The Diary: Necking beer got rid of nasty goitre

John Spencer
John Spencer
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If the title of a new book, Death And Disease In The Peak District, doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, just wait until you turn to page one.

There, readers are told to prepare for tales of black death, white death, leprosy, rabies, and Derbyshire neck – a nasty little swelling number which was cured, we kid you not, by drinking ale.

For good measure, we’re also promised accounts of illnesses caused by the region’s lead mining industry and child abuse in the mills.

“In the Peak District,” it reads chirpily, “life was existentially insecure and constantly threatened.”

It is not, safe to say, the most cheerful stocking filler you’ll buy this year.

And yet John Spencer, the retired Sheffield University trained doctor behind this jolly old handbook, is sure you’ll be fascinated.

“People have a morbid interest in this stuff,” says the 77-year-old. “You read it and you think ‘this is brutal.’ And then you turn the page and read some more.

“It’s that whole idea of thank God I live in an age where science and medicine have advanced, where we have antibiotics and an NHS.”

Featured in his 91-page skim through past perils are a Bakewell doctor called Buxton who prescribed beer, the village of Eyam’s heroic response to the 17th century plague and a recounting of that mysterious Derbyshire Neck.

“It was suffered in other places but it was most common here,” explains John, a grandfather-of-five who originally comes from Ecclesall but now lives in Howden, near Goole. “The neck would swell sometimes to the size of a turnip and the eyes would bulge.”

Another delight is leprosy – “people think of it as a Biblical disease, though not when they have it,” notes John.

He decided to write the book after becoming aware that the idyllic Peak District where he’d adventured during his youth had a darker undercurrent.

“It has been a profoundly unhealthy place for most of its history,” he says. “And the evidence – leprosy hospitals, ancient graves, plague monuments – is all around.

“I’m a doctor so I’m naturally interested in these things so I started researching it. Now I just hope other people are as interested.”

Death And Disease In The Peak And Other Past Perils is published by Austin Macauley and in bookshops at £4.99.

You have what...? District’s unusual diseases

Devastating Derbyshire neck

Grim doesn’t do justice to Derbyshire neck – or goitre to use its medical name.

The disorder led to severe swelling – often to the extent the sufferer’s neck would flop onto their shoulder – bulging eyes and scaly skin. For centuries the cause was unknown, but drinking ale seemed to be a cure. That was until 1915 when Sir William Osler solved the riddle: it was the area’s water what done it. Its lack of iodine caused swelling of the thyroid gland.

Lead mining illnesses

Visiting the Peak District in 1725, Daniel Defoe described a lead miner (though probably not to his face) as a “subterranean creature, pale as a corpse, flesh lank and the colour of lead itself”. Such men (and boys) spent their lives breathing in the toxic metal resulting in high levels of bronchitis, tuberculosis and other lethal chest ailments.

Eyam heroes

The story’s of Eyam’s heroism during the 1665-66 Black Death is well known but still remarkable. Villagers agreed to isolate themselves to stop the disease spreading north. Some 270 people died from a population of just 360.