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A Skelding Summary

A prominent landmark on streets in Britain has been the red and white spiral design which have adorned poles situated outside barber shops. Many children in the past have mistaken these for amazingly large sticks of rock - and have unsurprisingly been very disappointed by the content of the shop.

The design of these poles alludes to the history of barbers - who in England were known as barber surgeons. Not only were barbers attached to the British Army and Royal Navy tasked with cutting men's hair short (to get rid of lice) but were also detailed to perform general surgery and treatment of wounds received in battle. Not only, then, could a barber remove you of your golden locks - if need be, he'd have your left leg as well. As a result a lot of blood tended to soak what little bandages the barber had at his disposal - hence red merging with the white.

This practice lasted in Europe for around 600 years - and it wasn't until 1745 after a period of 205 years that a guild of surgeons was made distinct from the guild of barbers in England. Even then, the Royal College of Surgeons did not receive its Royal Charter until 1800. Barbers continued with their medical heritage by being the main suppliers of 'french letters' (though the french called them 'cap on anglais') until the 1970s when they no longer cornered the market.

How barbers ended up in this position was down to the Pope who in 1163 banned monks from shedding blood. It was a thing that god fearing and worshipping men weren't supposed to do. Up until then, monks had performed surgical operations. Luckily for the monks, barbers had been living in monasteries since 1092 when another Pope decided he didn't like his priests with bushy beards or droopy moustaches. So the barbers got the surgery job - and the bandages.

Naturally - the history of the barbershop goes back to Ancient Greece and Rome - where Plebeian and Patrician alike would get a trim and a shave and catch up on the local gossip. Most probably they would take home "something for the weekend" too.

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By Laurence Skelding

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