Bed-wetting in the Eighteenth Century

Sometimes the embarrassment and frustration of eighteenth-century sufferers seems to seep from their letters. One such case is that of a young boy, John Plowden. A Mr John Manley of Winchester wrote seven letters to Sloane in 1723-4, asking advice about the child’s lack of bladder control. The relationship between Manley and John is never made clear in the letters. The boy did not seem to be an apprentice and his father was still alive. His age was also not given, though it seems likely that he was at least the age of reason (seven)–but perhaps not much more. John’s own letter was composed in grammatical sentences, but he retained a childish script.

A man carrying a child’s commode. The child has just had an accident, according to the picture’s text. (1769) Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

In October 1723, Manley complained that John “has several times bepiss’d his Bed, & when ever that happens, it is always but midnight. He has also bepiss’t his Breeches about six times a day.” A month later, John and his nurse insisted that she had been “very careful & vigilant in complying” with providing John with his remedies. The real problem, though–as Manley claimed–was that John “is so negligent that he has sometimes bepiss’t his Breeches in the day time. I say tis his own negligence, for he is never deny’d leave to do down whenever he askes it”. A strong statement.

John reported in January 1724 that his control had improved. He was now able to wake himself up in the night when he needed to urinate and “don’t do it in my Sleep so often as I us’d to do”.  Manley noted that John had occasional mishaps in bed the previous month, but the nurse had spotted a pattern: the “mischances happen chiefly on those nights [when] at going to bed he makes but a small quantity of urine.” With the cause identified, it became possible to change John’s behaviour. Having John write his own letter to Sloane may also have been an attempt to make him take responsibility for his problem.

Setting aside the fact that toilet training is obviously a desirable goal, this case highlights the importance of bodily control from an early age in the eighteenth century. John’s guardian must have been deeply concerned about the “mischances” if he was consulting one of England’s leading physicians: few people wrote to Sloane about children and consulting Sloane was expensive (a guinea per letter). Manley saw this as a troubling matter.

In John’s case, his physical symptoms suggested a potentially worse problem–an underlying lack of self-control. By the early eighteenth century, there was a growing emphasis on masculine self-management in terms of mind, body and behaviour. Young boys were particularly vulnerable to learning bad habits that could have long-term effects. Manley’s letters reveal a tone of increased impatience with the boy’s repeated “negligence”, while John himself recognised a need to regain control of his own body. And this mastery needed to be as much mental as physical, including even the ability to wake himself when asleep. Much was at stake for young John Plowden.

I also discussed this case in “The Body Embarrassed? Rethinking the Leaky Male Body in Eighteenth-Century England and France”, Gender and History 23, 1 (2011): 26-46.

Update October 24, 2013: Hannah Newton has an excellent post up at earlymodernmedicine on remedies and explanations for bed-wetting (“Wet Beds & Hedgehogs”).

About Lisa Smith

Associate Professor of History, University of Saskatchewan. Writes on gender, health, and the household in early modern England and France (ca. 1600-1800). Also blogs at The Recipes Project, Notches, and Wonders and Marvels. Tweets as @historybeagle.

17 thoughts on “Bed-wetting in the Eighteenth Century

  1. From Grace Acton’s Recipe Book, Herbes to Season. Herbes to Cure. (1621).

    Cure for Bed Wetting
    Boil a mouse in urine and pound wythe chopped acorn and see coal and feed to childe on empty gutt.

  2. Lynn: An intriguing remedy… Laura: I’m not sure about early modern children, but would have guessed he was about 8 or 9 based on the letter and hand (by modern standards). Have you come across many apprentice cases? And how old were they?

      1. Will keep my eyes peeled. Seems possible that it’s operating on a sympathetic basis, e.g. transferring urine to the mouse. But it seems more complicated than that… A small recipe, with a lot going on.

  3. Mostly curious about the relationship between Manley and Plowden. The father was alive you say, but is there any other clue as to his condition/state…situation?

    1. The letters don’t give any clues about the relationship. The only reference to a father was that Mr Plowden was very concerned. (Quite different from Master Plowden, which was used at least once for the child.) I did wonder whether John might be at Winchester school, but it seems unlikely that he would have had a nurse there.

  4. There’s a recipe of mice skins to cure a leaky woman too, in a star chamber libel case. I think the apprentices are easily closer to ten plus.

    1. So mice might be the common factor… Hmmm. Sounds like an interesting libel case! Re. the apprentices being around ten when they ran into problems: I just checked the Merck Manual about children and urinary incontinence. About 10% of 7 year olds and 3% of 12 year olds experience bed-wetting (and it’s more common in boys or where there is a family history). So, I guess it’s not surprising that it occasionally shows up in young apprentices.

    1. Some of these are certainly rather elaborate… though I wonder at the, er, frog treatment, which seems implausible. On a more serious note, I’m intrigued by the theme of abuse that has been popping up in relation to bed-wetting (e.g. the James Lacey case or some of the remedies in the infographic).

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