Professor Paul Salveson is a historian and writer and lives in Bolton. He is visiting professor in ‘Worktown Studies’ at the University of Bolton and author of several books on Lancashire history

Lancashire, during and after the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, was a dirty and polluted place to live. We’ll never know the true toll on people’s lives as a result of atmospheric pollution but it must have been enormous.

There was no NHS. If you were ill you had to pay, unless you were lucky enough to be protected by a friendly society or trade union (which of course you had to pay contributions to). Working in mill, mine or factory didn’t just expose you to physical injury from machinery, but more insidiously the long-term risks to health from airborne pollution.

Allen Clarke, in The Effects of the Factory System, published in 1895, highlighted the appalling results of industrialisation.

He wrote: “It is unhealthy, dangerous, bad for mind and morals, has an injurious effect on family life, unfits women for motherhood, curses the children, and is causing the people of Lancashire to deteriorate.”

Clarke contrasted death rates in Bolton compared with nearby rural districts. The annual death rate in Bolton per thousand of population was 23.49 whilst it was 10.7 in Lytham and 7.3 in St Anne’s. Bolton was a deeply unhealthy place to live and the cost of medical treatment was prohibitive.

An alternative to the high fees charged by ‘professional’ doctors was to go and see the local herbalist.

Herbalism has a history stretching back centuries, being practiced in many parts of the world among what we were taught as being ‘primitive’ societies. They were anything but!

From the middle of the 19th century ‘medical herbalism’ took root in Lancashire’s industrial towns and perhaps nowhere more so than in Bolton. For many years Bolton was the regional headquarters of the National Association of Medical Herbalists, at no. 53 Manchester Road.

TRADITION: Some of the natural medicines at Bolton Market

TRADITION: Some of the natural medicines at Bolton Market

Pre-eminent amongst herbalists nationally, for many decades, was Richard Lawrence Hool whose family business, stretching back to 1868, has only very recently ceased. Hool himself died a century ago on November 8, 1920.

He was born into a working class family at Whittle-le-Woods, near Chorley, on November 24,1847. His father was part of the ‘aristocracy’ of the cotton industry, a mule spinner, though his family were probably handloom weavers originally. As well as being avid readers, philosophers and political radicals, the handloom weavers took a keen interest in botany.

The young Hool accompanied his dad on ‘botanical rambles’ and learnt his expertise and knowledge of plants from his father and fellow-botanists.

He moved to Bolton as a young man and spent much of his life in Farnworth, living at 26 King Street. He became a well known figure amongst Lancashire medical herbalists and was in great demand as a speaker.

One of his students, a Mr T. Ramsden, looked back on one of his lectures around 1890.

He said: “I first became acquainted with Mr Hool 30 years ago, when he came to Hindley to lecture at the Star Botanical Society, and he opened my eyes to the wonders of the botanical kingdom in every direction, and gave a joy to life, and a love of the plant world that will remain with me until the end.”

Hool and his friends combined the collection of plants with their use for medicinal purposes. Typically, groups of them would walk miles into the surrounding countryside to identify and collect herbs.

Hool would often act as a group’s informal teacher, helping his students to discover unusual plants. That same evening the group would study their ‘finds’, name and classify them and identify their possible medicinal uses.

Hool was much more than a local specialist. His fame grew nationally and internationally. He became one of the leading figures in the National Association of Medical Herbalists and was well known and respected in the United States as well as in British universities, including Oxford. He became editor of the national journal of medical herbalists, The Herb Doctor.

Hool’s wife Margaret was also a professional herbalist. Unlike in ‘official’ medicine, women were not excluded from becoming herbalists, though they seem to have been a minority within the profession up until recent times. It was common for working class ‘wise women’ to act as community midwives as well as herbalists.

Scores of working men were indebted to Hool for training them in the skills of medical botany. One was George Worthington, a young miner in Atherton at the turn of the last century. In 1908 his sister was taken seriously ill with a form of dysentery and the doctor had told the family she had no chance of survival.

In desperation he went to see the local herbalists who were meeting in the upstairs room of a local pub. He was given a specially prepared remedy which did the trick within a matter of days.

This stimulated Stanley’s interest in herbalism and he soon met R L Hool himself and became his part-time student while still working down the pit. By 1913 Stanley had become a full-time practitioner in Atherton. By the late 1930s he had a practice at 41 Leigh Road, Atherton. He had three sons, each of whom became practicing herbalists.

TRUSTED: Stanley Worthington, formerly of Atherton was still practicing well into his 80sThis photo was taken in the early 1980s

TRUSTED: Stanley Worthington, formerly of Atherton was still practicing well into his 80sThis photo was taken in the early 1980s

The eldest, Stanley, moved to Davenport, near Stockport, in 1935 where he continued to practice until the early 1980s.

Hool began a family tradition which continued for nearly a century after his death; his nephew inherited the business when Richard Lawrence died in 1920.

Many generations of Boltonians will remember the stall in Bolton’s Market Hall, and more recently on the open market, which kept the Hool family tradition alive.

R L Hool was not the only prominent medical herbalist in the Bolton area. Charles H Hassall practised for many years in Farnworth and was nationally respected; he established his Farnworth business in the 1870s.

STORE: The front of Hassall’s shop on Longcauseway, Farnworth

STORE: The front of Hassall’s shop on Longcauseway, Farnworth

He had three practices in the town, on Longcauseway, Peel Street and Market Street.

The firm packaged ‘D W Herbs’ which became popular locally and nationally, by mail order.

Following his death, the business was continued by his son, Charles Vincent Hassall, who maintained the tradition of advertising in Allen Clarke’s ‘Teddy Ashton’s Lancashire Annual’. Frank Horridge took over the business in 1947 and ran it until 1959; it seems to have ceased trading in 1960.

For many years, the lettering on Hassall’s shop at 11-13 Longcauseway survived, advertising herbal products including ‘D W. Herbs’.

Herbalism remained popular after the First World War and hundreds of working men and women would go out ‘herbing’, sometimes chartering ‘charabancs’ to get out into the country.

As herbs became ever more popular, firms were established to supply local herbalists’ shops in Lancashire. Potters, until recently located in the old Haigh Foundry near Wigan, became a popular choice.

As well as Hool’s and Hassall’s there were other herbalists in the Bolton area – in the post-war years there was a shop on Crescent Road (Great Lever) and other shops in Farnworth.

The coming of the NHS in 1948 posed a challenge to the medical botanists. They were not permitted to practice within the NHS and many felt that that this had more to do with the middle-class medical profession wanting to protect their own fiefdom than any objections based on scientific evidence.

It should be stressed that practicing medical herbalists had to go through a rigorous training and assessment process. This was managed by the National Association of Medical Herbalists. Hool’s books – Health from British Wild Herbs and Common Plants and their Uses in Medicine have long been regarded as almost biblical texts.

Yet despite treatment now being free on the NHS, many working class patients of established herbalists stayed loyal to their ‘community doctor’. Occasionally, tensions between the ‘medical profession’ and the medical botanists spilled out into open war.

The highly-respected Leigh herbalist, Charles Abbott, was dragged through the courts in what became known as The Black Box Trial. The box in question was a diagnostic tool used by Abbott but it was sensationalised by the media of the day. Several doctors testified against him but Charlie was acquitted at Manchester Assizes of the manslaughter of a boy who was taken to him for treatment.

Thirty years later he commented that “all the doctors who gave evidence at his trial were dead, but the patients who gave evidence were still alive and he made his living out of doctor’s failures!” The case was made into a play written by Bolton playwright Neil Duffield and performed by Leigh’s Pit Prop Theatre.

Medical herbalism declined in popularity during the 1960s and 1970s but has had a new surge of popularity through interest in ‘alternative medicine’.

One medical herbalist practicing in Bolton today is Edwina Hodkinson of Darcy Lever. She was delighted to hear about R L Hool having lived in the same area and collected herbs in Darcy Lever over a century ago.

Bolton can be extremely proud of its pioneering record in medical herbalism. Long may it thrive and keep us well, alongside our National Health Service!

Details of Paul Salveson’s new book Moorlands, Memories and Reflections, featuring aspects of Lancashire’s herbalist history, can be found at www.lancashire