James Rennell Atcherley: A life and death with horses – Part 2

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 I have formerly hinted, that is is a very difficult Matter to come at the true Knowledge of Distempers in Horses, and that more Skill and Judgment is required in the Cure of them, than in those of a Human Body; because the poor Creature cannot answer any Questions, therefore we must have Recourse to the Motions of his Head, Gestures of his Body, &c. Mons. Solleyfell, a French Author, has treated very largely as to the last Particular; but his prolix Manner of Writing, as well as some others of the same Stamp, has been a Means to bewilder and confound most of our common Farriers, who (I am sorry to say it) are generally an ignorant Set of empty Coxcombs, whose Discourse about Distempers would make a knowing Person sick to hear it  – Henry Bracken (1737), Farriery Improved.

Before there were veterinary surgeons like James Rennell Atcherley [], there were farriers. In Britain today farriery is defined, in the Farriers (Registration) Act 1975, as “any work in connection with the preparation or treatment of the foot of a horse for the immediate reception of a shoe thereon, the fitting by nailing or otherwise of a shoe to the foot or the finishing off of such work to the foot”. In times gone by however, as can be seen from the above extract (slightly abridged) from Henry Bracken’s book of 1737, the domain of the farrier was not restricted to the feet of horses but extended to the whole animal – and to cattle too.

Unfortunately, as was the case with the medical treatment of people, the knowledge of those who attempted to remedy the ‘distempers’ of horses or cattle varied enormously and often lacked any truly scientific basis. Dissatisfaction with this state of affairs led to the Odiham Society of Agriculture and Industry passing a resolution in 1790 that “for the compleat establishment of Farriery on rational and scientific principles in this country, such institutions for Education in Farriery is necessary as have been established in France, Germany, Piedmont, Sweden, Denmark, &c.”

Then, on 8 April 1791, the Veterinary College, London, was founded. A notice published in newspapers from October 1791 stated that the College was established “For the Reformation and Improvement of Farriery, And the Treatment of Cattle in general.” The notice went on:

THE object of this institution is to reform, and bring into a regular system, that important branch of Medicine which regards the treatment of diseases incident to Horses and other Cattle, hitherto neglected, and much abused in this country; for which purpose, it is proposed to erect a building as a College, in which Pupils may be admitted, and instructed by a Professor of Veterinary Medicine in every branch of the science.

Veterinary College, London, in 1804

To begin with the college, like the emerging veterinary profession in Britain, was focussed primarily on the horse. In part, I suspect, this was because of its roots in farriery. The gentlemen who founded (and funded) the college, and those who sent their sons there, were perhaps also more inclined towards the treatment of horses. It is also said – by the RCVS itself – that the horse “remained the focus [of the veterinary profession] for many years influenced by the needs of the Army.” This may in part answer one of the questions I posed at the beginning of Part 1 of this story. Why James Rennell Atcherley became a vet remains a mystery, but his special interest in horses probably went with the territory!

It was of course possible for farriers, or veterinary surgeons as those who did more than shoeing became known, to practice without formal qualifications. James Rennell Atcherley did so for around 20 years. But as time went by, more and more vets sought recognition of their skills and knowledge from the Veterinary College. The status of the college (and its qualifications) was no doubt enhanced when it obtained a Royal Charter in 1844 and became the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. It was not until a great many years later, with the passing of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, that the RCVS was given the legal duty of maintaining a register of veterinary surgeons eligible to practise in the UK, along with the regulation of veterinary education and of professional conduct.

Was it the granting of the Royal Charter that finally persuaded James Rennell Atcherley to seek membership of the RCVS? Whatever his motivations, James applied, and he obtained his diploma on 23 August 1848.

In 1851 James entered his horse Ringbone into at least two races. The first was a “Sweepstake of 3 sovs. each, for horses carrying 11st. 7lbs. each” at the Wolverhampton and Brewood steeplechases of Tuesday 21 January. These races were run “over the old race course, contiguous to the little town of Brewood in Staffordshire”. Unfortunately “Mr. J. R. Atcherley’s Ringbone” was an ‘also ran’. The Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette of  25 January 1851 reported:

This race presented a complete chapter of accidents to the sight-seers, for it was said every horse fell at some part of the race. It was ultimately won by Mind-your-own-Business […] by a length. Cowslip was second, and none of the rest were up.

The second race was at the Bridgnorth Steeple Chases in February. This was a “Hunt Steeple Chase of 3 sovs each, with 20 added, for hunters the bona fide property of subscribers to the Albrighton, Shropshire, Wheatland, and Ludlow Hunts, and to be ridden by the same […] Over about three miles of fair hunting country.” In this event, “Mr. J. R. Atcherley’s Ring-bone, aged, 12 st” was ridden by Tom Charlton and came in fourth.

James also had another letter published in The Veterinarian in 1851 (this time of course he was able to write as “J. R. Atcherley, M.R.C.V.S.”). In the first part of this story I introduced you to a condition in horses named ‘poll-evil’. Now let me acquaint you with a disease of cattle, which James Atcherley was called upon to assist with, known as ‘black quarter’. James began by stating that he had “considerable experience, as well as success, in the treatment of black quarter in calves” and also in older animals (the oldest being a three-year-old heifer). James continued:

I believe the disease known by the name of “black quarter” to be a specific inflammation of the cellular tissues, usually implicating the pericardium and heart, but not invariably; the premonitory symptoms of which are so slightly marked as generally to escape observation until the animal is beyond the power of human aid. Often, however, cases occur in which the subcutaneous tissue alone is attacked, and it is in such cases only that we have a chance of saving the animal. It is only in the early stages of the disease, as it then shews itself, that we have this single chance; and then our remedial agents must be prompt and energetic. When carditis (as is usual) accompanies the disease, so intense is the inflammatory action […] that death soon steps in and closes the scene.

A detailed description of the course of action taken by James, if “called in within a few hours of the commencement of an attack of black-quarter”, was then given. It is not for the faint-hearted. First he would search for a tumour on “the arms, shoulders, thighs, or loins” which, if pressed, would emit a crackling sound due to the gas within it. Then he cut away the skin covering the tumour and lightly cauterised the exposed tissue before applying a hot poultice, which was renewed every four hours. “As much blood should be taken away as the animal will bear,” wrote James, “and a full dose of [Sulphate of Magnesia with ginger] given.” He concluded:

The system must be supported by horning down thick oatmeal and linseed gruel, as the appetite is almost invariably lost. […] Such is an outline of the only treatment I have found efficacious in that fatal disease, black quarter. Some practitioners may think it has only its cruelty to recommend it. However, experientia docet.

“Experience is the best teacher” was the meaning of the Latin phrase which James used to end his letter. It would appear that experience was something he had plenty of when it came to saving the lives of his animal patients, be they horses or cattle. Sometimes however, the price paid by those animals for their lives was a period of intense suffering.

The final part of this story inevitably involves a horse, and James Rennell Atcherley’s demise. The beginning of it formed the opening paragraph of Part 1: James and his son James junior were travelling from Bridgnorth in a gig, the bridle bit broke and the horse “dashed off at full speed towards Ludlow.” The main account of this accident, published in the Hereford Times of 20 March 1852, stated that James junior jumped out of the gig (bruising his face and head and breaking his arm). Another statement, printed at the end of that report, stated that when the horse bolted “Mr. Atcherley, jun., who was driving, pulled with such force as to break the bridle, and losing his balance fell out at the back of the gig.”

The horse, incidentally, carried on at full speed with the gig; finding his way through an open turnpike-gate, up the ‘Ludlow old road’ and then “towards Hunderton Farm-house, upsetting the gig, and dragging it after him for a considerable way, breaking it to pieces.”

Now let us turn to the fate of James Rennell Atcherley. On jumping out of the out-of-control gig …

 his foot became entangled in the wheel and steps […] and was literally smashed to atoms to above the ankle-joint. After lying some time in the road, Miss Jarratt, of the Hundred-house, came to their assistance. Mr. Atcherley asked her for a cloth to tie up his foot in (he being a man of very great nerve); it bled very much as he lay in the road. A messenger started to Bridgnorth immediately for medical assistance, and a conveyance to bring them home in.

On reaching home, Mr. Thursfield, with his assistant, Mr. Lloyd, and Dr. Strange, examined the fracture and decided on amputation above the ankle. After setting Mr. Atcherley’s left arm, which was broken in two places, and dressing his wounds, they proceeded to perform the operation, to which Mr. Atcherley was quite agreeable, but expressed a wish to make his will first, which he did. The operation was very cleverly done, Mr. Atcherley being under the influence of chloroform. After the operation was completed, Mr. Atcherley came to himself again, and inquired when they would take the foot off; and being told that it was off and all put right he fainted, and was for several hours wholly unconscious. He had a tolerably good night, considering the pain he endured, and the weak state he was in from loss of so much blood.

At 5 o’clock in the morning there was a change—and the symptoms were not very favourable. Mr. Thursfield was immediately called up by Mr. Lloyd. A violent sickness at this time came over him; after which he got better, but in the evening he gradually grew worse, and at 5 o’clock (just 12 hours) he sank and expired. An express was previously sent off to Liverpool, for his brother Dr. Atcherley; and to Manchester for his eldest son who is a surgeon [he was in fact a grocer]. Dr. Atcherley arrived some hours before his nephew, who, sad to relate, reached Bridgnorth only a few minutes too late to see his father alive.

As soon as the accident became known in Bridgnorth, sorrow was depicted in every countenance. Groups of people were until a late hour at night to be seen in the streets-all anxious to hear some good tidings of the sufferers. These groups continued during the next day, until it was announced that Mr. Atcherley was no more by the closing of the shutters of his house. Mr. Atcherley was a man highly respected by the whole of the town and country round for miles. He has left a family of eight children, five of them under 12 years of age. Mrs. Atcherley, as may be imagined, is almost inconsolable, and the state she is in makes it so much more pitiable—‘expecting every day to be confined.’ The son is going on favorably, but is almost broken hearted. 

James Rennell Atcherley, veterinary surgeon and inn-keeper, died on 16 March 1852 at the age of 51. He was buried three days later at Bridgnorth St Leonard.

Picture credits. Extract from title page of Farriery Improved: Taken from Google Books digital copy of the publication (see Reference 1 below), which is out of copyright. Veterinary College, London, in 1804: From an etching at the British Museum (number 1880,1113.5986), image adapted, used and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Two horses racing: From an etching at the British Museum (number 1875,0710.5554), image adapted, used and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons licence. Runaway horse and cart (yes, I know it’s not a gig but it’s close enough!): Adapted from an image taken from Boston Public Library’s Flickr photostream, and used under a Creative Commons licence.


[1] Henry Bracken (1737), Farriery Improved. Pages 1-2. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[2] What is a Farrier? At: Farriers Registration Council website, accessed 1 Jul 2018).
[3] Reading Mercury, 16 August 1790, page 2. “ODIHAM SOCIETY Of AGRICULTURE and INDUSTRY.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[4] Kentish Gazette, 25 October 1791, page 1. “VETERINARY COLLEGE, LONDON”. Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[5] History of the veterinary profession. At: RCVS Knowledge website, accessed 1 July 2018.
[6] HMSO (1966), Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966. Copy viewed at legislation.gov.uk website.
[7] Government legislation. At: RCVS website, accessed 1 Jul 2018.
[8] RCVS (1874), Register of the Members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons from January, 1794, to May, 1874, inclusive. Page 4 and page 7. Copy viewed at Archive.org.
[9] Professors Spooner, Simonds and Morton (eds.) (1848), The Veterinary Record, volume III, page 366. Copies viewed at Google Books and the Hathi Trust website.
[10] Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette, 25 Jan 1851, page 2. “THE WOLVERHAMPTON AND BREWOOD STEEPLE CHASES.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[11] Nottinghamshire Guardian, issue 256, Thursday 27 Feb 1851, page 7. Copy viewed at Newspaper.com.
[12] William Percivall (ed.) (1851), The Veterinarian, XXVI: 282 / IV:42 (New Series), pages 314-5. Copy viewed at Google Books.
[13] Hereford Times, 20 Mar 1852, page 8. “BRIDGNORTH.[ …] Fatal Gig Accident on the Ludlow and Bridgnorth Road.” Copy viewed at Findmypast.
[14] Death of James Rennall Atcherley registered at Bridgnorth, March quarter 1852; volume 6a, page 428.
[15] Bridgnorth St Leonard, Shropshire, burial register covering 1852. Entry dated 19 March for James Rennell Atcherley, abode High St, age 51. Copy viewed at Findmypast – Shropshire Burials.