Who's Widow Snell?

Unlocking the past at Lavenham Guildhall has required the help of many people with specialist skills, researchers, historians, archaeologists, curators, genealogists, knowledgeable amateurs and volunteers, and of course those with first-hand personal stories of more contemporary times.

As you would expect of a building with a history stretching back 500 years, the Guildhall has seen many characters pass through its doors. Perhaps though, one of the most intriguing stories is that of the Widow Judith Snell. We don’t actually know what this mysterious woman looked like since she lived at a time before photography, and no drawings or prints exist, but we do know that she was kind and benevolent, if a little misguided in certain areas.

Between 1655 and 1836 there was a workhouse within the walls of the Guildhall, established at a local level and taking over some of the upstairs rooms and other spare space. Although paradoxically in 1655 the Bridewell prison was also in existence at the Guildhall; but thankfully totally separate from the workhouse.

The word ‘workhouse’ conjures up in most people’s minds the image of the dreadful Victorian workhouse of Dickensian times as portrayed in Oliver Twist, but this was a very different environment. It was a largely benevolent, if somewhat frugal place and was established in the village to help the poor and those who’d fallen on hard times survive and get back into work. A sort of early version of a skills programme, but without the same level of compassion and financial support practised today.

The workhouse was run under the supervision of one Judith Snell, a widow at the time and who came to be known simply as ‘the Widow Snell’.

She catered for between 30 and 40 local people at a time. The poor and needy would arrive seeking a roof over their heads, something to eat and perhaps even clothes if they needed them. Once accepted, they’d go on to receive training in local skills such as spinning and weaving. The girls might also be trained as housemaids or domestics and the boys in whatever local apprenticeships could be found, the object being to get them back into permanent work as quickly as possible.

They would receive food and shelter in exchange for work, although the meals were very frugal, but obviously better than they would otherwise have had living on the street. A typical menu might include ‘hasty pudding’. This was batter like casing filled with left-overs and heated until it looked like it might be done! Whatever was served in the evening was re-heated for breakfast so there was no waste. Another staple was ‘frumenty’ a kind of very stiff porridge made with rolled wheat not oats.

But it’s Widow Snell’s curious attitude towards rudimentary healthcare, and her ‘homebrew’ potions and cure-alls that set her apart and reserves her a place in the Guildhall’s list of characters.

If you’re squeamish then perhaps you’d better not read on….

Among her illustrious homemade remedies were:

The treatment of ‘Scald Head’ a form of ringworm, by applying pork lard to the scalp under a dressing three times a day for a fortnight and then pulling out the remaining hair with pincers.

Catarrh was treated with a mix of crab’s eyes, whale fat and castor oil, and the patient was prescribed one spoonful each morning.

The cure for vertigo, (although we’re not sure how this was diagnosed in the first place), was one ounce of best Peruvian bark, thickly powdered with two drachms of peacock’s dung infused in two pounds of French red wine. The whole concoction was strained and the patient was prescribed six spoonfuls morning and evening.

And if you have the stomach to see (and smell) the weird potions for asthma, diabetes and colic for yourself, then a visit to the Guildhall is in order and will solve the mystery for yourself. Suffice it to say woodlice, sweet mercury and dragon’s blood are all involved!

Why not pay us a visit to unlock these and other intriguing stories through the many characters who have left their mark on this amazing 500 year old building.