Search this Blog

Monday, June 26, 2017

Jane Austen and Her "Alton Apothy"

As we visited Regency Day in Alton last week, we made it a point to visit the Allen Gallery to view their small exhibition titled "Jane and Her Alton Apothecary". The highlight of the exhibition was a newly discovered portrait of William Curtis who was one of the last people to meet Jane Austen. Curtis treated her during the earlier stages of her illness before her condition deteriorated and she moved to Winchester in search of better treatment. 

According to the local historian, Jane Hurst, in 1800 Mr Curtis was described as ‘a man of thirty, of medium height, rather broad, with dark brown hair, small side whiskers, greyish eyes, a good, firm chin and a kindly expression.' Having been brought up in a Quaker family he dressed quietly and took life seriously.

Jane Austen called William Curtis her "Alton Apothy" in her letters, "apothy" being an abbreviation for apothecary. In Jane Austen's days, trained apothecaries were an important member of the community, not only dispensing medication but they also treated patients if there was no qualified doctor in the area. They were precursors to today's chemists and spent up to 7 years in training. However, they learned their trade through apprenticeship and were classed as tradesmen and were therefore below doctors on the social scale.

The Curtis family were notable in the area and they were apothecaries in five generations. William Curtis' father (also William) was a famous botanist, and his son (William Curtis) founded the Curtis Museum in Alton High Street and named it after his father. Curtis Museum is on the opposite side of the road from William Curtis' house. 

William Curtis' house is on the right. 

An apothecary in Jane Austen's days was not paid for treating patients but solely for the medication they sold. During their apprenticeship, they learnt to mix potions and make medicines, and they sold medicines, herbs, spices and even perfumes in their shops. 
There is a replica of an apothecary's shop at the Winchester Discovery Centre's exhibition "Jane's Winchester: Malady and Medicine" (below). 

On 6th April, 1817, Jane writes optimistically to her brother Charles, 
"I was so ill on Friday ... but either her [Cassandra’s] return .... or my having seen Mr Curtis or my disorders choosing to go away, have made me much better.

Unfortunately, Jane's improvement did not last long, and Mr Curtis was not able to do much to help Jane. On 22nd May, 1817, Jane writes in her last letter from Chawton to her dear friend, Anne Sharp, 

"in spite of my hopes & promises when I wrote to you, I have since been very ill cheif sufferings were from feverish nights, weakness & languor. This discharge was on me for above a week, & as our Alton Apothy did not pretend to be able to cope with it, better advice was called in. Our nearest very good is in Winchester...I am going to Winchester, instead, for some weeks to see what Mr Lyford can do farther towards re-establishing me in tolerable health. "

Mr Lyford was not able to do much to help Jane Austen, either, as her illness - mystery as it still is - was incurable at the time. Jane passed away in her dear sister, Cassandra's arms, on 18th July. She was buried in her beloved Winchester Cathedral. 


Jones, V. (ed.) (2004) Jane Austen - Selected Letters. Oxford University Press.  

Jane Austen's Regency Week 

You can read more about the role of the apothecary in Jane Austen's era on Jane Austen's World

No comments:

Post a Comment

Would love for you to add some valuable comments and feedback!