Barber-surgeons were medical practitioners in medieval Europe who, unlike many doctors of the time, performed surgery, often on the war wounded. Barber-surgeons would normally learn their trade as an apprentice to a more experienced colleague. Many would have no formal learning, and were often illiterate.
The red and white pole which is still used to identify a barber's shop was originally intended to reflect the blood and napkins used to clean up during bloodletting. This treatment was one of the main tasks of the barber-surgeon, as well as extracting teeth, performing enemas, selling medicines, performing surgery and, of course, cutting hair.
In England barbers and surgeons originally had separate guilds, but these were merged by Henry VIII in 1540 as the United Barber-Surgeons Company. However, the two professions were beginning to separate. Surgery was establishing itself as a profession, helped by men such as the French surgeon Ambroise Paré, whose work raised the professional status of surgery. Increasingly, barbers were forbidden to carry out any surgical procedures except for teeth-pulling and bloodletting.
In 1745 the two professions were separated by King George II, who established the London College of Surgeons. By this time surgeons were university educated.
The ancient ordinary of this society, dated October 10, 1442, enjoined that they should go together in procession on Corpus Christi day, in a livery, and afterwards play the "Baptizing of Christ" at their own expense. Every man to be at the procession when his hour is assigned him, at the New Gate, on pain of forfeiting a pound of wax; to go also with their pageant, when it should be played in a livery, on the like pain; that no alien born should be taken apprentice, or allowed to work within the town, or without, under a penalty of 20s.; that the society should uphold the light of St. John the Baptist, in St. Nicholas' church, as long as they were of ability; that no barber, apprentice, nor servant should shave on a Sunday, neither within the town nor without, by a mile's space.
There is another ordinary of this society, dated September 25, 1671, confirming the former, and making them a body politic by the name of the Barber-Chirurgeons, and Wax and Tallow Chandlers, ordering them to meet yearly, and choose two wardens, who were to be sworn; that apprentices should serve seven years; and that when any brother had taken a cure in hand, no other should meddle with it till it was completed, on pain of forfeiting 20s. for the first, 30s. for the second, and 40s. for the third default, half of which to go to the brother who first dressed the patient. It further enjoined, that none should wash, dress, or trim on a Sunday, on pain of forfeiting 2s. for every offence, giving the company power to make bye-laws, and to choose annually two searchers, who were to be sworn.
In 1648, this society petitioned the corporation for a site whereon to build a Meeting-House, with land for a garden, to be planted with medicinal herbs; when a portion of the Austin Friars' garden was granted them for 61 years, at the annual rent of 6s. 8d. This lease was renewed on November 4, 1771, for the like period of 61 years from the expiration of the old one. Their present hall, which was built in 1730, stands upon piazzas, having a grass plot in front, with gravel walks adorned with statues. Their only property, exclusive of the Hall, is an adjoining house. A benefit society was formed by many of the members of the fraternity.
From: 'Incorporated Companies: The fifteen bye-trades', Historical Account of Newcastle-upon-Tyne:
Mrs Clare Cleveland
12 Valley View