Trouble’s Afoot, or, The Rival Chiropodists of Regent Street

An itinerant street vendor selling cures for corns.  Coloured pen drawing.  Credit: Wellcome Collection  CC BY

The newspapers tell us that on Tuesday the 18th of March 1856 Mr Bearnard was at work at No. 59 Regent Street in central London, waiting for clients to avail themselves of his skills.  These were proclaimed—rather grandiloquently—on a brass plate outside his door:

G. F. Bearnard

Surgeon-chiropodist

Those of an unkind disposition might rather dismissively have called him a corn cutter, that is to say someone who provided relief to all manner of Victorians with corns, bunions and in-growing toenails.  The stuff of humour.  Unless, of course, you are a sufferer.

As Bearnard waited with Nancy, his wife of six years, two men entered the shop.  One was familiar.  He had visited only the day before to enquire about the whereabouts of another chiropodist, who worked further up Regent Street.  But the other man, who was brandishing a whip, was a very different proposition.  Incandescent with rage he pushed Mrs Bearnard aside, demanding to know where “the scoundrel” was.

Mr Bearnard was identified as the scoundrel, and angry words were exchanged.  But the irate gentleman, whose name was Mr Robert Rendall, was not satisfied.  Grabbing Bearnard by the hair, and tearing some out in the process, he began to hit him about the head and body with the handle of the whip.  Mrs Bearnard tried to help her husband but was restrained by Rendall’s companion.  Even so she got caught up in the mêlée, and received a flogging with the whip.

View of The Quadrant on Regent Street by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.  Lithograph dated 1854.  © London Picture Archive

When the case came before the Marlborough Street Police Court, Robert Rendall, the defendant, explained that he too was a chiropodist.  He practised at No. 85 The Quadrant in Regent Street, and had been in business in the area since 1848, which was at least three years longer than that Johnny-come-lately Bearnard.  It was not so much the competition that annoyed Rendell—there were other chiropodists in the vicinity—but rather Bearnard’s underhand way of stealing his customers.  Sometimes they arrived at Bearnard’s shop by mistake, and, instead of doing the honourable thing by sending them to No. 85—between Air Street and Vigo Street—Bearnard invited them into his own consulting room for treatment.

Then on the day before the fight an agent provocateur—presumably Rendall’s silent and anonymous companion—had specifically asked at No. 59 for Mr Rendall’s establishment.  Bearnard had said that “no such [      ] scamp lives here”.  (Insert you own rude word: the newspapers coyly leave a blank.)  He then said that Rendall had gone to Scotland, and made other offensive remarks about his rival.  Rendall added that he had been kicked by Bearnard, and that he had brought with him a surgeon called Gowan, who swore that his injury was indeed the result of a kick.  Bearnard responded with an account of the double assault at No. 59, in spite of which the whip-brandishing Rendall was acquitted.

Illustration of left feet showing different types of corns.  Credit: Wellcome Collection  CC BY

A BIT ABOUT CHIROPODISTS
This short newspaper clipping—forgive the pun—roused my curiosity.  Why was the life of a Victorian chiropodist so cut throat?  What else was there that could be found out about Rendall and Bearnard?  Whilst one should avoid making assumptions about particular professions, I have to admit that I had always imagined chiropodists as being peaceable, modest and law-abiding.  What I found rather surprised me.

Chiropodists or corn cutters travelled around plying their trade at fairs.  In fact they often seemed to have practised two trades, the other, somewhat disturbingly, being dentistry.  The most famous Victorian chiropodist was a gentleman called Lewis Durlacher (1792-1864): he is featured in that august work The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and copies of his book, for which see below, are in the British Library.  He was the son of a German chiropodist and dentist called Solomon Abraham Durlacher, who appears in London at No. 18 Wardour Street at the turn of the nineteenth century.

The younger Durlacher is said to have been trained by his father in Bath—where coincidentally Rendall was born—but I cannot find any evidence of this.  He practised first in John Street, on the corner of St James Square, and later in Old Burlington Street, at No. 15.  As well as tending the feet of the Prince Regent—later George IV—William IV and Queen Victoria, Lewis tried his hand at picture dealing.  Sadly he was not a success, and was declared bankrupt.  In 1845, in order to make some money, he wrote a book with the snappy title A Treatise on Corns, Bunions, the Disease of Nails and the General Management of FeetIt was published by Simpkin, Marshall & Co., and, rather remarkably, it proved to be popular.  Durlacher himself was significant in that he wanted chiropodists to be recognised as licensed members of the medical professional.  He also thought that the poor should have access to their services.  He was clearly a man before his time, for it was not until 1938 that a number of regional bodies representing practitioners came together to form a national professional body, the Joint Council of Chiropodists.

CLIPPING ROYAL TOENAILS
But let us return to our two rivals, who both practised just around the corner from Mr Durlacher, and who in time both treated members of the Royal Family.  (There is no mention of any of the three in Queen Victoria’s extensive and very readable journals, which is disappointing.)  The fiery Robert Rendall, the son of a labourer, was born in Bath in Somerset in about 1816, and by 1841 was practising as a chiropodist in nearby Wells.  There he married a young woman named Caroline Adams.  He placed endless advertisements in newspapers, which is odd, as he could not write.  Even at this time a chiropodist’s life appears to have been peripatetic, and, although the young couple based themselves in Exeter, Robert travelled the length and breadth of the country treating patients.  These professional journeys took him from Cornwall to Scotland, from Wales to Norfolk, over to the Isle of Wight and then to Dublin.

Lord Adolphus FitzClarence by James Donald Milner, probably after Richard Dighton.  Drawing dated 1913.  © National Portrait Gallery

Everywhere he went he would advertise his services with wonderfully effusive testimonials from local dignitaries.  Lord Adolphus FitzClarence, the son of the actress Mrs Jordan and the Duke of Clarence, who would one day be crowned William IV, declared that “Mr Rendall has extracted three corns from my feet with great dexterity”.  (These advertisements suggest that our ancestors were certainly not bashful in the matter of feet: they were happy for all and sundry to know about unpleasant conditions down there.)  In another example of self-publicising Rendall warned the local “nobility, gentry and other inhabitants” that some unprincipled fellow had been going from door to door pretending to be him.  The real Mr Rendall was far too classy to make house calls without an appointment.

In 1848 the Rendalls left the West Country and moved to London, settling at No. 68 The Quadrant in Regent Street.  (Interesting fact: this is about the time when the colonnades along The Quadrant were removed to deter prostitutes from touting for business out of the rain.)  In another publicity coup he announced that he would “remain at that address” until he “left for America”.  He boasted that he had received thousands of testimonials, and I have certainly found a good many in the course of trawling through newspapers.  As well as a smattering from local chemists, tradespeople and doctors there are several from the great and the good, among them His Royal Highness the Duke of Cambridge, His Imperial Highness Prince Lucien Bonaparte, a slew of Bishops—those of London, Oxford, Winchester, Jamaica, Antigua, and others—and His Excellency the Minister Plenipotentiary of His Majesty the Shah of Persia.  For between two and five shillings Rendall offered “instantaneous removal of corns and bunions without cutting or causing the least pain, inverted toenails and other affections peculiar to the feet”.  What else?  For ladies not wanting to reveal their naked feet to the gaze of a gentleman there was the option of a consultation with Mrs Caroline Rendall.  And for good measure Rendall wrote a book—Corns: Practical Observations on Their Causes, Nature and Treatment—no doubt in the hope of emulating the great Durlacher.

A woman taking a large knife and scissors to the corns on her feet.  Coloured lithograph after James Gillray.  Credit: Wellcome Collection  CC BY

On a less glamorous note, he was taken to court in 1881 by his former maid, Jane Cole, who claimed maintenance for the children he had allegedly fathered.  He was patently economical with the truth—he claimed that his brother had sired at least one of the children—and the case rumbled on for nine months.  In the end the court took his side—he was after all a professional man, a published author and Chiropodist to the Queen—and quashed Jane’s appeal.  But the verdict might have been different if more had been known about his private life, and above all if it had come out that he had an illegitimate daughter, Jessie, who had been born in 1878.  The mother was his “housekeeper” Emily Harrison, who was only twenty-two at the time.  His wife had died seven years previously in 1871, and when he himself died in 1890 he left an estate of four thousand two hundred and eighty-eight pounds to Jessie.  A firm called Gardeners and Rendall continued providing chiropody services at No. 85 Regent Street until 1924.

THE MYSTERIOUS MR BEARNARD
As for Mr Bearnard, he too had a connection with Bath, and he was there in the 1840s when he was probably in his thirties.  There is no sign of him in the records before then, either under his business name, George Frederick Bearnard, or under the more usual Francis Bearnard.  In addition his place of birth is variously given as Liverpool, London, Bath and somewhere overseas: he was a veritable man of mystery.  By 1850 he had married a local woman, Nancy Persy, and was practising as Dr Bearnard from premises in Milsom Street.  However, the medical honorific did not save him from bankruptcy.  During proceedings he claimed that he was not in fact called Bearnard, that he was already an undischarged bankrupt, and that he was married to a rabbi’s sister who lived in Manchester.

No doubt to escape shame and rumours the Bearnards moved to London.  They set up shop at No. 59 Regent Street—a few doors up from Swan & Edgar and thirteen away from Rendall at No. 85—where Bearnard conducted his business for the next forty years.  In 1864 he was taken to court for “unlawfully, wilfully and falsely pretending to bear and taking and using the name of surgeon” in contravention of the New Medical Act of 1858.  He gave away a bit more about his origins when he said that in his own country he was a qualified surgeon.  Oddly, though, it was not the Medical Council who had taken him to court, but a solicitor by the name of Talley, who happened to be an acquaintance of Robert Rendall.

Le Pédicure by Edgar Degas.  Dated 1873.

Only his death on the 27th of March 1892 lifted a corner of the curtain.  For in his will Francis Bearnard left an impressive twenty-one thousand seven hundred and fifty-seven pounds to a Mrs Amelia Danziger of Manchester.  (That doyen of chiropodists, Lewis Durlacher, left less than three hundred pounds, and Robert Rendall just over four thousand.)  His headstone in the Western Synagogue Cemetery in Edmonton clarifies his relationship to Amelia: they were father and daughter.  Born in Manchester in 1838 Amelia was called Amelia Abrahams—or Abrams—not Amelia Bearnard.  Her mother, Sarah Abrahams, who described herself as a widow, had been born in Prussia in 1797.  One might perhaps conclude that Francis or George Frederick Bearnard was really called Abrahams.  He may well have deserted his family, but at least his daughter was not forgotten in his will.

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Comments

  1. Obviously there was a lot of money to be made in Victorian feet! Perhaps a consequence of a prevalence of badly made shoes.

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