‘Wild-haired and witch-like’: the wisewoman in industrial society
By Francesca Moore
Many of us rely on herbal remedies to maintain our health, from peppermint tea to soothe our stomachs to arnica cream for alleviating bruising. Such is the faith in these remedies that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) has funded alternative medical treatments and specialist homeopathic hospitals. However, in recent years, there has been impassioned debate about the efficacy and risks of alternative medicine. In 2010 The Telegraph reported the British Medical Association’s announcement that its members considered these practices to be ‘witchcraft.’ And in June 2013, NHS Lothian took the decision to cease funding homeopathic treatments. So what are the origins of these controversial set of healing practices? By whom were these skills used and for what purpose?
There are particular regions of the UK where historians have discovered evidence of alternative healing cultures including London, the South West, and Lancashire. Historians already know that wisewomen were important purveyors of traditional healing techniques in pre-industrial times. They were the equivalent of the present-day NHS 24; providing treatments for minor injuries such as burns or cuts and setting broken bones. These practitioners were well known for their work laying out the dead and delivering babies. Often older members of communities, they passed on their knowledge through female networks of family and friends.
Research on the career of one wisewoman working in Lancashire in the early twentieth century has revealed new and unexpected information about the history of alternative healing practices. Nell Racker (1846-1933) was a community midwife, herbalist, and spiritual healer. Nell’s career reveals that despite the challenge from the increasing importance of hospital-based medicine, remarkably, alternative healing networks and practices found ways to survive well into the twentieth century.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, most women gave birth at home with the help of women like Nell who had learned their midwifery skills by being present at births. Working-class women continued to prefer the services of these bona fide midwives, largely because they had built up relationships of trust having been cared for by these practitioners through several pregnancies, and, in the case of Nell, having sought her advice for a range of health problems.
Nell was not only famed for her skill as a midwife, but she was greatly respected as an herbalist. Using ingredients collected from the moors near her home, Nell created herbal ointments and preparations for her clients. We know that these services were extremely popular, with clients travelling large distances and queuing at her door to buy her remedies.
Nell was a truly remarkable practitioner. Her range of services included many of those that historians would expect from a local wisewoman, but fascinatingly they also encompassed more irregular and even controversial services. Nell’s clients told of their delight at her accuracy as a clairvoyant. She had been schooled in psychological healing techniques such as spiritualism and divination by her mother. Spiritual healing work using charms and incantations allowed her to attend to the emotional realm of well-being as well as the physical.
Perhaps inevitably, Nell’s more unusual services led to speculation about her practice and her character. Archival research has revealed that while the local community were impressed by her healing achievements, some also feared her prowess. Allegations of witchcraft were made repeatedly during her career. What is significant about these suggestions is that there is evidence to suggest that Nell may have deliberately encouraged the association of her work with the occult. Observers told of her wild hair and witch-like appearance which only added to her reputation as a powerful healer. Clearly, this wisewoman was not fazed by the categorisation of alternative healing practices as witchcraft.
Nell died in 1933, around the time that hospital-based care, especially for birth, was becoming the norm. Her career spanned an era of remarkable change in healthcare in the United Kingdom, yet her work reminds us of the significance of continuity and local culture in healthcare. Witch or not, what is absolutely clear about this traditional practitioner is that not only her skills in orthodox practice but also her more irregular and controversial work were fundamental to the health of her community. Regardless of speculation about the occult nature of some of her practices, Nell was greatly respected for the skill, discretion, and care she provided for her clients. Her career reminds us that treatments which achieve acceptable results for patients come in many forms and the freedom to choose is important. This is as true today as it was in early twentieth-century Lancashire.
Francesca Moore is Special Supervisor of Studies in Historical Geography at Newnham College, University of Cambridge. She is the author of “‘Go and see Nell; She’ll put you right’: The Wisewoman and Working-Class Health Care in Early Twentieth-century Lancashire” in Social History of Medicine, which is available to read for free for a limited time. Follow her on Twitter @drfplmoore.
Social History of Medicine is concerned with all aspects of health, illness, and medical treatment in the past. It is committed to publishing work on the social history of medicine from a variety of disciplines. The journal offers its readers substantive and lively articles on a variety of themes, critical assessments of archives and sources, conference reports, up-to-date information on research in progress, a discussion point on topics of current controversy and concern, review articles, and wide-ranging book reviews.
Image credit: Nell Racker c.1930. Reproduced with permission from Touchstones Rochdale Arts and Heritage Resource Centre.