A vital lifeline for the town’s poorest areas

Aerial photo 1969 Dispensary
Aerial photo 1969 Dispensary

IN their latest trawl through the newspaper archives, local historians and Herald The Past columnists BRIAN HARLE and ALAN DAVISON tell the story of the Morpeth Dispensary – a valued institution.

ON Wednesday, September 4, 1816, a meeting was held in the Town Hall of Morpeth. In the chair was Ralph Atkinson Esq. It was the inaugural meeting of an institution that is still in operation today and fast approaching its 200th anniversary – The Morpeth Dispensary.

The first resolution passed at that initial meeting was: ‘That infitutions having for their object the relief of the indigent Sick, have ever had the function of the humane and charitable, and have invariably met with the moft liberal and benevolent fupport; and as the utility of difpenfaries in general has been fully evinced by long experience, the eftablifhment of a Charity of that kind for the purpofe of adminiftering Advice and Medicines gratuitoufly to the Poor of thefe districts, is a Meafure which has the unanimous approbiation of this meeting.’

Before Dispensaries, the ‘curing of the poor sick’ was medical care in the home with family or neighbour homemade herbal recipes, or alternatively a visit to the Apothecary or doctor where a fee may be charged.

Surgery would be by a barber or qualified surgeon at cost, but this would only be in the larger towns. Charitable Infirmaries were only in the larger towns and cities and therefore too remote for much of the population.

The Dispensary ‘movement’ was initially set up in London in 1770 whereby medical attendance was gratuitous and consisted of medicines, surgery and vaccination together with home visits where necessary.

The movement expanded rapidly around the country. Dispensaries quickly followed at Edinburgh 1776, Kelso 1777, and locally at Newcastle 1777, Berwick 1814, Alnwick 1815, Hexham 1816, and finally Morpeth 1817.

Dispensaries, as far as medical care is concerned, could be deemed as the forerunner of the GP practices we know today. There were slight variations in the establishment of each dispensary, but generally they took the following pattern.

The backbone of the institution was the list of annual subscribers who were considered governors and entitled to vote in all matters of the charity. Annual subscription to a larger amount than the minimum, usually one guinea, gave a right to recommend more patients, for patients needing to attend the dispensary had to have a letter of recommendation from one of these subscribers. For this to happen, subscribers usually passed their letters on to clergymen or other public servants so that potential patients knew where these letters could be obtained should the need arise.

The dispensaries would have a patron and presidents together with a committee, including a secretary and treasurer, made up of subscribers who would meet four times a year. There would be a general annual meeting, held in public, for the purpose of auditing the accounts, overseeing the general running of the institution and noting the returns of the sick.

As a general rule dispensaries would have an apothecary, a house surgeon and a number of physicians and surgeons on call together with nurses, all overseen by the committee.

The Morpeth Dispensary started life in 1817 in premises in Oldgate, sharing the building with The Subscription Library run by Mrs Isabella Jamieson. An anecdote in the 1943 Annual report for the Dispensary mentions a ‘Mr Thomas Matheson remembering that the Institution functioned from premises presently occupied by the St Roberts Catholic Club.’ This building may have been Collingwood House for it was vacated after Collingwood’s death in 1810.

The first apothecary was Mr William Watson. He was still there in 1828 and in 1842, 472 patients were treated.

The Dispensary moved in 1847 to a three-storey stone building called Green Court. It was originally the home of The Rev Froggart, the Minister of the Independent Chapel. In some ways this was a strange move to make, for this building was next to Bell’s Yard, one of the poorest areas of the town where disease was rife. However, it did mean help was on the ‘doorstep’ for those most in need.

It had gardens on two sides and an outside loo.

This building was used as the Dispensary until 1965 and eventually demolished in 1977 to make way for extensions to the original Sanderson Building of 1939. The passage running through the current Sanderson Arcade follows the line of Bell’s Yard.

During this period, 1847 to 1965, the Dispensary was a well regarded institution for the town, and some idea of the numbers of patients attending over the years can be gleaned from summaries of the annual reports found in the Morpeth Herald.

In the 1880s approximate yearly numbers were 500 patients, 1890s 550 patients, in the 1920s 1,500 patients, 1930s 3,000 patients, dropping to 1,500 during the Second World War.

As a charity, money always needed to be raised. The annual subscriptions mentioned above were the basis, but legacies were regularly given, sometimes as much as a £1,000, and donations from private individuals and organisations were always welcome.

The committee of the Dispensary was also instrumental in encouraging and showing the need for the provision of a Cottage Hospital for Morpeth, which eventually materialised in 1898 at Buller’s Green.

The variety of illness and disease which the dispensary dealt with can be seen from a cutting from the Morpeth Herald of 1883, noting there is no mention of surgery operations that must have taken place.

With the formation of the National Health Service in 1948, the role of dispensaries was taken over by GP surgeries and many of them closed nationwide. Since 1965 the Morpeth Dispensary has still been in business, albeit without any premises and on a much smaller scale.

In its own quiet way, it still gives assistance to the poor and sick of Morpeth and the surrounding area, the requests being received from third parties. As The Morpeth Dispensary now approaches its double century, it would be interesting to know how many residents have benefitted from this most valuable institution since 1817.

We acknowledge the help given to us by the Mackay family. Should you have any knowledge of the location of St Roberts Catholic Club, or better still, photographs of the Dispensary, please contact us at morpethhistory@hotmail.co.uk