York, Geneva, the Enlightenment and the Belcombes

Early references to the Belcombe family of York compiled from the published letters and diaries of Marc-Auguste Pictet and Joseph Frank.
A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is Put in Place of the Sun (1766), by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), Wikimedia Commons.


Marc-Auguste Pictet visits the Belcombe family in York

This translated excerpt of a letter from “Voyage de trois mois en Angleterre, en Ecosse, et en Irlande pendant l’été de l’an IX (1801 v. st.)”  by Marc-Auguste Pictet, the esteemed Professor of Medicine in Geneva whom Dr. William Belcombe had befriended and collaborated with whilst in Switzerland (see my post on William Belcombe’s time in Geneva here). William Belcombe was entrusted to translate Pictet’s “Essay on Fire” from French to English in 1791 whilst living in Geneva. Pictet’s visit ten years later to York in 1801 demonstrates, in my opinion, a lasting friendship existed between William Belcombe and Marc-Auguste Pictet.

Title Page of William Belcombe’s 1791 English translation of Pictet’s “Essai sur le feu”. Viewable in the Medical Society of London Collection in the Wellcome Library. Deposited 1954.
Marc-Auguste Pictet
Professor of physic in Geneva.
Correspondant de l’Institut de France, Membre de plusieurs Sociétés savante

This is a very entertaining description from 1801 of the Belcombe family participating in a homemade experiment with a nitrogen oxide gas during the visit to their home in York from Marc-Auguste Pictet!

 “At eleven o’clock the next day, we are in York, and I embrace my good friend Dr. Belcombe, who was waiting for us at the inn to take us to his house. We haven’t seen each other for ten years. Those who have experienced what one feels in such a meeting, do not need me to describe it to them, the others do not understand me; I won’t say a word about it. We have family dinner. Dr. Belcombe spent two years in Geneva; two of his children were born there. He has six. We did not have the charming spectacle of this whole family reunited until the next day at the tea table. Madame Belcombe seemed glorious, and with reason. His three eldest daughters, (who already count) have the solidity that includes the best English education, and all the pleasant talents that one cultivates in France with so much success. Drawing, music, dance, duets, even trios-ballets, we had it all, and always with family.

With all our old friends in Geneva going one by one; the memory of friendship is the surest of all, and we had a long time to respond to questions of which they were the object […] Physics had had its turn during the day. In the evening we attended a class that Mr. Stanscliffe is currently teaching at York, and where I met ,with satisfaction, several ladies. We had talked about our experiments on the inspiration of the gaseous nitrogen oxide, and we also agreed to repeat them the next day with the family. Mr. Stancliffe promised to prepare everything we needed. Let’s move on to the next day. Madame Belcombe tried the first, with great curiosity and courage. To our great surprise, she felt no sensation other than that of marked heat in the chest. Double, triple the dose without having more effect. Miss F [****?] a young person of 18 years old, then tried the experience, without much emotion beforehand. At the fifth or sixth inspiration she took a rather strong bout of nerves, which lasted a quarter of an hour. We do not know the part fear could have had on this effect. When she was recovered, there was weakness in her legs and a readiness to sleep. We were not satisfied; and Mr. Stanscliffe was kind enough to give in at the invitation of Dr. Belcombe to come into his home that evening, to try a few more. The result was quite remarkable. Madame Belcombe experienced nothing more than the first time. Her second daughter was curious to try this, but not without a mixture of fear. We wanted to try what would be the influence of the imagination. The word was given to Mr. Stanscliffe, who filled the breathing container with common air. Miss Belcombe had not made three or four breaths that she fell unconscious, an accident that had never happened to her. The effect was so prompt, and so pleasing to those in the dark, that we laughed despite ourselves to the outbursts, while giving it the necessary care, which soon had their effect, and it was very quickly delivered. We didn’t say a word. We engaged, after many requests, Miss F ***, to repeat the test, letting her ignore that she was going to breathe common air. She had an access of nerves quite similar to the previous one, but shorter and weaker. Returning to her, she tells us that she had found this gas much weaker than the other, and we are not surprised! We had on hand a young man of 13 to 14 years old, the son of one of my friends from Geneva, of robust health and a very lively character. He wanted to try it; we gave him first at his […] the atmospheric air, which he breathed with all his heart. After a few moments, he left the container with a sort of indignation. I don’t feel anything, he said, it’s a catch! No; the dose is not strong enough, and the way of breathing is inconvenient. Mr. Stanscliffe please have him take it in the bladder which is still filled with it. (It was real). The young man begins to breathe with a kind of greed, and it does not take long to enter the climax that I have described to you several times. He wanted to walk, without being able to do so, he was struggling; it had to be contained; all the muscles of his face were in great work. This state ceases almost suddenly. I’m fine, he tells us, suddenly, and with an air of perfect satisfaction. He began to walk in the room, and seemed to keep for some time more activity than usual. My traveling companion, Mr. Chenevix, repeated the essay on himself. He found the same ecstatic sensations he had previously experienced, and which he still describes with a kind of enthusiasm. I conclude from all these facts, that the action of this gas on certain individuals is indisputable, that it is modified according to their particular temperament; and that in some cases the power of the imagination is quite great.so that the common air produces similar effects. We were still in the experiences when we were told that the mail-coach had arrived and that we had a place. We embraced as if we had to meet again the next day. At midnight we were on our way to Edinburgh where we arrived in thirty hours.” *Translated by SRiocain, Jan 2020


Professor Joseph Frank and the Belcombe Family in York

This early reference to the Belcombe family of York is from 1805. Written by Joseph Frank, a German physician, to whom the aforementioned Genevan scientist Marc-Auguste Pictet gave a letter of recommendation to present to Dr. William Belcombe of York during Frank’s visit to England and Scotland in the early years of the 19th century.

Frank published his account on his journey through France, England and Scotland in 1805 in “Reise nach Paris, London und einem grossen Theile des übrigen Englands und Schottlands in Beziehung auf Spitaeler, Versorgungshäuser, übrige Armen-Institute, Medizinische Lehranstalten, und Gefängnisse” and I include my translation below

Dr. Joseph Frank (1771-1842) was the son of a prominent Viennese physician Johann Peter Frank (1745—1821). Joseph became Head of Pathology and Anatomy at the University of Vilnius, Lithuania where he established one of Europe’s first vaccination institutes in Europe (1808).


York is an old, badly built city that has no trade or large factories. It also has no scientific institutions. Regardless of this, this place is of great interest to me. My friends, Messrs. Pictet and Dr. Marcet, had sent me letters of recommendation to Dr. Belcombe, one of York’s most distinguished doctors. They had informed me in advance that I would get to know a very pleasant man and that I would be very well received by his lovely family. Nonetheless, the way I was received at Dr. Belcombe’s, was beyond all my expectations. The tone that exists there shines, all the good things that are usually found in English, French and German individually, are put together here. Dr. Belcombe, with his amiable wife, has spent several years in both France and Germany. He spent time in Leipzig himself. In particular, he had chosen the most interesting place to stay, in Geneva. From there he went on a trip to Italy and made the acquaintance of my father in Pavia. After Dr. Belcombe had returned to his homeland, he entered into a practical career in York. It is very lucky for travellers if they fall into the hands of people who have also traveled. The guidance that those receive in this way with regard to the objects to be seen already grants indescribable time-saving. I was particularly happy about this in York. Dr. Belcombe said: Five items deserve my special attention here, namely: the hospital, the asylum for the mad, the trainee for Quakers who have gotten into a mental confusion, the poor school and the prison. We went into that first.


This hospital is intended for the entire alms of the County of York. It was founded in 1740 through voluntary contributions. You can see no luxury in the design of the same. In it, everything is available to serve the sick which might be required. The building has three floors. The staff live on the first floor, while on the second there are two halls, one of which is intended for female and the other for male patients. Each of these halls has sixteen beds and a small room to the side for the guards. The bedsteads are made of iron. The third floor also consists of two sickrooms with nine beds in each. One also notices an expedient amphitheater, in which chemistry and the surgical operations are carried out. From the beginning the hospital’s income did not allow it to be opened entirely; the halls listed were therefore only gradually, as the income increased, dedicated to health services. I deliberately cite this circumstance to show how little you have to be put off by such activities if they cannot be driven straight from the start. On the contrary, I wanted to guess that all pious foundations should be started as small as possible, and only be careful to put them on in such a way that they could subsequently be enlarged. The expectation of the public in most cities has been deceived so often when it comes to setting up mild foundations that one cannot be blamed if it is suspicious of new ones. Therefore there is no other means than to temporarily prove to the latter the feasibility and usefulness of the established plan through the deed itself. If this happens in an obvious and convincing way, no audience will fail to help it’s ability to provide. Then the institution undertaken grows with each year, and with it the conviction of its real use, which conviction I see for the most powerful spur of well-functioning people.

Asylum for the Mad

The name of this hospital deserves our attention. It doesn’t sound that good making the relation bigger than you might imagine. Choosing a gentle word therefore helps to alleviate human suffering. The Asylum for the Insane in York has existed since 1777, where it was built through a general subscription. At that time it’s only purpose was to pick up poor insane people. However, since this institution had not set up a fund and the subscription process did not really succeed, one has fallen for the new sensible idea of doing such oneself. One behaved here in the following way: It was announced that the Asylum of York would take insane madmen for a reasonable contribution of money. The good reputation that the institution had previously had soon made many well-to-do and wealthy people come forward to hand over their insane relatives to them. Now that everyone had made every effort to pay for this opportunity, after all the disputed costs: one poor man went crazy and was still used it every day. In this way, every ill patient feeds one or more of his poor companions. This facility would be excellent in every way if it wasn’t every now and then, given the very relative terms poor, mediocre and rich, could give rise to some indulgences and demands that are not always equally well received by the whole audience. Given the current situation, it is hardly possible that the wealthier should not believe that they are being taken too hard and even declare the poor to be poor. There is also another circumstance. Under the statutes of the asylum there is a law that reads as follows: “Since it would be unreasonable to require the doctor to treat wealthy people (who would have become private patients in another place) free of charge, so it is the same allowed a moderate of the relatives of such cases?, reward for his medical efforts. ”As fair as this disposition is, it still gives rise to complaints which (I don’t know whether with or without reason) make the saga: the asylum in York is more of a speculation problem as a charity institution. The number of insane people there usually exceeds a hundred. They are divided into three classes. The first class, in which there must never be more than 25 sick people, is intended for people who pay a substantial sum (whose average concern is 100 pounds sterling per year). This sum is truly mediocre for England, even if the ancillary expenses should rise again so high. The second class includes those sick who pay 8 shillings a week for their food and medicine. In general, every sick person in the institution can stand in that class. In the third class are all the meagre delusions that are included for free and be fed; with the exception of those among them who are among the poor parishioners of York. – They are counted for reasons of second-class sickness. -From the 1st of January 1777 to the 1st of August 1800, 1347 madmen have been admitted to the asylum. Of these, 655 were cured, 307 received relief, 153 were withdrawn as incurable from their friends, 120 died, and 112 remained in the institution. Among these were 67 men and 45 women. Because of his [Doctor Hunter] happiness in the treatment of mental confusion, and as he was a doctor of the Asylum, he gave himself up regardless of the trouble of his old age and his weak health to accompany me there. The way to the asylum leads through a large garden, which however does not belong to the same. The design of the asylum has nothing to notice; but is completely like that of any other private house. Dr. Hunter believes this measure is very important when setting up a facility of this kind. “There are so many inevitable objects, he said, that shake the poor maniac or his relatives when they approach a place of this kind that should really be a sacred duty, all the adverse impressions that we have in our power to remove. Certainly belongs to an unordinary or dissuasive design of the madhouses. “How true! The location of the asylum is very advantageous. Every patient has his own room. Several payers even have two. In addition, different rooms are designed so that the patients can get together and talk. Most of the sick also eat together. They are given knives and forks. Expressed my surprise at this. Said Dr. Hunter “It was not a misfortune for him yet, and he had still seen that the stricter the security and coercive measures that were used, the more insane and insidious the more the insane became.” Dr. Hunter rarely even uses the forced camisole. One can imagine that there is no question of chains, iron gangs and similar things. A nice garden borders on the rear side of the asylum. When I asked Dr. Hunter about the effects of various medicines in the madness, he clarified to me: he was not a friend of all the specific, praised against this disease, and with funds, he looks more at the improvement of the whole constitution through general remedies. He added that his main focus was on the abdomen and especially on the liver. In order to keep his body open, he used the rhubarb, now the aloe, and even the emetic stone. If the liver is blocked, the use of soap has served him very well. England, which casually consists of 50,000? individuals, sends all of its madmen to this madhouse that they built. The wealthy sick pay according to their circumstances, the others are catered for at the expense of the community. The sums required here come through the subscription route or through voluntary contributions. The number of insane Quakers is 50, including 33 women and 17 men. This sum is very large in relation to the number of Quakers in general. This should be all the more awe-inspiring, since the Quakers usually live very orderly, and are masters of their passions, if one could not assume that their strict religious laws would be quite suitable to exalt and confuse the human spirit. – The retreat for insane Quakers is an English mile from York on a hill from which you can enjoy a beautiful view. Dr. Belcombe, who is a doctor at this institute, accompanied me there. The interior of the room is similar to that of the St. Lucas Hospital in London. However, I saw an arrangement with regard to the windows that I had never seen before. Every window maintains something has been taken into account in this institution which, it seems, is not thought of elsewhere. It is well known that the noise that some madmen make is not only uncomfortable for their neighbours, even though they are separated, but also diminishes the calm that is so necessary for their production. In order to avoid these evils, a large hole has been made above the fireplace in the rooms, which are intended for the frenzied insane, with the intention that the sound may be lost through it. Although I doubt that the acoustics have been consulted on this decision, and although there is no agreement on the success of the same, is I believe, that the idea of remedying such great inconvenience deserves praise and further reflection. – Wherever I still see it, the forced camisole is tied on the back in such a way that the arms are folded across one another, because it is feared that the crosswise position of the arms would be difficult for the patient to lengthen. Instead of the usual compulsory camisole, a leather belt has simply been attached around the body, which has two bands at the front, which cross and close the patient’s hands. This means of coercion may be less uncomfortable for patients; but the sick man can release his hands by force if he wants to do damage. Dr. Belcombe agrees in most respects with that of Dr. Pinel’s in Paris. 

Charity school

Several women from York have opened a subscription to build a school for poor girls. Not only do they let them teach reading and writing in all the necessary women’s jobs, as in religion and morality, but they also provide them with food and clothing. Since the clothes the girls wear gray, this school is called: Graycoats School. As soon as they have reached the appropriate age, they are employed as servants. I met 42 Girls in this institute. A loving old woman, who is in charge of the supervision, seems to be in office to act with great zeal. A few years ago the ladies who run the institute honoured her with a silver cup with a very flattering inscription.

The Prison. 

In his letters about England, Mr. Pictet explains that if he had to choose a prison, he would give it preference. The local prison is really one of the most beautiful in England. It’s location is hotter and healthier. You can get to the door of the same without punishing where it allows the entrance. After one has knocked on the same (as is the case in England in all private houses), the door is rattled without any lock chains and opened by a man who has nothing less than the reputation of a jailer. The courtyard, in which one immediately steps, presents a large square. This not only allows all prisoners to move around, but also to go for a walk. I saw at least one prisoner who was driving around in a convertible? for half an hour. A building is provided that serves the debtors prisons. It consists of two floors, each with 11 rooms that are 16 feet wide and 12 feet high. Opposite this building is a second, much more magnificent one, which is called the Court of Justice. In a third, the chapel is the building that faces the gate and is between the two listed. Close to it and a little deeper you can see the dungeons for wrongdoers. These people have their own, smaller, well-kept courtyards, separated from the large courtyard. Every wrongdoer has chains and ties around his feet. At night they are locked individually, sometimes several together in dark dungeons. When I saw this part of the prison, it was evening, and consequently the time when the prisoners had to be locked in the cells that were assigned to them. At the inspection of their ironworks before this operation; the prisoners and the dungeon masters in the most friendly tone, say a good night, after which those were locked up until tomorrow. Although this whole scene was played very calmly; it shook my mind in an unusual way. I recognised soon and found the causes of this unexpected shuddering feeling. For most of the day I was an eyewitness to the most perfect domestic happiness in the midst of the lovable family of Dr. Belcombe; Imbued with the emotions I received, I went among the prisoners without thinking about the scenes of misfortune that awaited me. The contrast of such opposing positions, on one side the reward of virtue by itself, on the other the punishment of the vice by just laws, all of these explained to me the feelings that had plunged me into a terrible and unhappy dream. When I was with Dr. Belcombe ,accompanying me after trying to convey my feelings, we came back to the gates of the prison without realising it. As soon as we had left there, my companion’s family came to meet us as if they had foreseen the benevolence they had shown us. We went for a walk along the banks of the Ouse River on the promenade called New Walk. It was already 1 o’clock in the afternoon and it was still day. When I escorted Dr. Belcombe and his family home; and had spent the rest of the evening with them, it came the hour when I had to start my journey to Newcastle. Although just an acquaintance of no more than four days it was just as difficult and the memory of them will remain pleasant forever. Translated by SRiocain, Jan 2020


Louis Odier and the Belcombe family

Dr. Louis Odier was a Swiss physician-philospher who was renown during the Age of Enlightenment for his research and promotion of vaccination against smallpox. He was a well known contributor to scientific journals and published numerous European medical texts into English. Odier was a close friend of William Belcombe whom assisted in the publication of these texts and more notably on Odier’s treatise on Bismuth as a successful treatment against tapeworms (see Notice de la vie et des écrits de Louis Odier etc, – Pierre Prevost)

Dr. Belcombe’s translation of Odier’s Bismuth research completed and published in Gottingen, 1791.

Anne Lister writes in her diary on Saturday 2nd November, 1816: “Letter from M- [Mariana] / Lawton/ C- [Charles] quite better – Eli arrived in England with Mrs Copley” (SH:7/ML/E/26/2/0008 WYAS, Calderdale, West Yorkshire)

I believe this was the return of Eliza Belcombe from Switzerland where she had been visiting Dr. Belcombe’s old Genevan friend Dr. Louis Odier. Anne Lister had previously wrote on Saturday 28th September, 1816: “Letter from M – [Mariana] – enclosing 1 from Eli – Dr Odier – My uncle Joseph still very poorly”(SH:7/ML/E/26/2/0008). Lister’s noting of Dr. Odier in this diary entry indicates a possibility in my opinion that Eliza (“Eli’) was present in Geneva with Dr. Odier in 1816.

A letter from Pictet to William Belcombe from August 24th, 1804  interestingly contains an invitation for Dr. Belcombe to send one of his ‘young people’ to Odier. – I believe that Eliza Belcombe was chosen to go and stay with Dr. Odier. A summary of this letter invitation is available to download here:

Another source which I believe corroborates Eliza Belcombe was in Geneva in 1816 is a newspaper article published in the Journal de Geneve in 1950 which was a short retrospective account of the extraordinary activities of Marc-Auguste Pictet. A paragraph towards the end of the article describes an evening spent by Pictet (who was editor of the “Bibliothèque universelle) in the company of the Odiers (Dr. Louis and his wife), Andrew Bell the educationalist, the Favres, Miss Belcombe, Charles Victor de Bonstetten and Madame Candolle (possibly the wife of Augustin Pyramus de Candolle.

I include a translation of the majority of this Journal de Geneve article as it demonstrates not only the societal standing of Marc-Auguste Pictet within Genevan Society but also his wider relationships especially with Odier and others within the context of the European Enlightenment of which Dr. Belcombe was considered by Pictet a part of:

The excursion from Elvire to Salève” form Journal de Geneve (21st Nov 1950)

“By 1816, the “Bibliothèque britannique” had become the “Bibliothèque universelle“. The borders having reopened after the long wars of the Empire, this Geneva review now reflected the cosmopolitanism of its editors. Marc-Auguste Pictet, who was it’s soul at the time, attracted a whole thinking Europe. Browsing through the unpublished manuscript journal of this man of letters who brought about so many improvements in the Arts, physics, schools, home economics and philanthropic establishments, the reader remains amazed at the prodigious radiance which emanates from this man. His activity among the elite of several nations seems to reach its peak during the summer following the restoration. On June 23th, 1816, M.A Pictet went to Cologny with Dr. Odier to see Lord Byron at Diodati. The poet had unfortunately been detained on the lake by a contrary wind; but on the 27th Pictet attended a large reception with music and ice cream at Mme Revilliod’s in honour of the French ambassador Talleyrand, on the 29th he spent a wonderful evening at Jean-Gabriel Eynard and found there the nephew of the philhellene, Charles Lullin the Englishman, so named because he had spent several years in the offices of the Foreign Office in London. On July 30th, Marc-Auguste noted in his notebook: “Arrival of Madame Charles, with Marigraé …” The latter had been a colleague of Pictet as inspector general of the University; he accompanied the young Mrs. Charles, wife of the President of the Institute de France, shortly after immortalised by Lamartine under the name of Elvira. He stopped in Geneva before going to take the waters in Aix and came to give Pictet the news of M. Charles that the Genevois had often seen in Paris during his stay of 1802 in the French capital. Elvira gave him news of Laplace, Cuvier, Berthollet, whom the professor at our University had known in person. For his part, he reminded the young woman of the impression then produced on him by the megaloscope invented by Mr. Charles. A portrait on enamel placed as an object in this apparatus puts on a frosted glass serving as a screen a charming image seen by transparency. In the days that followed, Marc-Auguste Pictet resumed his prodigious activity. On July 3rd, he took part in a familiar meeting of the Société des Arts during which Guillaume-Henri Dufour read his story from Corfu. On the 5th, he received Wickham and Douglass for lunch at the same time as Mme. Bulow and Schmidt. William Wickham, long serving Envoy of the English crown to the Swiss canons, had studied law in Geneva under Professor Perdriau and married Eléonore-Madeleine Bertrand, the daughter of the mathematics professor. The same evening, Pictet dined in Coppet at Mme de Stael with Schlegel and Montgelas, this grandson of a president in the Senate of Chambery born in Munich, and who became Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bavaria. Schlegel gave him a a short literary composition on antiquities for the Bibliothèque universelle. Mme de Stael’s son-in-law, Duke Victor de Broglie, accompanied him the following Saturday to Lancaster school which he was pleased with. This is undoubtedly the establishment of finance education in Lancy by the brother of Marc-Auguste, the diplomat Charles Pictet de Rochemont, and organised according to the Lancaster-Bell system. Andrew Bell himself, inventor of the mutual school, the first of which he had created in Madras, was in Switzerland in 1816, where he examined the institutions of Father Girard in Friborg and of Pestalozzi in Yverdon. Bell spent the evening of July 20 at the editor of the “Bibliothèque universelle” with the Odiers, Miss Belcombe, the Favres, Mme de Candolle, a Hamburger returning from Athens, and Charles V. de Bonstetten.” Translated by SRiocain 2020

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