It is likely that Martin born in 1736 and was the son of John Butchell of Flanders origin, who was believed to have been tapestry maker to King George II. Quite how accurate any of that is remains unknown as to date, as I have found nothing to confirm it.
Martin it appears had no wish to join his father’s trade and inadvertently, due to a broken tooth, decided to become a dentist and studied under the celebrated Dr Hunter after whom The Hunterian Museum is named. It would seem that Martin had a natural talent for this kind of work and acquired many clients due to his skill.
Real or Artificial Teeth from one to an entire set, with superlative gold pivots or springs, also gums, sockets and palate formed, fitted, finished and fixed without drawing stumps, or causing pain.
He then began to expand his skills and proved that he was proficient in making trusses for people suffering from hernia’s, so much so that his skills were actively sought ought and his fame stretched as far as Holland, with an eminent Dutch physician travelling to London to be treated by him. In return, the physician taught Martin how to cure fistulas.
Martin married in 1767, at the age of 31 Martin, his bride being Mary Billion, a widow, at St George’s, Hanover Square and we can only assume that they had a happy marriage until her death in 1775.
When Martin’s wife died, he found fame again, but this time for something more macabre than dentistry. Martin loved his wife so much that he couldn’t bear to have her buried, but it is also said that there was a clause in their marriage certificate which provided income for Martin as long as Mary was ‘above ground’. Whichever story you believe, Martin did not have her buried, instead, he had her embalmed and dressed her in her wedding dress:
Mr Van Butchell a celebrated dentist, had the misfortune about five months ago to lose his wife, for whom he had the greatest regard. He sent for Dr Hunter, and his assistant Mr Crookshanks, and desired they would embalm Mrs Van Butchell, the lady deceased, which they did after an entire new method, invented by Dr Hunter, and made use of for embalming the late Lady Holland. The bowels were first taken out. The vessels were afterwards emptied as perfectly as possible, of the blood which they contained, and injected with the oil of turpentine. After the body was well impregnated with that powerful preservative, a large quantity of red waxy injection was thrown into the vessels, which entering their minute cavities and distending them, gave to the face and other parts of the body a most striking appearance of life.
The cavity of the body was filled with various aromatic ingredients, and she was decently laid in a handsome box, and under her there is some powder of the plaster of Paris to absorb any moisture which might drain from the embalmed boy. In the lids of the box are glasses over her face and legs. A physician, with whom I am intimately acquainted, saw her the other day, and informed me that the face of Mrs Butchell is not in the least shrunk; that it is not quite so fair as it was, but that the redness from the injection is very striking, and that the legs appear as perfectly natural as the first. Mr Van Butchell keeps her constant in the parlour where he sits, shows her to all his friends when they visit him, and says that it is the only consolation he had since her death.
On 29 Jun 1780 Martin married for a second time, his new wife being Elizabeth Sanders. He gave his first wife a choice in the colour of her clothing, either black or white, she chose black, so Elizabeth chose the opposite, deciding on white.
As his first wife was still in the house, understandably, having three people in this relationship, albeit only two alive, wasn’t going to work for Elizabeth, and at some stage it was decided that his first wife, Mary, could no longer remain in their home and her body was removed to a museum, ultimately it ended up in the Royal College of Surgeon’s Museum where it remained until the museum was bombed in 1941.
The couple then settled down to have a very large family, four boys and five girls. Their eldest child being Edwin Martin was born in 1781, followed by Jacob John who died in infancy, Isaac, who tragically died in a boating accident in 1806, leaving Martin distraught, Sidney Job born 1789 and finally Daniel David, born 1795. Of the girls it appears only one survived into adulthood, Augusta Elizabeth, born 1784. The other girls who may or may not have survived infancy were not mentioned in his will, these being, Emma Lydy, born 1791, Celia Ann, 1793, Maria Susan, 1797 and Clara Flora 1799, making Martin 63 when the last child was born. Another of his idiosyncrasies was to summon his children by whistling rather than calling them.
Martin continued to work until elderly, but trained up his two son, Edwin and Sidney to follow in his footsteps, with both coming surgeons.
Martin also owned a pony which he would often ride around Hyde Park, usually on Sundays. Sometimes he would paint the pony all purple, sometimes with purple spots, other times with black spots and with streaks and circles upon his face and hind parts and of the various colours, Martin told people that each spot cost him a guinea – so more money than sense.
The Morning Post 4 November 1814 carried the following notification:
Died, on Sunday evening, at his house in Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, in the 80th year of his age, Martin Van Butchell, well known for his numerous eccentricities, particularly for wearing a beard of twenty year’s growth.
On 11 March 1814, Martin sat down to write his will at his home 56, Mount Street, Grosvenor Square, London, which, as you would perhaps expect, the majority of it was to be left to his eldest son, Edwin Martin who was living at 24 Broad Street, Golden Square on the proviso that he provided for and supported his mother, Elizabeth. To his surviving two children Augusta Elizabeth, by then Mrs Jacobs and Sidney Job, who received £50 each. What is slightly curious is that his will was witnessed by a Daniel David Van Butchell, was this his youngest son who was born in 1795, in which case he wasn’t provided for within the will?
Life and character of the celebrated Mr. Martin Van Butchell, surgeon dentist and fistula curer, of Mount-street, Berkeley-square. 1803
Derby Mercury – Friday 12 May 1775
Records of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, Series PROB 11; Class: PROB 11; Piece: 1567
Number 11 (centre left) – Martin Van Butchell. British Museum