A Ghostly Empathy


It was the figure of an old lady that I found strangely familiar and particularly creepy.

The stench of decay, faeces and urine was putrid and particularly strong.

Recently, with my youngest daughter Sophie,  I visited the Thackray Medical Museum at the other side of the city.

The prospect of a visit here became a little more exciting when we learned of the legendary  ghosts that supposedly walk the corridors of this imposing Victorian building.

The museum holds a fascination for Sophie and me, so much so that during the past few weeks we have managed to include three visits.

The museum is adjacent to St James’s University Hospital, a large teaching hospital that also houses the Bexley Wing, a world-renowned Cancer Unit.

The Grade 2 listed building was once part of the hospital, but its history also includes a former workhouse that in the 1800s housed some 780 paupers.

The medical museum opened in 1997, the origins, however, date back to 1902 when Charles Thackray opened a small family run chemist shop. The business continued to grow until it became one of Britain’s principal medical companies.

In the lower part of the building there is a marvelous reproduction of an 1842 Leeds street, a street that unfortunately, unnerved me and sent shivers down my spine.

On our second visit, the stench of decay, faeces and urine was putrid and particularly strong. However, it was the figure of an old lady that I found strangely familiar and particularly creepy, and during our first visit she caused me to become almost panic-stricken and make a swift exit from the street.

As you would expect in a medical museum, there are displays of all description and each found in a maze of connected rooms. Videos, interactive areas, school rooms and conference areas also feature here.

During our second visit to the museum, Sophie and I decided to find out more information about the characters on the 1842 street.

From here-on-in Sophie and I write about our chosen characters.

ME – My first character is Martha O’Bryan a nine month old baby. Her parents work long hours and during the day she is looked after by  Mrs Ingham who is my second character. To keep her charges quiet Mrs Ingham often uses ‘Holbeck Tincture’ containing opium. Martha’s mother isn’t aware of this, and so that she herself can get some sleep during the night, she also uses ‘Holbeck Tincture’

This is old money, pre the 1971 decimalisation of Britain

Baby Martha has whooping-cough, the symptoms of this are violent coughing, vomiting and fever. Whooping cough in Victorian Britain was a major killer, with the under fives being hit the hardest. The disease was passed on by coughs and sneezes.

Martha O’Bryan died from an overdose of the quietening syrup Holbeck Tincure when suffering from whooping-cough.

My second character is Mrs Ingham who runs a boarding house, she makes extra money by looking after people’s children. Recently many of her customers have been ill with flu and when she herself becomes ill she realises she too has fallen victim to the virus.IMG_5109

In Victorian Britain Influenza occurred frequently in national epidemics, it was passed on by coughs and sneezes and was a major killer of old people.

Mrs Ingham died from influenza aged 73 years old. ~ Sue

Sophie chose to research a seventeen year old boy, an interesting choice, because Sophie’s eldest son is the same age as the character she has written about.

Sophie – My character is 17-year-old John Oddy.

John lives in the slums of Leeds. His mother is dead and his father, driven mad by the death of his wife is in an asylum. So poor John lives with his uncle and works in a filthy slaughter-house.

John hates his job and drinks heavily in the local tavern. Many diseases and parasites are caught from working in a slaughter-house, and John caught smallpox.

Smallpox was an extremely deadly and contagious disease, known to have been around for at least 3000 years.

  •  Symptoms included fever, vomiting, severe back and abdominal pain and later, the rash! Pus filled blisters starting on the face would spread over the rest of the body.
  • If you survived, you’d be terribly scarred for life.
  • Many did not survive. In Victorian Britain up to 20% of all cases resulted in death.
  • The first known successful vaccine was discovered in 1796 by English physician Edward Jenner. Jenner  noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox did not catch smallpox!
  • One of the worlds most feared diseases, smallpox was eventually eradicated by global vaccination. The last known case was in Somalia in 1977.

Back in 1840 John has some interesting options for treatment.

A home remedy for smallpox is boiled turnips. Not to eat, no. To be applied cold. To his feet…The cost of this genius ritual, a penny.

The chemist can offer John some lovely potassium chlorate, which can also be found in safety matches, disinfectants and fireworks. That’s 3 pence a dose to get your insides clean and flammable.

Finally, the Doctor’s treatment, basilic powder, which was prescribed as a purgative medicine for just about anything, including worms. The cost per dose is 6 pence and 2 shillings and 6 pence for the advice . John only had 2 shillings so I’m guessing he probably went with a home remedy. Maybe the turnips sometimes worked!

After 1840 a free vaccine was available from the local Poor Law doctor. Unfortunately, John seemed to have missed out on this, but he did survive! He was scarred for life, poor chap. John lived on to the ripe old age of 43 (amazing amidst the squalid conditions of the poor) ultimately succumbing to Tuberculosis, another big killer of the time. ~ Sophie

If visiting Yorkshire, Sophie and I would highly recommend a visit to the museum, although we appreciate it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

The entrance fee to the museum includes concessions, and as a bonus, if the printed ticket is signed and retained,  it can be used for further visits during the following twelve months. There is also a small cafe and a gift shop with some unusual added extras.

Music credit: The Warsaw Philharmonia Orchestra, Love in the close. The Choir soundtrack  2005.

Rhapsody On a theme of Paganin, Rachmaninoff,  Best of the Classical bits 

© Sue W-nansfarm.net 2017  videos and photographs (except the ghostly corridor) are my own.

Linked to the daily word-prompt Legend

4 thoughts on “A Ghostly Empathy

    1. Yes we do, a bit like slowing down for a traffic accident. This place and the old hospital buildings have long since held a weird fascination for me. I was born over the road from the hospital in my great aunt’s house and over the years I’ve had a recurring dream that I’m searching the old wards looking for dead relatives!
      Thank you for ploughing through this post, it must have been like reading the thickest book on the shelf! I think I got carried away with this one.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s