Founderings, Fleams and Farcy

by The Digger

The following article by “The Digger” was published in the Ulster Star dated Friday 10th January, 2014.



I discovered a little gem a number of years ago in the form of a handwritten notebook. It is in the possession of a local family in the district and contains golden nuggets of information recording material relative to everyday life in a rural farming community in the early to late 19th century.

Several pages were devoted to seventeen different cures and remedies gleaned from some neighbouring farmers and meticulously recorded by the note taker. A number of the entries were attributed to a Mr. Gilliland who is believed to have resided in the Ballydonaghy townland in the Crumlin area.

Common diseases in cattle, sheep and horse are touched on and there are “potions” suggesting cures for fresh cuts and wounds, inflammation, scratches, sheep scab, sore heels, strains and worms. The entries include a variety of chemicals, herbs and lotions available to the 19th century farmer.

For instance, a mixture of olive oil, ammonia and origanum was recommended for a strain “in any part of a beast” whilst a glass of whiskey and vinegar was the basis for sorting out a “stab of a nail or thorn” in a horse. The following ingredients also appear within the list of remedies: Ale, allspice, asfidity, bole arminack, caraway, catechu, corrosive sublimate, cream of tartar, friar’s balsam, garlic, ginger, Lady’s mantle, linseed oil, molasses, saltpetre, sulphate of zinc, sweet oil, turpentine, wort and yarrow.

According to the notes, the cure for the “scab in sheepe” included blue stone, spirits of turpentine, sulphur, tobacco, a handful of broom and burdock roots and eight quarts of “cheamurly very stale.” The latter is believed to be a spelling variant of “chamberlye”, which in layman’s terms is in fact urine. My mother told me she could recall sowing blue stone many years ago over the potato plants to thwart the blight.

There are three separate remedies for curing the “Bloody Murrain,” better known as anthrax. Bole arminack, nitre and ale or beer were the basis of the first remedy. Another recommends 4 ounces of salts followed by an administration of salt petre two hours later. This was to be continued every two hours throughout the day or until “it turns and then slows.” The alternative given was to boil 7 ounces of chalk in buttermilk. This was described in the notes as being “the best cure to be found, but bad for the dry murrain.”

It is interesting to see the word “coldrife” appear in one of the remedies. Perhaps not a word used in our daily vocabulary now, but one which was certainly in circulation in some parts of the district a generation ago and may well be categorised now as an Ulster-Scots word. “He was a bit of a coldrife cratur” – meaning he was a bit of a cool or indifferent character. In the context of the remedy, a cow with the cold or “coldrife looking” should be given a gruel of laudanum, ground ginger and allspice.

The author of the remedies specifically referred to distemper having been a fatal disease amongst many cattle in the 1852 – 1854 period.

“Cure for the disease or distemper as killing so many cows in 1852, 1853, 1854. ½ pt of turpentine, 1 pt raw linseed oil put in one bottle and emptied in her and bleed 10 or 12 quarts.”

Bleeding an animal was considered normal practice and, according to the notes, was the basis for the curing of “farcy”, also referred to as “ferse” or “fersie” in years gone by. It was recommended to bleed an animal in an attempt to cure this disease which was a series of suppurating tumours. The remedies also recommend taking 6 or 7 quarts of blood from a horse which has been diagnosed with “foundering,” also known as laminitis, and then administering half a pint of whiskey and 2 ounces of pepper to a large horse “and walk him… If he sweats well he is cured.”

Several months ago an old friend of mine, who is a member of the farming community in the Dundrod area, produced to me what know could be classed as an “oddity.” It had been located in a drawer in a local farmstead by a member of the younger generation of farmers, but he had no clue as to what it had been used for. It is a handheld instrument, similar to a penknife, with three opening blades, each with different sized points on each blade. Set inside the handle was another smaller blade. My old friend instantly recognised it as a tool which was used to bleed horses many years ago, when the horse was considered a necessity on the agricultural landscape. It is known as a fleam and the smaller separate blade was known as a thumb lancet. There were numerous fleams in circulation, and some contained multiple blades. This one was stamped “D. Miller & Son” and most likely refers to the Sheffield manufacturer who was operating in the 19th century. The size of the chosen blade depended on the size of the horse to be bled. The fleam blade used on a Clydesdale horse obviously was larger than one used on a pony. My old friend had witnessed this procedure a number of times. The chosen blade of the fleam was placed against the jugular vein of the horse and struck with a small wooden baton. The bleeding was stopped by a pinching movement and a pin was inserted. Several strands of hair from the tail of the animal was used for binding the wound. My mother, who knew about this process, as a child was forbidden to witness it, and she was confined to the far side of the half door when the gory procedure was taking place.

Things have now moved on, and the farmer’s best friend has been replaced by a modern workhorse – the tractor. I’m sure bleeding the hydraulic cylinder systems these days is a less grisly undertaking!

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