116: Indian oculists, 1892-1893

British people, like most nineteenth century men and women, resorted to all manner of nostrums and folk-medicines when they were ill as well as resorting to trained doctors and widely available pills and potions which made considerable fortunes for the manufacturers. The latter often had high levels of opiates; some were quackery. British doctors had organised in the 1850s, and those who were listed in the directories and registers had professional qualifications. Others involved in the treatment of illness, including dentists, were not organised in that way. Reports in the British press in 1892 and 1893 show that those who treated eye problems were also outside a professional body setting standards. That at least a dozen Indians worked as oculists at that time reveals this, and that Britons were able to trust dark strangers whose knowledge of English was less than perfect. This raises questions about the desperation of Britain’s poor, when sick, and how these foreigners had exploited an area that local people had left vacant.

Charged with conspiracy to defraud and with unlawful wounding, Kream Bocesh, Khair Deen and Shahah Badeen were put on trial in Richmond, west London, in September 1893. Attending the trial was ‘a tall black man’ who was arrested in court, when he admitted he was Kream Bocesh and that the man who had given that name was Herra Shai Bocesh. Bail for the now four accused was objected to as they ‘would not be seen again’, but they lacked funds and were put in prison until the trial could restart. It was said that the four had operated on a child from Twickenham and that the result was the child was now blind (Morning Post, 2 September 1893 p 6; Reynold’s Newspaper (London) 10 September 1893). The police had arrested the men in Dewsbury and Bradford, others had been based in Richmond (Surrey) and it was thought at least twelve and perhaps twenty men had been involved (Birmingham Daily Post, 4 and 5 September 1893; Standard (London), 5 September 1893, p 3).

Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper of 10 September had sketches of the four, named one victim as James Russell, and said that money had been obtained by false pretences, advising the case had been brought by the register of medical practitioners. Treatment of the daughter of a Hammersmith railway porter and the three year old Willie Turner mentioned the quite substantial sums paid out. The four were imprisoned in Holloway, London, and taken by train to Richmond – experiencing abuse from crowds on the railway and in the streets (Standard London, 16 September 1893, p 6; Leeds Mercury 19 September 1893). Medical men testified that the equipment used was not suitable for optical work. The court decided to dismiss the charges of wounding but wanted all four to be charged with obtaining money by false pretences. They went on trial at London’s Old Bailey on 24 October 1893 for six days. They faced seven allegations (oldbaileyonline.org.case t189310106-946 24 October 1893).

Witnesses told of the horrors; others supported the men. Dr Mahommed Yussef Khan, who had been an Indian Army doctor but whose qualifications were not recognized in Britain had attended the court in Richmond. He said the four were from the Punjab and he had seen them in central London three years earlier. He explained Indian medical training differed to British, and the nature of oculists in India. The court had two interpreters. The four were found not guilty. The jury expressed the opinion that there ought to be a law preventing ‘grossly ignorant people as the accused’ from working as oculists (North Eastern Daily Gazette Middlesbrough, 31 October 1893; Illustrated Police News London, 4 November 1893).

The four had never claimed they were qualified under the Medical Act, so the profession’s anxiety to protect falsehoods was without cause. Ordinary Britons trusted these dark strangers – and the Sheffield Independent of 27 October 1893, p 4, asked if such charges were only made against ‘men with black skins and unpronounceable names’. The months in prison had stopped the men earning a living, and the public insults from Londoners and press reports may have led them to question their futures in Britain. The parents had paid several pounds for the treatments, and one might ask why they did not consult professionally-qualified practitioners whose fees, whilst high, were not so far removed from those charged by the Punjabis.


The undernoted article was not consulted:

S. Mukherjee   (2013)  A warning against quack doctors: the Old Bailey trial of Indian oculists, 1893.     Historical Research, 86 (231), pp. 76-91.

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