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Susan Hair's 'Legg'

from The Barwicker No. 76
Dec. 2004

In the Accounts of the Barwick Overseer of the Poor's Accounts for 1751 there is the following item of expenditure:

A plaister for Susan Hair's Legg 0. 0s. 6d.

In the following year's accounts there is an item for "a wheel for Susan Hair".

There is no obvious explanation for these two items of expenditure. What was a plaister? What sort of wheel was purchased for her? Was it some form of wheeled conveyance or was it a spinning wheel to allow her to earn a living spinning wool?

In order to put the query to the world at large, I placed the items on the Society's web site under the heading - Can you explain? I asked "Does anyone know what this wheel was for?" The answers started to come in. Nelson E Denton of California e-mailed to suggest that the term plaister probably meant a "pilaster" or wooden leg. The spinning wheel suggestion got his support as well.

An alternative interpretation of the meaning came from Graham Hudson of Dunkirk, Kent, who has contributed two articles to 'The Barwicker' on 'Barwick in the Railway Age' (see Nos. 25 and 27). He noted that plaister, as defined in the 12 volume Oxford English Dictionary is simply an archaic spelling of plaster, meaning an adhesive ointment smeared on muslin or similar material. He added that the cost of sixpence denotes that on this occasion relatively expensive ingredients were needed.

After a long interval we heard this year from Dr Sally Wilde, a historian at the University of Queensland. She replied as follows;

"Whilst browsing your website I noticed a query re a 'plaister' and a 'wheel'. As has already been noted by one of your correspondents, a plaister was a plaster of some form, usually a poultice or an ointment to be bound over the wound or ulcer or 'sore' on the skin. There are several surviving recipes for plaisters which make this clear. Given that this one was for the leg, the obvious assumption about the wheel is that it was some sort of device to aid mobility, but without looking at the context in greater detail, this is clearly speculation. However, infected wounds and ulcers were common in the 18th. century and it is quite likely that something requiring a plaister one year might have resulted in a disability the next. Gangrene, for instance, was usually fatal if the limb was not amputated (and often fatal even if the leg was amputated) and this is just the best known of a range of bacterial infections that were a risk wherever there was a skin lesion."

This gives a rational explanation of the problem. In short, Susan Hair may have had a leg ulcer which turned gangrenous, requiring amputation. The parish may well have provided her with some form of wheeled conveyance to aid her mobility. Is this the first record in the parish of the eighteenth century equivalent of a wheel chair being provided for a handicapped person? We will never know for sure.


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