Oxhill News

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South Warwickshire, England.

The Oxhill News

April 2012

This months News



Village History - Herbal Medicine

An excerpt from an edition of The Methodist Magazine in 1832 gives an obituary for a Mrs Mary Ward of Oxhill who had died “at an advanced age”. (She was only 72, not so very advanced by the standards of today).  Mrs Ward is described as having been “distinguished through a long life for her cordial attachment to, and liberal support of Wesleyan Methodism.  She had considerable knowledge of pharmacy; which she cultivated and practised solely for the purpose of charity.”

Mary Ward (nee Corbitt of Quinton), was the widow of John Ward of Oxhill House, who had predeceased her in 1819.  Her husband, one of a dynasty of John Wards, left Payn’s House in trust for his wife’s use during her lifetime, and thereafter for their son, the next John in line. The house was to become at sometime during this period a Methodist boarding school, but as there is no mention of it in Mary’s obituary, I am presuming, for the moment at least, that this started after her death.   

Mary’s interest in pharmacy is interesting, for in the days of much disease, and little treatment, prayer and herbal medicine were the only hopes of cure. I wander here into speculation, but there are many old plants in our garden that historically have a medicinal use, and are perhaps typical of those used by Mary Ward.  Placed in the traditional position by the wall outside the front gate – (how sensible, it would become invasive inside) – there is a row of the greater celandine, used for warts and eye complaints.  In the garden itself, we have freely seeding alchemilla, for compresses for healing wounds and reducing inflammation: also foxglove from which comes the drug digitalis, used for heart complaints. There is sweet violet too, infusions of whose root and flower which can alleviate eczema, be a mild laxative, help with catarrh, bronchitis and soothe nerves.  (And here have I been going to Boots all these years!) The greater mullein can be used as an expectorant, and in infusion for earache. Feverfew aids melancholy and headache, and is a mild sedative.  The opium poppy’s name suggests its use, and it can be used as a painkiller.  Colds and fevers can be treated by an infusion of catmint, also used as a mild sedative, for headaches and upset stomachs.  Jasmine is good for nerves.  It may be that we have some clumps of onion grass simply because it is a pernicious weed, but its bulb is antimicrobial, and can be used as a diuretic or general tonic. 

For all its benefits, herbal medicine had its limitations, and life without antibiotics could be unpleasant and life-threatening.  In a series of letters between two of Mary Ward’s sisters-in-law, (married and living away from Oxhill), one letter of 1793 reads “We have had a sad affair with my Son’s leg: everything we applied made it worse and when the hot weather set in, it inflamed and run down his leg and almost up to his knee with small pimples that discharged water.”  A Mr Sheward was sent for, who had cured a bad leg for a neighbour of theirs).  He ordered them to cover the leg with plant leaves which “drew it amazingly, brought off almost all the skin, and when the liniment was applied it was like a raging fire, and strange work we had with him the next morning……!”  The son does seem to have made a slow recovery, but without Mary’s undoubted skill, I don’t think I shall be opening the Payn’s House Pharmacy any time soon!

Ann Hale

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Last modified: April 11, 2012