Chosen by Janet Pennington, researcher
Red herrings can be the bane of research and in the mid-1980s, searching for something else in the Wiston Archives Catalogue (1975), I glimpsed a reference to a late 17th century booklet of clinical prescriptions and receipts [recipes], author unknown. Many hundreds of Wiston documents have passed under my scrutiny since 1978, at WSRO, Kent Archives and elsewhere, but none has caught my imagination as much as this one which includes a cure for kidney stones:-
Take the renes [kidneys] of a red Herreing and set them into an oven upon a sheet of paper… drie them until they will beate to a pouder… white [wine]… drincke it…
Take in summer 30 of the best and yellowest frogges, and put them into an earthen pipkin and put as much oyle olive as will cover them and set them on an embers…
I could not resist ordering up this document, little knowing how much time would be spent on its analysis, and the interesting events it would bring into my life over the next few years. It was coverless, the surviving 28 pages hand-sewn together, the last few torn and damaged by damp. It is written in a transitional Secretary/Italic hand – I would date it a little earlier than the ‘late 17th century’ and indeed it came to feature in many of my palaeography classes with CCE at the University of Sussex.
Eventually I transcribed 46 ‘receipts’ which included more than 20 drinks, six poultices, three powders, two kinds of lozenges, two baths, two oil dressings and two rubs, together with jellies, ointments and eyewash. Thirteen items were copied almost verbatim from Gerard’s Herbal (1597). To begin with I had no idea what bezoar stone, bone of hart’s heart or crabs’ eyes were, and was fascinated to see that the slime of red house snails bound together some of the potions.
In 1982-83 I had undertaken a Diploma in English Local History at Portsmouth Polytechnic. I kept in touch with several of the other students, including chemist John Steane from the Isle of Wight who became the President of the British Society for the History of Pharmacy in 1986. When I was preparing my article on Wiston MS 5423, ’Red Herrings: Some 17th Century Prescriptions, West Sussex History, (May 1987), 9-17,* I sent him a draft copy for his interest.
To my surprise, this led to an invitation to give a paper at the 1987 Spring Conference of the BSHP at Shanklin, IOW. I joined the Society for several years and with my friend and colleague Joyce Sleight visited the Museum of Pharmaceutical History, then at Lambeth.
After the Conference Mr George Gunthorpe, the Treasurer, wrote to me with information about some of my queries. In particular ‘crabs’ eyes’ – which I had already discovered were round concretions of carbonate of lime found in the stomachs of crayfish and other marine ‘beasties’ – which Mr Gunthorpe used to sell in his pharmacy in the 1920s. Indeed he said he could still sell me some! They were difficult to obtain and he had sometimes made his own from chalk…
I sent a copy of the WSH article to Mr John Goring ((1907-1990), then the owner of the Wiston Estate. He replied that heretofore he had little idea of the existence of the document (having deposited it at WSRO amongst thousands of others). He wrote:-
I do not know who I sympathise more with, the womenfolk catching and boiling up ‘the best and yellowest frogges’; or the wretched man who had to take the potion to cure his tennis elbow…Please let me know details of any further red or fresh herrings.
*[Please Note that the Wiston MS number has been misprinted in West Sussex History on the captions to illustrations on p.10 and p.15 of my article; also footnote nos 19-22 have been omitted in the text on p.16, though they are in the References section.]