Water-casting – in Idle!

Uroscopy: an unexpectedly long-lasting practice.   

In 1910 the British government produced a nationwide study, the Report as to the Practice of Medicine and Surgery by Unqualified Persons in the United Kingdom.  It was an attempt to discover the extent of the problem of unqualified practitioners or quacks operating in the country and to estimate how dangerous and widespread such practices were. The report was compiled from the answers given by the Medical Officers of Health of local authorities.

In Bradford, the survey showed that there was every reason to be concerned.  Out of twelve categories of ‘Unqualified Persons’ listed in the Report, Bradford’s Medical Officer of Health had found rising numbers in all but two minor classes.  The truly dangerous operators, such as Cancer Curers, Abortionists, and Venereal Disease ‘specialists’, were all increasingly common in the town.

More surprising was the continued existence of ‘Water-Casters’, who analysed diseases from the appearance of specimens of urine which they had been sent.  This form of medical diagnosis had been discredited by the medical profession at least two centuries earlier, but in Bradford in 1910 they were apparently doing ‘a thriving business’.  But treatment from one of these quacks was not only a waste of money, but was a cause for concern because patients wasted valuable time before seeking legitimate treatment for potentially serious illnesses.

Urine diagnosis, also known as Uroscopy, had a long history, dating from at least the 12th century.  It became increasingly popular, as a painless and non-invasive method of diagnosing disorders of the humors – in fact it could be done without the physician actually seeing the patient, although this was frowned upon by the profession. Books and charts showing the variations in urine colour, consistency, and clarity became widely available.  A special flask, known as a matula, was designed especially for the patient’s urine, the bottle’s shape supposedly reflecting the different areas of the body, and thus contributing to the diagnosis of the problem.

The matula became a symbol of the power of medicine and of the profession, not unlike the stethoscope in more recent times.  It became part of a ritual in which the physician held the matula to the light and rotated it before confidently announcing the patient’s fate. The patient was impressed and assured of the physician’s expertise. 

But medicine, and its attendant theories, moved on, and the art of water-casting became a sphere of activity practised only by quacks. Dr William Buchan, whose Domestic Medicine was a best-seller in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, said

It has long been an observation among physicians, that the appearances of the urine are very uncertain, and very little to be depended on..  No one will be surprised at this, who considers how many ways it may be affected … anyone who attends to this will be astonished at the impudence of those daring quacks who pretend to find out diseases, and prescribe to patients, from the bare inspection of their urine.  These imposters, however, are very common all over Britain, and, by the amazing credulity of the populace, many of them amass considerable fortunes. Of all the medical prejudices which prevail in this country, that in favour of the urine doctors is the strongest.  The common people have still an unlimited faith in their skill, although it has been demonstrated that not one of them has been able to distinguish the urine of a horse, or any other animal, from that of a man.

But the quacks always flourished, especially in the deprived slum areas of towns such as Bradford.  In a Directory of Bradford dated 1853, among several other quacks and alternative practitioners, Ann Jane Atkinson was listed as a “Bone-setter”, but three years later in 1856 she was practising as a “Doctress, watercaster &c“.  This appears to be the last listing for this particular enterprising woman, or for any other water-casters in Bradford.  But of course gullible or desperate sufferers continued to find the quacks by word of mouth. Inquest reports in local newspapers often referred to this as the means of finding unorthodox practitioners.  In court cases arising from the deaths of patients, the cancer-curers, abortionists and others said that friends or family members of the deceased would recommend them. It proved that whatever their speciality was, there was a call or a need for the treatment they offered.

But it was from an unexpected source that I found the description of a water-caster and his methods which diverted me into this local investigation.

Dr Joseph Wright, whose life and work I’ve been researching, was the compiler of the six-volume English Dialect Dictionary, published in the early years of the last century.  From poverty- stricken beginnings, in the semi-rural village of Thackley on the edge of Bradford, he became a world renowned philologist, a Professor at Oxford, and the author of many books on language and dialect.  His wife also wrote books on these subjects, and her Rustic Speech and Folklore published in 1913 included the following tale, which I think explains the continuing success of water-casters – and other quacks – into relatively modern times. 

Elizabeth Wright wrote:

A mediciner [sic] much thought of in parts of Yorkshire was the water-caster.  Perhaps none of them are left now, but certainly well within the memory of the present generation a member of the profession lived in a village near Bradford, where he was frequently consulted for all sorts of diseases and bodily misfortunes.  He pretended to be able to diagnose the complaint from the cast or appearance of the urine, and to prescribe accordingly.  On one occasion he told a woman that he had discovered by this means that her child, on whose behalf she had come, had injured himself by falling down some stairs.  Whereupon the mother, at first unable to trust this astounding perspicacity, put it to the test by asking the number of stairs the child had covered in his fall.  ‘Seven” replied the water-caster.  ‘Your [sic] wreng, Mester,’ said the mother, ‘it wor nine.’  ‘Then you didn’t bring me all the water,’ was the calm rejoinder.  ‘Your [sic] reight, Mester, there, ah didn’t bring it all.’  So the woman went away satisfied that the water-caster was a man of infallible skill.  In reality his marvellous insight was the result of a very simple expedient.  He was only to be seen at certain stated times, hence he always had several patients arriving at the same hour.  He kept them all waiting together whilst he himself remained behind a boarded partition, where he was supposed to be occupied with his scientific researches.  Naturally the various sufferers detailed their respective ills and symptoms to each other, whilst the attentive water-caster secretly noted them down, to reproduce afterwards with some simple medical advice in return for pecuniary considerations”.

I’ve not yet discovered whether this particular water-caster practised his skills in Thackley itself, a place that Joseph Wright and his wife visited frequently. But I have been able to trace an earlier ‘dynasty’ of doctors who lived in Idle, and practised medicine in the area, including water-casting, during the eighteenth century.

The Rawsons were a long established family in Idle; their connection with medicine began early in the 1700s, as this advertisement from the Leeds Mercury shows:

“Dr. Rawson of Idle in the Parish of Calverley keeps a Chamber every Thursday, being the Market Day, in Bradford, at William Tonng’s Sign of the Unicorn, when and where any Person or Persons may have Advice and be furnished with Medicine proper in each Distemper, if curable; if not curable he will not Take in Hand.  Bring your Urine along with you, and to the satisfaction of the Patient he will inform how the Distemper lies, curable or not; he takes no Fees and is very easy with both Rich and Poor.  N.B.  He is to be spoken with at his own House in Idle any Day in the week except Thursdays at Bradford.”

This was the first Doctor John Rawson in Idle, who had established himself as what would much later become known as a general practitioner or family doctor. There is no record of him having any formal qualifications, but both apothecaries and surgeons habitually trained informally through apprenticeships, often with their fathers or other family connections.  This is known to have happened with another family of apothecaries elsewhere in Bradford, and it was probably the same with the Rawsons.  In a generally poor area, few people could afford expensive physicians’ fees, so the local medical men adapted their skills to what people could afford. And if that included the outmoded practise of Uroscopy, that is what the Rawsons were prepared to do.

It was also common practice for doctors to rent a room in an inn of a nearby town on market days, with the aim of building a larger regular clientele, in addition to seeing patients at home during the rest of the week.  With Bradford’s busy market days, there were advertisements or notices in the local newspapers for all manner of quacks and their cures, as well as doctors from the locality.

When the first Dr Rawson died he was described in an item in the Leeds Intelligencer as “the famous Urine Doctor,”  and other comments were made to which his son, also John, took exception.  The newspaper ‘s response was a scathing piece, ridiculing the “young Doctor”, but he survived the acrimony and continued using whatever methods he found popular with his patients. His value as an orthodox doctor are implied by an entry in the 1764 Manningham Township Book, which is the account book for the care of paupers in that township.  Dr Rawson was paid £0.1.6 for seeing a sick pauper from Manningham; no further visits or treatments are listed, and no other details are noted.  But to call in a medical professional from another area was a rare event, especially as he was likely to cost more than the fee charged by whichever local doctor was employed to routinely care for the sick poor of a community. 

The second Dr John Rawson lived and worked in Idle until he died in 1784, aged 56, after, as the announcement of his death declared “a long and tedious illness which he bore with great patience and resignation”.  He was said to have been “very much respected as a neighbour and friend, and was extremely useful in the Medical way to a great number of Patients, who at a very considerable distance frequently applied for his aid”.

In the same column of the Leeds Intelligencer was an additional notice, in which

“DR RAWSON OF IDLE BEGS Leave to inform his Friends and the Public, That having for some Time past carried on the Business of inspecting URINE, and giving MEDICAL ASSISTANCE, in Conjunction with his late Father, he still proposes to continue the Practice.”

Thus the third Dr John Rawson was still committed to “inspecting Urine”, a method of diagnosis that by this date was regarded and denounced as quackery, and the men who still carried on the tradition were known as ‘pisse-prophets’.  However, he also stressed that he had served

“a regular Apprenticeship to an APOTHECARY and SURGEON in the Country, and the Improvement he has been able to make, by a careful and diligent Attention upon the most eminent in his Profession at London, he hopes to be able to serve his late Father’s Friends …”

But all was not well with this latest of the Rawson doctors; although only in his early twenties, he was constrained by ill-health to working only from his house in Idle, and his more distant patients would have travel to him for personal attendance, or go elsewhere, but, he added “he will be happy to  render any Service in his Power, either as an Apothecary, Surgeon, or Man-Midwife, to such as live in his Neighbourhood.”  With the addition of Man-Midwifery to his skills, he would no doubt still be busy travelling around the area of Idle and Thackley, if not further afield.

Unfortunately this last Dr Rawson only lived to the age of 30, and the line of doctors ended, leaving names such as ‘Doctor Lane’ and ‘Rawson Square’ as a reminder of their family’s presence in Idle. During their time they had begun to follow the path that many families of medical practitioners did during the 18th century, starting with little other than fairly basic knowledge, and becoming better qualified at the same time as the governing bodies of the branches of the profession worked towards being responsible for training and examinations.

So if there had been a fourth Dr John Rawson he would have been unlikely to have included being a ‘pisse-prophet’ among his accomplishments.  But he might have been called upon to exercise his medical proficiency and adaptability elsewhere, on his patients’ sick cattle or horses, as happened elsewhere in this area.  Animals were valuable, and a doctor’s skill at diagnosing their injuries or illnesses and prescribing for them would undoubtedly earn him gratitude (and higher fees) from his local clientele.  

For people and for animals, orthodox medicine was certainly the way forward, and as time progressed even the analysis of urine had a scientific basis, and no longer needed a special bottle and a quack to offer useless diagnoses and similarly useless medicines.

Dr H Marvell

Please click on the list below to open another file or return to the Homepage:

%d bloggers like this: