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The Plot Thickens

Hi, I’m Karen Meadows. Thank you for visiting The Plot Thickens.

I’m lucky enough to be the tenant of one of fifty large allotment gardens in the middle of the small and beautiful stone town of Stamford in England’s East Midlands. The gardens were first created by Brownlow Cecil, 4th Marquess of Exeter in the mid 1800s and their layout has remained virtually unchanged. Between the plots we have some 200 old apple trees, many of them rare varieties, and in 2017 Natural England awarded the gardens heritage orchard status.

Over the centuries at least 500 people have worked these plots. Follow our quest to discover who they were, what they grew, and what shenanigans they got up to. Be prepared for numerous diversions and musings along the way about gardening life here in our quiet (and occasionally not so quiet) little corner of Stamford.

If you haven’t discovered our website yet, do head over to Waterfurlong Orchard Gardens, where you will find a wealth of information about our gardens and gardeners, past and present.

And now for the small print...

The Plot Thickens is a non-commercial blog. All recommendations are based on personal preference and my own or our other gardeners’ own experience. Payments or free goods are not accepted in return for reviews of products and services. If an exception is made this will be clearly stated.

All words and images, unless otherwise credited, are my own. If you would like to copy text or images, I’d kindly ask that The Plot Thickens gets a positive mention and a link back to this blog.

Recent Posts

This Day In ... 1819


You might remember our post last year about John Swan, the Waterfurlong gardener and veterinary surgeon whose Wharf Road premises were devastated by Stamford's great flood of July 1880. A correspondent on recently told us that John's uncle, the colourful Lieutenant Robert James, had caused a scandal in the town back in 1819. We had to research further!

The son of an Oxfordshire solicitor, in 1809 16 year-old Robert James joined first the Royal Bucks militia and then the 14th Regiment of Foot. In 1815 he was invalided home from Malta on half-pay after contracting plague, which seems to have been endemic on the island. He married John Swan's maternal aunt, Maria Acome, and set up in business as a veterinary surgeon, first in London, then in Grantham, and finally in premises behind the Coach and Horses Pub in Stamford St Martin's (where St Martin's Antiques now stands). Robert probably chose Stamford because of the town's demand for vets to treat the many stage-coach horses passing through and his future looked promising until a competitor threw down the gauntlet in an advertisement in the Stamford Mercury of 7 May 1819:

'T H WATERS, Veterinary Surgeon, Member of the College of Veterinary Surgeons, London, begs leave to inform the nobility, gentry, and public, that he intends practising in the above profession in Stamford, and hopes to merit the patronage of those gentlemen who may please to honor him with their commands, flattering himself that they will not be disappointed of having the strictest attention paid to all animals put under his care. Operations of every description performed. Medicines for Horses, Cattle, and Dogs.

NB In the last published List of the Veterinary College, no such name as that of “R James" St Martin’s appears.'

The following week Robert responded:

'STAMFORD BARON. R JAMES, Member of the Royal Veterinary College, and late of Grantham, begs leave to inform the nobility, gentry, and public in the vicinity of Stamford, that he intends practising in the above profession; and from the respectability of the connexion he has had the honor of serving, he is enabled to give such references as he hopes will merit the attention of a generous public.

NB. An artful insinuation having appeared in an advertisement last week, R James refers any person who may doubt his veracity, to Edw Coleman, Esq, Professor of the Veterinary College.' Stamford Mercury 14 May 1819

But Robert was setting out to mislead and on 21 May was hoist with his own petard:

'T H W has been favored with the following Letter from the Professor of the Veterinary College, London. "Sir, Veterinary College, 15th May, 1819, In reply to your letter I have to inform you, that the person by the name of James was a Pupil Of the Veterinary College; but he did not pass his examination before the Medical Committee of Examiners. I am, Sir, Your most obedient Servant, Professor Coleman.”'

At the time the veterinary profession was still unregulated and there were many self-styled surgeons. Robert had not breached any legal requirement by practising unqualified but he had deceived the public and falsely claimed

qualification in order to gain custom and to charge the higher fees MRCVSL membership attracted. Stamford did not forgive him.

The London Veterinary College, founded in Camden Town in 1791.

Robert tried to make good his losses by putting his racehorse Haphazard out to stud, but in 1822 he was declared bankrupt only a month after Maria's death at the age of 24. Robert was left with four tiny children, no income beyond a small army pension, and his reputation in tatters. To compound matters, he was accused of assaulting and battering a woman and only managed to escape trial because she died before being able to give evidence. Robert seems to have resolved at least some of his problems by relocating to Yarwell near Wansford and marrying Esther Lawrance Lowe, who came from a comfortably-off family of farmers and maltsters. They went on to have two daughters, Ann and Maria.

In 1829 Robert stumbled across the formula for a proprietary ointment that was to change his fortunes for good and began advertising 'Lieutenant James's Horse Blister'(still shamelessly lying about his qualifications):

'HORSES. IMPORTANT Discovery (under the patronage of, and recommended by, Major-General Sir James Charles D'Albiac, KCH, Inspecting General of his Majesty's Cavalry Force), Lieut ROBERT JAMES, the Regiment of Foot, Graduate of the London Veterinary College, of HORSE BLISTER. It will not touch the human hand; it will never blemish, however frequently applied; the hair returns in ten days. Immediately after its application the animal may be turned to grass, or into a loose box, without a cradle or other restraint, as no horse, whatever his breed or courage, will gnaw it, although fired at the same time. It may be used on a foal a month old. The Ointment is improved by age. Sold in one-ounce pots by Barclay and Sons, Farringdon-street, London.'

The ointment was a runaway success. Robert and Esther settled into a new home at The Snow, Woodcroft, a farm near

Helpston rented from the Earl of Cardigan, and later retired to fashionable Kensington, where Robert died in 1865 and Esther in 1872.

His uncle Robert's manufactury is almost certainly what brought newly-qualified John Swan to Stamford in 1838. John set up his veterinary practice initially in Broad Street and then at 15 Wharf Road. A strong bond between the two branches of the family is suggested by the fact Robert's eldest son was christened Robert Swan James. Both John Swan and his cousin Robert Swan James achieved what Robert James failed to do in completing their veterinary training and gaining the MRCVSL qualification.

Rectory House, Stanford-in-the-Vale, Berkshire, home of Robert Swan James

But Robert James's story did not end with his death. He had entrusted the secret recipe for his now-famous horse blister to son Robert Swan James (who lived in some style on the proceeds), who in turn shared it with his son Robert Joseph James. Unfortunately, greed got the better of Robert Joseph, who resented the fact that numerous aunts, uncles and cousins were receiving annuities from the business. Robert Joseph set up a rival enterprise with a friend and alleged that his was the bona fide Robert James's Horse Blister. The family was torn apart by the highly-acrimonious 1871 court case of James-v-James. It eventually closed with Robert Joseph being required to add his middle name to his labels - an outcome that satisfied no-one.

Robert Joseph's daughter, Nellie, continued making the blister until the 1950s when she could no longer acquire the necessary ingredients. It had been exported throughout Europe and the British Empire and had kept the family in comfort for 120 years.

Read more about John Swan, whose own life had its racy and rackety side, on our website.


Cover painting: High Street St Martin's, Stamford. J M W Turner, c. 1828

The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.

“Little, if at all, Removed from the Illiterate Farrier or Cow-leech”: The English Veterinary Surgeon, c.1860–1885, and the Campaign for Veterinary Reform by Abigail Woods and Stephen Matthews. © Abigail Woods and Estate of Stephen Matthews 2010. A fascinating background article.

Copyright © Karen Meadows 2019

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