed to the ancient humoral understanding of the body and medicine, which focused on the way in which the fluids in the body were perceived to interact with each other and the elements; air, earth, water, fire. These humours were; blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. In 1541, Sir Thomas Elyot wrote The Castel of Health in which he described earth to be cold and dry, water to be cold and moist, air to be hot and moist, and fire to be hot and dry. Elyot informs us that we can decipher which element is predominant in a person by examining their complexion, for instance if you had a full head of red hair, a temper, and large veins and arteries then you were known to be Sanguine, and air was the predominant element in your body.

So long as these elements remained in balance you could expect to be in good health, but if you fell ill it was due to an imbalance of your humours. The main humoral treatments caused expulsion of ‘morbid matter’ from the body, including blisters (ouch!) emetics (which caused vomiting – lovely!), poultices, and of course the predominant method of purging; blood-letting. (Enter stage left: leeches).Medicine in the treatment room of the Apprentice House at Quarry Bank Mill

We are lucky enough to have in our possession the transcripts of Peter Holland’s treatment book from 1804-1827 and 1827-1845, and whilst the illnesses of the children are not listed we can deduce that from the treatments prescribed that he was responding to their illnesses through a humoral understanding of the body, and he prescribed many of the treatments listed above. These records have been recognised by the World Health Organisation as the first records of industrial health.

In April 1804, he ordered that Abigail Myers should “take an emetic this afternoon and in the morning a little senna tea.” (Senna tea was used to “open the bowels”). Many of Peter Hollands’ treatment included the prescription of emetics and powders in an attempt to release the evil humours from the children’s bodies.

In December 1827, poor William Metcalf had to suffer the treatment of “a blister to the side; and go on with the salts. Let him take ten drops of antimonial wine“, antimonial wine being an emetic. It seems that this treatment did not work, for William appears in several entries over the next week and it seems he was suffering from a cough;

“Let him take one of the anodyne pills every four or five hours – or whenever the cough is particularly troublesome. At night he may take the following draught: laudanum six drops, antimonial wine fifteen drops… elixir twenty drops –  water two table spoonfuls. Mix.” A few weeks later it seems the treatment finally worked for William is no longer listed in the treatment book.

On February 4th 1824 it seems Peter Holland had a preference for using leeches that day for Sarah Meat and Thomas Greenhall were to have leeches applied to their necks and William Davies was to “lose ten ounces of blood. Let him have two opening pills tonight and some salts and senna in the morning” – no doubt they were all left feeling incredibly woozy! Treatments were prepared for the children of the Apprentice House at Quarry Bank Mill


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