The Mystery Man – Thomas Woolgar

We don’t know a great deal about Thomas Woolgar, we don’t know exactly when or where he was born or when and where he died, but what we do know is that he was living somewhere in the village of East Hoathly in the county of Sussex during the year of our Lord 1775 when the surgeon Mr Nathaniel Paine amputated his leg.

At this time East Hoathly was a village of approximately 395 souls in the east of the county supported by a largely agricultural economy and the occasional patronage of the Pelham-Holles family from their estate at Halland.

There is not much detailed documentation about the effects on local families of failed harvests in 1773 and 1778 or the outbreak of Smallpox early in 1774 that led to the death of 12 persons buried in the Lewes parish of St John sub Castro, Lewes. But we do know that the proprietor of the small store in East Hoathly, Thomas Turner and his wife, who already had four healthy living children and a relatively comfortable lifestyle, suffered the deaths of three male children in 1774, 1775 and 1776.

It may be surmised that these were not the most healthy of times and for Thomas Woolgar to have survived life threatening surgery without any of the advantages of modern medicine and hygiene, is possibly not just due to the skill of the surgeon but an indication of his underlying robust constitution as well as the pre and post- operative care he was given. Some of the parish receipts identify Thomas as ‘Master’ Woolgar which suggests he also had youth on his side in making recovery from the operation.

It is documented that the parish shared the expenses of the amputation and Thomas’s subsequent care with the Lewes parish of St John sub Castro. This was an unusual arrangement since the costs of medical care usually fell on the patient’s parish of legal settlement. Perhaps the amputation was the result of an accident that occurred during Thomas’s employment in East Hoathly. Whatever the reason no clue was left in the parish records as to the reason for these shared expenses.

Thomas’s on-going care was undertaken in East Hoathly including subsequent dressings of the wound and medicines. He was also provided with wine and ‘liquor’– no doubt to help with pain relief. The aptly named surgeon Mr Paine, who also lived in the village, checked on Thomas’s progress and dressed the wound on at least one occasion.

Amputation. T. Rowlandson 1793. Wellcome Library no. 11636i

Exactly when the operation took place is not recorded but the surgeon’s itemised bill , including the professional fee of three Guineas for the amputation itself, medicines, treatments, indicates that 13 April 1775 was the likely date.

Where Thomas was living in the village is not clear but interestingly parish relief appears to have been available to Thomas from an earlier date. On 7 January 1775 he received a generous quantity of ‘liquer’ from Thomas Turner’s general store and 2 ‘rollers’ – bandages  often used to immobilise injured body parts e.g. sprains, torn muscles; a sponge and ‘rags’ which were probably strips of cloth which could also be used for binding an injured limb. From then on there was a regular  supply of fuel , food , drink and household items  for Thomas that comprehensively addressed his personal care needs suggestive of a man who had precipitously become unable to provide for himself and had quite possibly suffered a serious injury to a limb which required significant pain relief.

Throughout January, February and March he is supplied with the ingredients of a high protein diet including some of the more expensive cuts of mutton, beef, veal, butter, sugar, oatmeal, rice, nuts, cheese, condiments. Vegetables, eggs and milk would no doubt have been available to him from the village farms.

Thomas’ hygiene appears to have been an ongoing priority and he is provided with copious supplies of soap and candles. It is not however until April 13 that there is a clear indication that surgery has been undertaken and dressings, medicines and treatment are all billed by the surgeon. At this point Thomas Turner provides Thomas Woolgar with a rented bedpan and candlestick and the quantity of candles is increased, no doubt to ensure there is enough light to properly wash and dress Thomas’ wound.

On 19 April James Marchant is paid 4 shillings for having shaved Thomas on eight occasions. The last Overseers’ receipt paid on behalf of Thomas is dated 21 April 1775 and is for the attendance and services provided by the surgeon, Mr Nathaniel Paine.

Financially the parish supported Thomas throughout these first three months of 1775 providing cash, goods and services, costing a total of £28.2s. At today’s prices this approximates to £4,600 suggesting that East Hoathly was a parish with a settled community who could afford to take its responsibilities for relief of the poor quite seriously and in Thomas’ case they did not stint.[1]

Thomas Woolgar then, sadly, disappears from the records as mysteriously as he arrived. His name is not unequivocally identified in the parish registers of East Hoathly or St John sub-Castro as having been born, baptised, married, or buried.

Only our imagination and a tiny bit of circumstantial evidence can help us at this point.

  • Being optimistic and assuming that Thomas made continued recovery, there is record of a Thomas Woolgar being apprenticed to a Mr John Cave, Mercer in the nearby village of Fletching in 1777.

However, I can’t imagine that a young man who had suffered a catastrophic injury, in all likelihood whilst working the land, would recover sufficiently in two years to enter the rather ‘genteel’ trade in fine cloth, silks and linens and there is no record of him having any claim to residence in Fletching.

  • In the parish registers of St. John sub Castro there is entry of a Thomas Woolgar and his wife Alice having two children, Charlotte born 22 March 1757 and Charles born 16 October 1758, who were both baptised at the church by a Mr Lepla on 6 May 1759. If this Thomas Woolgar is our mystery man, and assuming he was about twenty-five years old when his daughter was born, he would have been about forty-three years old in 1775 when the accident, or infection that necessitated his leg being amputated had occurred.

I think it unlikely this is our Thomas. I can’t think what he might have been doing living in East Hoathly, separated from his wife and children at age 43 and probably working the land when he suffered the serious accident eventually necessitating amputation of his leg. Additionally, there is no mention of parish support to his family.

  • There is an entry of a burial at the Church of St. John sub-Castro on 16 August 1786 “Woolgar Poorman” If this is our Thomas he has survived a further 11 years after surgery. Of the three mentions, this seems the most possible. However, lots of questions arise .What could have happened to Thomas in the intervening eleven years; if he continued to need support, who gave that; where did he live; if this is our Thomas why is the entry in just his family name when the parish had previously shared the costs for his care and would have known him as Thomas.

I personally am very unsure that any of these mentions relate to the circumstances for our Thomas.

Perhaps he will have to remain our Mystery Man. Written and researched by Jean Irvin

[1] calculator derived from CPI of Office of National Statistics