Arguments break out at Dispensary

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John Robb, Esq., MD, lived in Bullers Cottage, now Bow Villa.

He was born in 1787, and qualified as a doctor at St Andrews.

In 1827, he and Dr Trotter were the only physicians in Morpeth, though there were also four surgeons, including William Watson, the Dispensary surgeon.

We meet him socially in 1838, when the Presbyterian minister, the Rev Matthew Brown, got married.

Mr Brown’s brother Robert came down from Scotland for the wedding. He called on Dr Robb at least twice, once with the bride’s father, and another time on his own.

We saw him professionally a few weeks ago, in his prescription book at Morpeth Dispensary. Interestingly, although he was a physician, he appears in the Dispensary books as an honorary surgeon.

When the New Poor Law was introduced here in September 1836, several Presbyterians were elected to the Board of Guardians, including Robert Blakey and Dr Robb, and later also Dr Trotter.

Blakey became a bitter critic of Dr Robb. To understand why, we need to make rather a lengthy digression.

Robert Blakey was a successful tradesman, but also a Radical, well known for exposing abuses in the town.

He was opposed to the New Poor Law on principle, but still stood for election to the Board of Guardians. He soon found that it was run by a few ‘active guardians’ bent on applying the new law in all its rigour.

Early in 1837, while he was in London on business, he wrote a private letter to a leading anti-Poor Law campaigner, John Walter Esq., MP. Walter was also the owner of The Times.

Amongst many others, Walter quoted from Blakey’s letter in the House. A full report of his speech appeared in The Times of February 25, 1837, including this: “I have seen the feelings of the aged and infirm wounded in the most brutal manner, and their pressing wants ridiculed and neglected (and) there have been very recently two suicides in this union by labouring men, from poor-law oppressions.

“The board of guardians of this same union have only a few days ago resolved, that the common decencies of Christian burial shall not be observed, as heretofore, towards deceased paupers.”

The Chairman of the Board Charles William Bigge, of Linden, called a special meeting, when a resolution was passed, calling Blakey’s allegations “malicious and unwarrantable Misrepresentations”. Dr Robb was the seconder.

A fierce exchange of letters followed in the Newcastle papers.

Blakey stated that he did not blame the whole Board, but only the ‘active’ guardians, one of whom was Dr Robb.

In a letter in the Newcastle Courant of March 31, 1837, he vented the full force of his sarcasm on him: “When their kind friend, Dr Robb, gets his critical remarks on the Latin Poets finished... he will be able to attend to the culinary department of the Board, with his wonted zeal and scientific precision.

“There will then be dispensed, with economical prudence, to the poor of the Union, abundance of savoury and delicious preparation of sheeps-heads, so that the widow’s heart shall leap for joy, and discontent and lamentation shall be heard no more.”

The Board caved in and ordered an improved diet in the workhouse. But on December 27, 1839, writing in the Northern Liberator (which he owned) Blakey wrote: “The guardians have within the last month rescinded their former dietary, and now the poor have no bread during part of the week.

"This new regulation was made at a very scanty board, only four or five out of the eighty members; this humane squad consisted of Dr Trotter, Mr Henry Esther, and that surprising genius, Doctor Robb, and another person.

"The Mayor of Morpeth (this was Mr John Creighton) has placed upon the books of the board a notice to rescind the squad’s starvation scale; and we hope he will succeed.”

Spelling ‘Doctor Robb’ in full was deliberate. Anybody can make a mistake, and Dr Robb had made a serious one.

Blakey wrote about it in the same issue, but discreetly, so as not to risk being sued: “The White Powder.— There is an ignorant booby, who sets itself up to be a doctor, not a hundred miles from a market town in the North of England....

“The wife of a respectable tradesman got the influenza. This clown was called in to see her. He met with one of the tradesman’s journeymen, who told the said doctor that a white powder was famous for curing influenza.

“’Well, Willie, ye dinna say sae’, said the disciple of Esculapius, ‘faith, that’s na bad thing, yeiblins’. He rubbed his thick skull for a few seconds, and away he set to order a white powder for his female patient.

“He gave her a good doze of tartarised antimony instead of antimonial powder (both white), and the consequence was that the lady was nearly sent to her long home!”

Tartarised antimony is also called tartar emetic.

A somewhat later medical textbook says that while antimonial powder, which is a diaphoretic (i.e. promotes perspiration) should be given in doses of three to five grains, the dose of tartar emetic for the same purpose should be no more than 1/6 of a grain. Even when used as an emetic, the maximum dose was only two grains.

One wonders whether the respectable tradesman was Blakey himself, and the patient Mrs Blakey.

A very different incident is revealed in an entry in the Dispensary prescription book dated October 25, 1843.

The writing is neater than usual, and is for rhubarb pills and Epsom salts for one John Summers at the Poor House.

On October 26, however, we have a much longer one: ‘Magnes Calcem’ (unidentifiable, but perhaps a mixture of magnesia and chalk), magnesium sulphate (a laxative), carbonate of ammonia (smelling salts, but perhaps used as an antacid and stimulant), spirit of nitrous ether (probably as a diuretic), infusion of gentian (a bitter tonic, to aid digestion), and compound spirit of horseradish (to aid digestion and the passing of water).

Across it, in different ink, is written: “I know nothing of this prescription. J.R.”

A note, which may have been written after Dr Robb interjected, says: “The following are Mr Carr’s patients.”

I don’t know why Mr Carr was using Dr Robb’s prescription book. Perhaps he was an articled pupil.

Things returned to normal on October 30, with a lead plaster and an opening powder. The final entry, on November 6, says, “Dead. D.M.C”.

Dr Robb died in September 1854, aged 67. He had made his will in 1842: “This is the last Will and Testament of me John Robb of Bullersgreen in the parish of Morpeth...”

He left all he possessed: “unto my dear Wife Mary Ann Robb,” including, “all that my Freehold Messuage or Dwelling House and Garden, Field, Close and parcel of land adjoining the same... in Bullersgreen aforesaid and now in my possession, or in the possession or occupation of my Undertenants.”

She was also his sole executrix.