The Quack Philanthropist

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

For every illness there is a perfect cure.

Not really. But it’s what the Quacks would have you believe.

For as long as anyone can remember, the quacksalvers have been trying to hawk their wares. It’s a Dutch term from around 1570 according to Wiktionary, quacksalver. It means ‘hawker of salve’.

When you’re really poorly you want to believe that there is something which will put it right, once and for all. And if you’re the sort who has money to spend on quacksalve, you might very well do so, in a desperate attempt to make yourself well.

There is evidence that ‘letters patent’ were issued by royalty to those peddling remedies. according them respectability by association. History records Andersen’s Pills,which were first made in England in the 1630s, allegedly pilfered from Venice by a Scotsman who claimed to be King Charles I’s physician. In 1614 a Leicestershire clergyman, Thomas Daffy, invented Daffy’s Elixir: an elixir of life.

And it used the newspapers of the day to advertise, and guaranteed itself longevity indeed: for Daffy’s elixir was used to treat anything from kidney stones to convulsion and indeed consumption.

How did it endure, when it clearly did absolutely no good whatsoever?

I’ll tell you how: marketing.

Pamphlets spread the preposterous claims far and wide, as did advertising in newspapers as they began to emerge. If it’s written down in the paper, it must surely be true.

With a new century came a new breed of quack. Thomas Holloway’s parents were bakers in Devonport, and later moved to Penzance in Cornwall to manage the local pub, the  Turks Head. As for Thomas, he went to France for a while, and dabbled in import/export, as you do. And that brought him into contact with an Italian who made his money-making a general purpose ointment.

Two can play at that game, Thomas thought, and he set up a lab in his mum’s kitchen and began making potions. And once he had ointment and pills, he started spending huge amounts of money on advertising: some £5,000 in five years, a king’s ransom at that time.

He grew rich beyond the dreams of avarice.

But he was a paternalistic quack. His vast wealth must be spent, he resolved, on a gift to the nation.

Actually, two gifts.  He enlisted the services of architect William Henry Crossland to create a women only college, dubbed Royal Holloway, and hung on its walls masterpieces of international importance.

And nearby, he had a hospital built by Crossland: Holloway Sanatorium.

Its patients were not just anyone, you understand. The poor had many asylums built already and funded by charities. The rich could afford care; but the middle classes could not. Thus, the hospital was built for “the professional breadwinner whose income ceases when he is unable to work”.

I am still reeling from the fact that the Commissioners in Lunacy ever existed. They did; and they and their architects helped Holloway and Crossland create something very special indeed. “An asylum,” their edicts dictated,  “should be placed on elevated ground and should command cheerful prospects, should be surrounded with land sufficient to afford outdoor employment for males, and exercise for all patients, and to protect them from being overlooked or disturbed by strangers.”

And so it was built on Holloway’s own land, high on the hill at St Anne’s Heath, Virginia Water. It was to be visible from another of the century’s miracles, the railway and Virginia Water Station.

It was a very beautiful building, funded by one of the greatest, and indeed, richest quacks the British Isles has ever known.

Who would have predicted that a humble tincture could spawn such a wonder?

And all using the power of advertising.

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34 thoughts on “The Quack Philanthropist

  1. A nother passage? in Holloway

    It amazes me how gullible we people are. We have a problem, someone offers an instant solution, we fall for it.

    1. Yes, you spotted it: I’ve been ruminating on passages in mental hospitals and for a Victorian one, this is rather beautiful inside. Even more now, that the whole place has been turned into a gated settlement for millionaires.

      You are so right. This quack became one of the richest men in Britain, off the back of the gullibility of the British people.

      1. How interesting that it has become a different type of ‘safe place’.
        I wonder if being wealthy is a different type of madness, after all once you have enough to live on for the next 100 years, what makes people chase “wealth” on and on?

  2. At least this quack gave back to the society that made him wealthy! Had no idea about the word’s origin Kate, Thanks…again 🙂

  3. “Pamphlets spread the preposterous claims far and wide” – and don’t they just continue to do so to this day – there are whole TV channels dedicated to this garbage, playing to people’s desperations. At least Thomas gave back to a society he had conned.

    1. Absolutely, Penny. The corridors here, I suspect, might be rather nice. Pictures of the inside are incredible, if a bit Victorian and over-the-top. I shall find out the next time its custodians, English Heritage, negotiate with its owners – Octagon Developments – to open it up and offer tours.

  4. The thing about quackery is, that if enough people believe and there is an improved sense of well being then the medicine can be said to work. How nice that the gentleman in question indeed used his wealth to benefit others. Hmm I wonder if ethically that frees him from the initial quackery crime? I understand that when Coca Cola first came out it was sold as a remedy rather than just good old pop.

  5. I’m fascinated! Imagine ill-gotten gain (perhaps more literal than I intend) being used philanthropically. What a relief that this kind of nonsense wouldn’t possibly pass today. One of my favored sayings is “we don’t all spell integrity from the same dictionary.” This was a rich story, Kate!

  6. What fun! I’ve spent some time camped out on a dormitory floor at the Royal Holloway – I wish I’d known it’s history at the time. And the birth of the term “quack” being not only Dutch in origin, but also connected to a bloke named Daffy… The things one picks up here, Kate 🙂

  7. I wonder if he cured anyone through the “placebo effect”? They BELIEVED it would help so their bodies manufactured the cure needed?

    Wonderful post about quackery, Kate.

  8. Kate, quacksalver sounds much more genteel than what we’d call Holloway on this side of the pond: snake oil salesman. It also sounds like it could be the name of a new band or a band of Monty Python wannabe’s.

  9. Really interesting. Although I was familiar with Holloway College, I had no idea how it came into being. Don’t tell me decided on building a womens’ prison for the middle class after the success of the Asylum:)

  10. Quacksalver. I like that. Just think if Mr. Holloway had been able to advertise on TV! He would be the owner of a multi-national corporation. I think a number of our American politicians should be called quacksalvers. They are certainly peddling quacksalve to the masses.

  11. Some things never change, Kate. Now we have internet ads that promote: “Doctors fear me,” “a cream that will make your wrinkles disappear,” and many others. Nice to know, though, that he did do some good with his earnings.

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