Fashion and Passions in the 18th Century Garden

Our speaker on June 8th 2202 was Marion Standing of the Darwin House Trust. Marion has a passion for herb gardens and created others before joining the volunteer gardeners of Erasmus Darwin House, where the garden is very much part of the overall experience of the House.

Scientific insight into Biology was emerging in the 18th century. Ground breaking books were being written, including those by Darwin and other members of the Lunar Society. In the preface of his book "The Botanic Garden" Darwin writes 'View the wonders of my enchanted garden'. This book also included two long poems: "The Economy of Vegetation" and "The Loves of the Plants". This book, published in 1789, became one of the first popular science books.

"The Loves of the Plants" draws on the internationally accepted Linnaean system of plant classifiaction (plant taxonomy). Darwin presented this in poetry. It was popular and exiting, although very flowery, containing many classical allusions. The Cathedral community was shocked by it - Botany was a subject thought only suitable for girls!

The original Darwin House garden would have been unlike that seen today. It was more of a backyard, adjacent to the nearby cottages. Darwin's own Botanic Garden was in the Abnalls, now within the grounds of Maple Hayes School. It was both inspirational and experimental; not just a beautiful place to relax in. Anna Seward, a fellow poet, called it a "little wild umbrageous valley". Water from hard rocks tricked though it; a natural pure spring linked to Lichfield's water supply. The conduit head can be seen near the present Woodland Trust reserve. Darwin bought it with a few acres. In the middle of a huge slope a bath had been built over the spring. This had been part of Dr Floyer's Bath House, established in the 1690s, 70 years before Darwin.

Dr Floyer was an advocate of cold baths and his bath house was for treating his patients. There were originally two baths, with men and women separated by a wall. However, by 1770, only one bath house remained and this was incorporated into Darwin's garden.

The Cathedral Conduit once supplied water to The Close and to Darwin's household. Marion is concerned that many visitors and citizens too are unaware what it is, or its origin. There is a campaign to restore it and provide signage, initially to remove the damaging foliage and create a friendly seated area. This is perhaps an opportunity for the Civic Society to assist?

Whilst Darwin had a practical and extensive knowledge of anatomy and medicine, little was known at this time of how diseases spread and the causes of infection were unknown. Diagnosis was poor. Barber surgeons were able to treat kidney stones, set bones and practice blood letting. Apothecaries were the 'Boots of their day'. With twenty years of practice, Darwin had become one of the best physicians of his day. He felt deeply the suffering of his patients and even lodged them in his house for weeks to provide relief.

Marion then resumed her description of the Garden itself. In 1999 the House was restored and opened as a museum. The garden later became rather dated and, according to Marion, "it had lost its way". The garden was re-designed thematically: the Dyers Garden; the Scented Garden (18th century people were smelly); the Culinary Garden, with herbs for the kitchen and moth repellents; and Doctor Darwin's Medicine Chest, including the herbs used in his practice some of which were imported from South America.

Marion chose a selection of medical herbs, describing their usage and curative properties. Foxglove (digitalis) had long been used for heart problems. In 1785 William Withering published "An Account of the Foxglove and some of its medical uses", which had reports on clinical trials and notes on its effects and toxicity. (He also published a work on Carl Linnaeus but excluded references to sexual reproduction). This was also popular. He allegedly obtained his knowledge of the foxglove from an old Shropshire folk herbalist - for treating 'dropsy' (oedema). In 1785 Darwin submitted a paper to the College of Physicians in London titled "An Account of the Successful use of Foxglove on some Dropsies and in Pulmonary Consumption". Darwin's son Charles had studied dropsy in Edinburgh but had died before completing the course. He had been friendly with Withering. In the late 1770s Wihering and Darwin fell out over their publications (there is a full account in Jenny Uglow's book "The Lunar Men").

The second notable plant, the Opium Poppy Papaver Somniferum was imported in vast quantities. It was the only drug that could be relied on as a pain killer and was used extensively by Darwin. A variety known as the Bread Seed Poppy was grown in his garden; this is used today on poppy seed rolls and had been used since Neolithic times. Laudanum is made from an extract of poppy in alcohol and was regarded by Dr Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), Cromwell's physician, as the "Gift of God". The poppy was effective against many diseases and conditions; including impotence (one grain before bed) and epilepsy. It was used as a sleeping draught for Children. Dover's Powder was a traditional medicine for colds and fever. In 1777, three year old Milly Pole was brought to the Darwin household, 'drugged up to the eyebrows', and recovered. Darwin had prescribed one grain of opium three times a day

Nicotiana Tobacum was needed for various problems (Marion obtained the seeds from Germany): Colds, Typhoid and Cholera. William Hawes (1736-1808) and Thomas Cogan (1736-1818) devised a method of reviving half-drowned people in 1774 with smoke enemas. Smoking kits were situated along the banks of the Thames. Enemas were placed in the victim and bellows pushed the smoke into the bloodstream. In 1774 they founded the Royal Humane Society. Two paintings of this procedure by Robert Smirke (1752-1845), "Before and After - The Young Man Restored to life", were presented to the Society [1]. Nicotine was also used as an essential oil; Darwin used it enthusiastically and gave an account of how smoke should be administered in "Zoomania"; but he had no time for excessive smoking or chewing, considering it a 'noxious drug'.

A member, and fellow volunteer at Darwin House, suggested that pharmacists continue to be valued today, giving advice on forty complaints.

Marion's presentation was enthusiastically received - one of the best this year.

As an example of Darwin's poetic style, the following extract is from "The Economy of Vegetation":

'Winds of the North', restrain your icy gales,
Nor chill the bosom of these happy vales!
Hence in dark heaps, ye gathering clouds resolve!
Dispense, ye lightenings and ye mists dissolve!
Hither, emerging from yon orient skies,
Botanic Goddess! blend thy radient eyes,
Oer these soft scenes assume thy gentle reign,
Pomona, Ceres, Flora in thy train!

This is apparently in the style of Alexander Pope; a late flowering of the Enlightenment, but providing a treasure trove of images and ideas for the emerging romantics; Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth.


[1] See the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol 83, August 1990.

[2] The Derbyshire Record Office at Matlock has supplied information on Darwin; prescriptions and letters to the aristocracy - including "not to drink too much"!

Lorna Bushell
June 2022

The Conduit House

Photo - William Henwood, 2022