266 : Herbalists in Britain

Dorchester was where a John Brown gave a talk at the Corn Exchange on 4 May 1868 when he was billed as the ‘American Botanist’. The Western Gazette gave half a column to its report.[1] This must be the same individual who was a herbalist in Taunton where back in mid-1865 he claimed an unpaid bill, being careful to describe this as for herbs and not medicines. Brown had been in Taunton in March 1865.[2] This must be the refugee from Georgia whose Slave Life in Georgia had been published in London in 1855. His advertisements in the Sherborne Mercury on 30 October 1866, and both 22 January and 29 January 1867 stressed he was a black man, the ‘celebrated American herbalist’ offering pills and tinctures for the stomach, liver, coughs and the eyes. He was based in Durngate Street, Dorchester. SEE PAGE 133.

John Lewis was another herbalist noted in Cirencester on 1 June 1883.[3] Another black herbalist was Frederick Dennison ‘who professes to cure all diseases incidental to humanity’ and was fined for stealing an umbrella in Rhyl, Wales in the summer of 1889.[4] In 1921 ‘a stylishly-dressed coloured man who described himself as “Professor Barnes, O.B.E., herbalist”‘ was fined £20 ‘for falsely representing himself entitled to the decoration’. William Barnes was tried in Port Talbot, south Wales, where he told the court that ‘he only recently found out that the medal was not that of the O.B.E. It was presented to him at a lodge meeting of Buffaloes in London as a joke’. This was mentioned in the London scandal sheet the Illustrated Police News of 24 November 1921 (page 4). [The Royal Antediluvian Order Of Buffaloes founded in 1822 is probably the largest benevolent society in Britain]

After years of research into the black presence in Britain a century ago I was not surprised to come across a reference to ‘Professor Edgar B. Knight, “the great Abyssinian herbalist who died at Wombwell in Yorkshire in the early thirties”’ in Colin Holmes, John Bull’s Island. Immigration & British Society, 1871-1971 (Macmillan, 1988, p 153). His source was the autobiography of the Sierra Leone seaman Ernest Marke: Old Man Trouble (London, 1975, p 99).

Knight, whose middle name was sometimes Errington (probate) and also Moses (cemetery file, Sheffield newspaper reports November 1930) was said to be 33 at the time of his death on 12 November 1930. He was also said to be 34 and 35; the Sheffield Daily Telegraph of 13 November 1930 p 3 referred to his complexion (‘Will Knight (34), coloured’) and its issue of 27 November 1930 (p 3) stated he was ‘an Abyssinian herbalist’ aged 35. He lived at 7 Church Street in Wombwell, Barnsley, the address appearing in probate records and cemetery files. He left £30-0s-4d to his widow Nora nee Lynard, and they had been married in Chorlton (Manchester) in late 1923. No trace of his birth has been found in British records, and his origins remain uncertain. He was buried in the Catholic cemetery (grave 5325 U/C 1) on 15 November 1930.

Examination of the South Yorkshire Times has uncovered information. He was said to have a treatment for baldness with his Abyssinian Hair Paste, claiming baldness ‘is not a natural condition’. The issue dated 19 September 1930 included his photograph which clearly shows an African descent, described him as ‘the marvellous healer’, and that he had testimonials from people he had cured of eczema.[5] Reports that he had died on his way back from court in Barnsley led to a report of the ‘tramcar incident’ and a dispute with a coal miner. One week later the paper reported the inquest of 14 November, stating that Knight was an Abyssinian aged 33 who had worked as a herbalist in Wombwell for two years. It mentioned the £5 fine for common assault he had been charged following the tramcar dispute. He was said to have remarked ‘they have poisoned me’ when dying. He and his wife Gladys Veronica Knight had visited the Barnsley-based black boxer Sam McVea and his wife, and all had eaten the same meal. Sam McVea the American boxer had died in 1921, so this was another individual. That was not noted by the newspaper, which did report on 28 November 1930 that the Mrs Knight and her testimony at the inquest had been challenged. She was a ‘coloured woman’ named Gladys Douglas who had married an Arab named Said Key. The legal Mrs Knight (who was at the inquest) had separated from the herbalist six years before. The inquest was later resumed and no trace of poison was found.

The funeral was well-attended. Names are listed in the South Yorkshire Times of 21 November. Knight had served in the army, a Union Jack covered the coffin and the veterans association the British Legion was represented. The man known as Sam McVea was there – and named as Bernard Lester – as was Ernest Marke (which explains why Marke recalled Knight in his memoirs).

Herbalists whose treatments were dangerous were often reported in the newspapers, and ‘a coloured man’ named Lewis Samuel Allen was charged at Lincoln with causing a woman ‘to take a substance for a certain purpose’ (surely an abortion?) in mid-1927 which was reported in the South Yorkshire Times (‘coloured herbalist charged’) which stated he was aged 68; and ‘a coloured man’ whose discharge was ‘greeted with applause by a small crowd outside the court’ by the Yorkshire Post.[6]

Lewis Allen had been a benefactor to those who purchased his nostrums.

[1] Western Gazette, 8 May 1868, p 7.

[2] Western Gazette, 23 June 1865, p 5; Dorset County Chronicle, 23 March 1865, p 8.

[3] Bristol Mercury, 6 June 1883.

[4] North Wales Chronicle (Bangor), 24 August 1889.

[5] South Yorkshire Times, 13 December 1929, p 17; South Yorkshire Times, 14 November 1930, p 12.

[6] South Yorkshire Times, 16 and 17 June 1927; Yorkshire Post, 17 June 1927, p 11.