Saturday, July 09, 2011

In search of the Wise Woman of Wing

Today I have been to Wing in Rutland. The Genuki website about the village tells a remarkable story:
However, one woman in the early 19th century became famous as the 'Wise Woman of Wing'. Amelia Woodcock was a herbalist, and her medicines were sold around the district by a man riding on a donkey as well as from her cottage. Her house no longer exists but 'City Yard' is a reminder of the time when gentry and city folk visited the wise woman. She died about 1850 but her remedies were still for sale in Boots the chemist in Uppingham right up until the 1950s.
The story is expanded in an 1876 issue of Notes and Queries (partial PDF here; scrappy but full text here):
Although she continued to live in her humble cottage at Wing, she was visited daily by persons who - as I am told - "came in their own carriages"; and I am further informed, on good authority, that medical men also came to consult her.
Her patients were taken in regular turn, without distinction of rank ; and they were so numerous that, as she was unable to .see them all on the day that they came to her, many persons were obliged to take lodgings in the village or neighbourhood until the Wise Woman could see them.
And Genuki suggests that "City Yard" in the village is "a reminder of the time when gentry and city folk visited the wise woman". (As far as I can see from the map, City Yard runs behind the King's Arms - last time I visited the village there was a second pub called the Cuckoo but that has now gone - so the footpath sign in the far right of the photo is pointing you that way.)

But I wonder about the story, and not just because my experience is that popular etymology of this sort always turns out to be wrong. It is no surprise to find a post on a family history board from someone who has been trying to research it and come up with very little.

But I have found one indication online that there may be something to the story. A jocular letter to the British Medical Journal from 1853, written by an anonymous doctor, tells of his unsuccessful attempts to gain relief for problems he was experiencing with his hearing:
I must say, from my own experience, that I can excuse anybody for going to various quacks, when "the faculty" have failed to give relief. The desire for cure is so strong in the human breast, that, if I did not believe the "wise woman of Wing" to be a sorceress, I could imagine myself becoming her patient.
So a contemporary writer assumed that his readers would all of heard of the Wise Woman of Wing without further explanation. Maybe there is something in the story after all?

Interestingly, I find that Lord Bonkers took Colin Powell to see the lady as recently as 2002. He may have been confused about the date or his companion's identity, but his observation that she was "Terribly Wise" betrays his characteristic shrewdness.

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