By Heather Burke
For many people across Australia in the nineteenth century good health was a precarious state of being. Doctors were few and far between and even visiting a chemist may have been impossible, given the demands of distance and the difficulties of travel.
For the Qld Native Mounted Police—deliberately stationed far beyond the boundaries of settlement—medical treatment for everyday ailments was a basic necessity. The frequency with which they suffered from eye complaints, such as sandy blight—trachoma—(see Henning 1863), accidents, sores or other problems can be attributed to the seasonality of good water, their narrow diets, poor hygeine and the general hazards of life in the bush. ‘Fever’ (which could have included anything from influenza and malaria to typhoid) was a particular scourge in the tropics.
In treating any of these ailments the NMP were no different to the majority of settlers relying on the widely advertised—and often highly testimonialised—proprietary and patent medicines that substituted for medical care across much of 19th century Australia. Sub-Inspector William Britton, for example, hinted at the variety of standard treatments used by the NMP when he listed some of the new items recently received at the Eyre’s Creek NMP camp in 1889:
8 pots Australian ointment, 2 pots Holloways ointment … 8 bottles chylordyne [sic] … 14 bottles pain killer, 12 bottles fever mixture, 1 bottle glycerine, 1 bottle nitre (Britton to Commissioner of Police, 2nd April 1889. QSA ID 290304).
Nitre (saltpetre or potassium) was used to treat bronchitis and fever, as well as being an ingredient in cough-mixtures. Chlorodyne, a potent mixture of ether, opium, chloroform and hydrocyanic acid, as well as various flavourings, was both a sedative and a treatment for diarrhoea. Glycerine was used externally as an antiseptic for wounds and internally as a laxative.
Having now visited several NMP sites and excavated extensively at Boralga in Cape York, both Holloway’s Ointment and Josephson’s Australian Ointment were particularly common treatments. Fetherstonhaugh and de Satge both mention the ubiquity of Holloway’s Ointment in Qld as a general-purpose cure-all. Edward Kennedy, who served with the NMP in the 1860s, described it as ‘most cleansing’ and noted its value for curing ‘Barcoo rot’, caused when ‘the blood is disorganised from want of vegetables … the result consists in sores breaking out on the hands’ (Kennedy 1902:132). Barcoo rot was essentially septic ulcers caused by the lack of vitamins A, E, C and B in diets that were meat-heavy and vegetable- and fruit-light.
Analyses of Holloway’s Ointment in France in the nineteenth century found that it contained ‘white wax [paraffin], yellow wax [bee’s wax], hog’s lard, and turpentine’ (The Lancet 1863), although others have also claimed lanolin as a major ingredient (Richardson 2001:1892).
Its Australian equivalent, patented by Isaac Josephson in 1866 in Sydney, was very similar, containing lard, beeswax and extracts of Marshmallow, Geebung and various stringy barks, iron barks, blue gums and red gums. Like Hollway’s Ointment it was touted as a cure for everything, from ‘Wounds of all Descriptions, Burns, Scalds, Chilblains, Soft Corns, Sunburns, Old Sores, Cuts, Chapped Hands, Blisters, Scurf’ to ‘Piles, Ulcers, Boils, Sore Eyes, Stings of Insects, Pimples, Chafings, Stiff Joints, Bad Legs, &c, &c.’ (The Chemist and Druggist March 15, 1883).
How effective it was as a treatment is open to debate, but for the white officers of the NMP, as for so many others, it was probably indispensable. As an advertisement in the Queenslander poetically claimed, ‘On the Darling, on the Barcoo, at Cooper’s Creek, the Diamantina, and on the banks of other rivers where scurvy, sores from poisoned wood, ulcers from contagious and bad living abound, pots of JOSEPHSON’S OINTMENT are to be found’ (The Queenslander 18 July 1891:143). Archaeologically speaking, that’s still true.
De Satge, O. 1901 Pages from the Journal of a Queensland Squatter. London: Hurst and Blackett.
Fetherstonhaugh, C. 1917 After Many Days: Being the Reminiscences of Cuthbert Fetherstonhaugh. Melbourne: E.W. Cole.
Henning, R. 1952 The Letters of Rachel Henning, edited by David Adams.
Kennedy, E.B. 1902 The Black Police of Queensland: Reminiscences of Official Work and Personal Adventures in the Early Days of the Colony. London: J. Murray.
Queensland State Archives Item ID290304, Administrative file, police. Police Stations – Fernvale, Eyres Creek, Fermon, Opal Field, Far-Fanning Gold Field, Frome.
Richardson, R. 2001 Hygeia’s headquarters. The Lancet 357:1892.
The Lancet 1863 Medical trials. Holloway’s Pills and Ointment. Sillen V. Holloway. The Lancet 81(2055):76.