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Time for the 'human interest' story of the week: venereal disease. For the past twenty five years the world has been obsessed with HIV: a nasty disease, and a very clever one that gives you a decade of appearing normal and infecting other people before it kills you with the common cold. Syphilis or 'the pox'* was the big concern in Georgian London. It is a corkscrew-shaped bacteria, preferring a warm, damp environment such as the crotch. There are three stages of symptoms ranging from unthinkable sores in special locations, to white, fungal-type blooms, to the final stage where it corkscrews into your bones and brain, leaving you grossly deformed and insane. The first Britons to contract syphilis were the Crusaders but it became widespread when England's naval capability provided international 'travel'.
By the Elizabethan period syphilis was the new leprosy and by the end of her reign Elizabeth had put into place a system of local relief to help people disabled by the disease. Elizabeth's measures to care for the poor continued throughout the 17thC but as the population became increasingly urban, diseases began to concentrate upon the towns. Syphilis was no different. Of course, the natural reaction was to blame the whore you caught it from, which is a bit like putting your 'hand' in the fire and then blaming her because it's still hot. The law-makers of the time were aware of the women who ended up literally sitting in the streets after becoming so sick they could not support themselves by any means, but it was a thorny subject. Their solution was the 'foul' wards in hospitals, but it was unsatisfactory, both for patients and carers. Traditional remedies were the poisons arsenic and mercury, either applied directly to the affected parts, or administered in a manner of unappealing ways. No matter how unpleasant, these cures did not work, and only the natural remission of the disease between stages lead physicians to declare one third of their patients 'cur'd'.
William Bromfield was a doctor In Holborn. His father was a Doctor of Medicine at Oxford and his maternal grandfather had instructed Isaac Newton in anatomy and been William IIIrd's private physician. In 1744 he was elected Demonstrator of Anatomy at Barber-
Surgeon's Hall (a better job than it sounds) and 1755, he became Vice-Surgeon to The Prince of Wales. In 1746, Bromfield began to rustle up a committee to raise money for a hospital concerned only with venereal disease, to be advised by doctors from St George's Hospital (where, co-incidentally, Bromfield had just been elected Surgeon). He was concerned at both the implications of housing the infected with other patients and the moral implications of housing prostitutes and men of 'low moral character' both with each other. Hospital boards had started putting patients of 'low character' in yellow outfits, giving rise to the name 'canaries' for those afflicted with venereal disease, but that was soon recognized as inhuman and stopped.
It is interesting to note that as early as the 17thC, a clear distinction was drawn between prostitutes and 'lewd women'. Historians often lump them together but prostitutes were recognized as a necessary part of society, and of male life. The average age of a first marriage during the 18thC remained fairly steady at around 26. If we take 16 as the beginning of sexual maturity that leaves a decade of abject frustration, or recourse to whores. It is likely all but the shyest or most devout men would've made some arrangement with one, or a few of London's estimated fifty thousand prostitutes.
Bromfield's charitable society was well-patronized, and on the 31st of January 1747, the original London Lock Hospital opened in the fine setting of Grosvenor Place near Hyde Park Corner (it is the building on the bottom left extreme of the map image, just behind what are now the gardens of Buckingham Palace). The engraving in the gallery is a bit hazy, but the large signs on the front read 'London Lock Hospital. Voluntary Contributions.' A Lock Hospital was the old name for a lazar house, thought to come from the French word for rags: loques, and soon there were more opening across London, utilizing old lazar and workhouses. Of course, you had to have a bit of God in your 'cure', so there was a zealot chaplain (Wesleyan Martin Madan), but the care given out was of a high standard, whilst all the time acknowledging that a true cure was not possible. Bromfield was nothing if not resourceful when it came to getting money out of his rich clients for his needy poor: he rehashed at least one old play, The City Match, by Jasper Maine and it was performed at the Theatre Royal in 1755 specifically to raise money for a separate hospital chapel (which gave its name to Chapel Street, SW1). William's brother Thomas was the 'visiting apothecary', charged with dispensing
the drugs they did have available. They also established an 'asylum' in Knightsbridge for women who did not want to go back to prostitution.
Many people see Georgian London as a very inhospitable place to be poor or sick, and whilst there is some truth to this, it is necessary to see that the hospital was acutely aware that almost half the prostitutes they helped had been raised in local workhouses, and saw no alternative to their way of life. The London Lock Hospital was pioneering in providing healthcare and help for a hitherto marginalized section of society. The Hospital treated men as well, but it appears with rather less sympathy. Bromfield died in 1792, popular with his clients, but less so with the rest of the medical population, who weren't impressed with his championing of the venereally afflicted. His hospital and asylum eventually moved to the Harrow Road where they had better facilities, but by then it was the Victorian period and a solution to prostitution and its attendant problems had been found: Tasmania.
* The pox usually refers to syphilis, rather than smallpox.