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Dispensary is at last serving its wider area

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The Morpeth Dispensary was established at a public meeting held in August 1816, at the Queen’s Head, followed by another at the Town Hall.

Those present at the second meeting agreed unanimously to establish “a Dispensary at Morpeth, for the benefit and relief of the poor, in the parishes of Bolam, Bothal, Hartburn, Hebburn, Felton, (south part) Longhorsley, Mitford, Netherwitton, Newbiggin, Ulgham, Widdrington, Woodhorn, and Warkworth, (including the Chapelry of Chivington) in Morpeth Ward, and the following adjoining parishes, viz. Bedlington, Horton, Cramlington, Stannington, Whalton, Meldon and Kirkwhelpington”.

Hebburn is now Hebron, and the south part of Felton parish means Thirston.

The object was to give “advice and medicines gratuitously to the poor of these districts”.

A vote of thanks was given to Ralph Atkinson, of Angerton Hall, “for his great exertions in promoting the establishment of this charity”.

The first Dispensary doctor, William Watson, was an apothecary. We do not know how he or his successor, Thomas Gibson, got their qualifications, but it was possible then to qualify as an apothecary or surgeon merely by apprenticeship.

Mr Gibson went on to serve in the modest role of House Surgeon for 34 years. His death in 1863 marked a turning point; the thorough professionalisation of medicine was under way.

In 1858, the Medical Act provided that persons could only qualify as a physician or surgeon at a recognised institution. Doctors willing to work for £100 a year or less became steadily fewer. Even as late as 1870, however, there were nine applicants for the post of House Surgeon.

Five candidates attended interview, all between 22 and 24 years old. The post of House Surgeon was clearly seen as a job for a young man starting out.

The rules of the Dispensary were revised in 1884. Under them: “The House Surgeon shall be a Gentleman registered under the Statutes for the time being to practice both medicine and surgery.”

The appointment was for three years, but on no account for more than five in total. He must reside at the Dispensary and be unmarried. If he married, he had to resign.

One of his duties under the 1884 Rules was “to have charge of the Prescription Books of the Medical Committee, and accurately compound and dispense the medicines therein prescribed”.

As late as 1882, the House Surgeon was LSA (Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries), as well as MRCS (Member of the Royal College of Surgeons).

The Dispensary continued to attract applicants until 1900, when, following the resignation of Dr de Jersey, the Governors were unable to appoint a replacement.

A young GP in the town, Dr Kunz, agreed to cover the vacancy for as long as necessary. He did so for 18 months.

In 1901 and 1902, the Governors overcame their difficulties by allowing ladies to apply. This was another turning point, again reflecting changes in wider society.

Miss Pringle, who served from 1902 to 1915, was the last Dispensary doctor. By 1919, even newly qualified doctors could expect £300 a year. The Dispensary couldn’t afford it. The Medical Act had finally come home to roost.

From 1915 to 1948, local GPs treated the Dispensary patients free of charge, dividing the now totally inadequate salary of £100 between them.

With the coming of the National Health Service in 1948, the Dispensary suffered an existential crisis. It closed for 14 months and re-emerged as a Relief-in-Need charity, supplying supplementary foods to needy patients and lending sick room and other medical equipment.

This development had actually been anticipated. In April 1940, the Rev Albert Bayly asked for help for a family with a very ill 16-year-old son who needed Sanatogen, fruit and eggs, and for a lady with varicose veins who needed elastic stockings.

“Very often”, he wrote, “this kind of thing is as much needed as medicines in the stricter sense.”

Despite what had once been a pressing need, the scheme to supply nourishing food lasted only 15 years. By the 1960s there was hardly any demand. The Trustees sold the building, and in 1965 the Dispensary became purely a grant-giving body.

It is now run from the offices of Brumell and Sample, the old-established firm of solicitors in Bridge Street. There are seven trustees, who meet quarterly.

Of 14 recent cases, six were male, seven female, and one for an entire family. The beneficiaries were predominantly young, but four were aged between 40 and 67.

In five cases there were babies or children, several being single parents. At least three were escaping from domestic violence or harassment. Nine of the beneficiaries had mental health problems, and three a physical illness, including brain injury.

Three grants were for tenancy bonds or similar, five for furniture, carpets, bedding or washing machines, two for clothing (school uniform, trainers), and one each for electrical repairs, a holiday, general need, and a camera for a very creative person with severe problems.

Apart from the desperate needs that the Dispensary helps with, what struck me most was the wide area of benefit that it now serves.

When it was set up in 1817, the Dispensary was for the whole area shown in our map. But from the records I have seen, dating from the 1840s and 1850s and the early 1900s, only one patient came from outside Morpeth, that one from Mitford.

But now, the original intention of serving the wider area is being accomplished. Of the sample mentioned, eight were from Morpeth, one each from Ashington, Blyth and Newbiggin, and two from the rural area. Almost 40 per cent now come from the wider area.

The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, 48 pages, illustrated, is now on sale at Newgate News, Morpeth TIC and Woodhorn Museum.