Ann S’s story

Although women becoming doctors did not happen until well into the 19th century (Bristol-born Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from medical school in the USA in 1849, London’s Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became a doctor on home soil in 1865, and Dr James Barry, born c1789, spent the first 20 years of his life presenting as female), there were still a few women who worked in healthcare in less prestigious roles.

The tradition of a wise woman, or herbalist, stretches back through time. She would have dispensed folk remedies and health care advice for a lesser price than a doctor, and would have often been the first port of call for women’s health problems.

It was rarer, although no way unheard of, to find a woman who worked as a chemist or druggist, which had more of a medical science nuance to the work and profession. This was a role more often performed by men. However, Chippenham’s Ann Colborne, née Salway, operated as a druggist on the town’s high street for many years in her own right, in the early 19th century. In common with other women who had this position, she had inherited the business from her husband when he died.

Ann had been the wife of town druggist William Colborne, who was from a notable local medical family. They were part of the family that had owned Hardenhuish House. His father had been an apothecary, and he had taken up the profession too, and his son went on to be a surgeon and doctor. On William’s death he had left his shop, drugs and medicines to Ann for her to continue practicing medicine and dispensing if she so wished. She did.

Ann had been born in 1760 in Corsham, to John and Sarah Salway. Baptism records of this time do not give father’s profession, but it’s likely that the family were fairly well off and in good social standing given who she married. She had a brother, Edward, who proved his mother’s will in 1780, so she’d lost her mother by the age of 20.

Her marriage to William took place in 1779, in Chippenham’s parish church. They had three children in fairly quick succession – Sarah in 1781, Frances in 1783 and William in 1785. Most women at this time would have had more than just three children, so the fact that Ann didn’t perhaps indicates why she had more time than others to help her husband out with his work and learn his methods and medicine. This would have been the only formal training she had. The practice at the beginning of her career was unregulated, and the eventual Pharmacy Act of 1868 had 223 women added to the first register for the whole country.

The Universal British Directory of 1791 gives William Colborne as an apothecary and druggist, one of five under that job title in the town. Others under the title “physic” are described as surgeon, apothecary and man-midwife. Ann is not mentioned as having the role at this stage.

Just two years after this, William died. Ann was left with three children aged 12, 10 and 8, as well as William’s business.

She did not have to take on the business if she didn’t want to. William had bought their Market Place-based house outright, allocated her any rent she might draw from it, and had enough money to pay her and the children an amount of money each year that if it was wisely invested should have easily seen her through.

His will, made in 1791 and proved in 1794, says:

“And also my stock of drugs and medicines and shop fixtures if my said wife Ann Colborne shall continue to carry on the business of a druggist but in case she refuses carrying on the said business then I direct my executors hereinafter named to sell and dispose thereof for the most money that they can obtain for the same and the money arising by the sale there if I desire maybe applied towards the putting of my said son William Colborne an apprentice to whatsoever business he may chose as soon as he shall arrive at a proper age.”

It speaks volumes that, even though Ann had no need to take over William’s business, she chose to continue to be the town’s apothecary and druggist. It indicates that she must have enjoyed the work and found it her calling. She ran the business for another thirty or so years.

She’s given as Widow Colborne on the Land Tax records of 1798. The business was also successful enough to pay for her son William to train as a doctor. He is referred to as a surgeon by 1808, and practiced alongside his mother in Chippenham.

Much of Ann’s (and William’s) working life would have been making and dispensing remedies for all sorts of maladies. It could have been anything from easing diarrhoea to making a salve to attempt to treat breast cancer, and anything in between. Probably involving a lot of bloodletting.

The main text in use at the time was The Book of Phisick, which dated initially from 1710 and was added to over the next century or so. It’s held by the Wellcome Collection today. Ann’s remedies would have at least have been based on the advice and ideas given in this book, if not following them closely.

An ague cure from the Book of Phisick, c1710

A remedy for blackhead spots from this book involved nightshade water (presumably a tincture with the plant soaking for a while), red wine vinegar and prunella – a plant sometimes called woundwort. Another remedy to ease sore eyes required heating and condensing urine and dripping it in the eyes as a wash.

Ann’s tools were a vast array of various herbs and plants, spiced wines and oils, many types of animal dung, urine taken from people and animals. Rarer and hard to obtain ingredients might have been ordered from the garden run by the Company of Worshipful Apothecaries in London, which still exists today as the Chelsea Physic Garden. There would also have been appendages – penises, legs, bones on display in the shop, and various exotic powdered substances. The recipe lists for these cures sound more like ingredients of classic witches potions than medicines, but these methods would have been passed down from practitioner to practitioner, and there would have been no scientific testing or controlled trials in the way medicine does today.

A cure for colic, involving powdered rosehips and haws, and white wine.
An ointment for sore eyes, made using cream and urine

On top of all this, Ann would also have provided basic first aid. She’d have dressed wounds and provided salves. The heavier work – amputations etc – would have been performed by her son William as that was considered doctoring. Some of the cures were aimed at livestock too. There’s a reference in an edition of the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette from 20 May 1802 to her stocking Bellamy’s Medicine for the cure of Scouring Cattle.

Her daughter Frances had married a man called John in 1804, and went off to live with him in various different local places – a son was born the following year in Bath, a daughter in a Salisbury Plain village in 1812, and she eventually settled in Devizes.

An Apothecaries Act in 1815 gave practitioners like Ann the licence to practice and regulate medicine, and started to build on the more serious standing of their job in the medical profession. Ann, because she had worked so long at this stage but had no formal training, would not have been part of the Company of Worshipful Apothecaries. However, she’d have personally benefited from the increased legitimacy that this act gave the profession.

Ann’s son William, who she lived with, married Sarah Taylor in 1818. She was the daughter of a Chippenham clothier, who were important within the cloth producing business that ran the local economy. He was 33 and a surgeon. He was apparently much loved as a doctor by much of the Chippenham population.

Ann is given as a druggist, alongside William, on the first proper trade directory of Wiltshire – Pigot’s Directory of Wiltshire – in 1822. She would have been 62 and still working. This would have been considered elderly for the time. A trade directory was a sort of telephone book for an area, but obviously without the telephone numbers at this time as it was long off the time they were invented. They informed people coming into the area who was available for particular life services – lawyers, builders, wheelwrights and so on – and was a way of advertising for more business.

She was also in the same druggist and apothecary position in the 1830 Pigot’s Directory, when she had reached the age of 70. Son William, as well as working as a surgeon, was also attributed in the druggist business.

Her daughter Sarah, who had never married, died in her late 40s in 1831. She had apparently had a severe illness for a long time. Her daughter Francis also died in 1838, over in Devizes.

By the time of the 1839 Robson’s trade directory, Ann had taken retirement and was not operating as a druggist anymore.

The 1841 census finds Ann aged 80, living with her son William and his family – he had nine children in the end – on the town high street. They were probably collecting rent on the house in the Market Place. William was working as a surgeon, and his son William was training to be a doctor, so the family medical profession was continuing.

Ann died in the early part of 1843, aged 82. She was living on the High Street, with her son and his family. She was buried in St Andrew’s churchyard, and her son William paid the death duty. He went on to practice in St Mary Street, and became mayor of Chippenham in 1851. His son William, the third to have that name, also became a doctor and surgeon.

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