By William Andrews, f.r.h.s.
The calling of the barber is of great antiquity. We find in the Book of
the Prophet Ezekiel (v. 1) allusions to the Jewish custom of the barber
shaving the head as a sign of mourning.
In the remote past the art of surgery and the trade of barber were
combined. It is clear that in all parts of the civilized world, in bygone
times, the barber acted as a kind of surgeon, or to state his position
more precisely, he practised phlebotomy.
Barbers appear to have gained their experience from the monks whom they
assisted in surgical operations. The clergy up to about the twelfth
century had the care of men’s bodies as well as of their souls, and
practised surgery and medicine. The operations of surgery involved the
shedding of blood, and it was felt that this was incompatible with the
functions of the clergy. After much consideration and discussion, in 1163
the council of Tours, under Pope Alexander III., forbade the clergy to act
as surgeons, but they were permitted to dispense medicine.
The edict of Tours must have given satisfaction to the barbers, and they
were not slow to avail themselves of the opportunities the change afforded
them. In London, and we presume in other places, the barbers advertised
their blood-letting in a most objectionable manner. It was customary to
put blood in their windows to attract the attention of the public. An
ordinance was passed in 1307, directing the barbers to have the blood
“privily carried into the Thames under pain of paying two shillings to the
use of the Sheriffs.”
At an early period in London the barbers were banded together, and a gild
was formed. In the first instance it seems that the chief object was the
bringing together of the members at religious observances. They attended
the funerals and obits of deceased members and their wives. Eventually it
was transformed into a semi-social and religious gild, and subsequently
became a trade gild.
In 1308, Richard le Barber, the first master of the Barbers’ Company, was
sworn at the Guildhall, London. As time progressed, the London Company of
Barbers increased in importance.
In the first year of the reign of Edward IV. (1462) the barbers were
incorporated by a royal charter, and it was confirmed by succeeding
A change of title occurred in 1540, and it was then named the Company of
Barber-Surgeons. Holbein painted a picture of Henry VIII. and the
Barber-Surgeons. The painting is still preserved, and may be seen at the
Barber-Surgeons’ Hall, Monkwell Street, London. We give a carefully
executed wood engraving of the celebrated picture. Pepys calls this “not a
pleasant though a good picture.” It is the largest and last painting of
Holbein. In the Leisure Hour for September 1895, are some interesting
details respecting it, that are well worth reproducing. “It is painted,”
we are told, “on vertical oak boards, being 5ft. 11in. high by 10ft. 2in.
long. It seems to have been begun about 1541, and finished after
Holbein’s death in 1543, and it has evidently been altered since its first
delivery. The tablet, for instance, was not always in the background, for
the old engraving in the College of Surgeons has a window in its place,
showing the old tower of St. Bride’s, and thus indicating Bridewell as the
site of the ceremony. The outermost figure to the left, too, is omitted,
and, according to some critics, the back row of heads are all
post-Holbeinic. The names over the heads appear to have been added in
Charles I.’s time, and it is significant that only two portraits in the
back row are so distinguished.” The king is represented wearing his robes,
and is seated on a chair of state, holding erect his sword of state, and
about him are the leading members of the fraternity. “The men whose
portraits appear in the picture,” says the Leisure Hour, “are not
nonentities. The first figure to the king’s right, with his hands in his
gown, is Dr. John Chambre, king’s physician, Fellow and Warden of Merton,
and happy in his multitudinous appointments, both clerical and lay. Behind
him is the Doctor Butts of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII.’—the Sir William
Butts who was the king’s and Princess Mary’s physician, and whose wife is
known by Holbein’s splendid portrait of her. Behind Butts is Alsop, the
king’s apothecary. To the king’s left the first figure is Thomas Vicary,
surgeon to Bartholomew’s Hospital, serjeant-surgeon to the king, and
author of ‘The Anatomie of the Bodie of Man.’ Next to him is Sir John
Ayleff, an exceptionally good portrait. Then come in the undernamed:
Nicholas Simpson, Edmund Harman (one of the witnesses to the king’s will),
James Monforde (who gave the company the silver hammer still used by the
Master in presiding at the courts), John Pen (another fine portrait),
Nicholas Alcocke, and Richard Ferris (also serjeant-surgeon to the king).
In the back row the only names given are those of Christopher Salmond and
In the reign of Henry VIII. an enactment as follows was in force:—“No
person using any shaving or barbery in London shall occupy any surgery,
letting of blood, or other matter, except of drawing teeth.” Laws were
made, but they could not be, or at all events were not, enforced. Disputes
were frequent. The barbers acted often as surgeons, and the surgeons
increased their income by the use of the razor and shears. At this period
vigorous attempts were made to confine each to their legitimate work.
The barber’s pole, it is said, owes its origin to the barber-surgeons.
Much has been written on this topic, but we believe that the following are
the facts of the matter. We know that in the days of old bleeding was a
frequent occurrence, and during the operation the patient used to grasp a
staff, stick, or pole which the barber-surgeon kept ready for use, and
round it was bound a supply of bandages for tying the arm of the patient.
The pole, when not in use, was hung at the door as a sign. In course of
time a painted pole was displayed instead of that used in the operation.
Lord Thurlow addressing the House of Lords, July 17th, 1797, stated, “by a
statute, still in force, barbers and surgeons were each to use a pole [as
a sign]. The barbers were to have theirs blue and white, striped, with no
other appendage; but the surgeons’, which was to be the same in other
respects, was likewise to have a gully-pot and a red rag, to denote the
particular nature of their vocations.”
The Rev. J. L. Saywell has a note on bleeding in his “History and Annals
of Northallerton” (1885):—“Towards the early part of this century,”
observes Mr. Saywell, “a singular custom prevailed in the town and
neighbourhood of Northallerton (Yorkshire). In the spring of the year
nearly all the robust male adults, and occasionally females, repaired to a
surgeon to be bled, a process which they considered essentially conduced
to vigorous health.” The charge for the operation was one shilling.
Parliament was petitioned, in 1542, praying that surgeons might be exempt
from bearing arms and serving on juries, and thus be enabled without
hindrance to attend to their professional duties. The request was granted,
and to the present time medical men enjoy the privileges granted so long
In 1745, the surgeons and the barbers separated by Act of Parliament. The
barber-surgeons lingered for a long time, the last in London, named
Middleditch, of Great Suffolk Street, in the Borough, only dying in 1821.
Mr. John Timbs, the popular writer, left on record that he had a vivid
recollection of Middleditch’s dentistry.