Inquest gives insight into everyday life

Dr Stanley Yeoman was the House Surgeon of Morpeth Dispensary from January 1891 to February 1893.

By Roger Hawkins
Sunday, 17 February, 2019, 11:24

Soon after he arrived, the Morpeth Herald of February 28, 1891, reported an inquest held the previous Saturday, February 21, at the Greyhound Inn. It may seem odd to hold an inquest at a pub, but it wasn’t at all unusual then. There were few other places with rooms large enough.

“On Saturday morning last Mr Charles Percy, Coroner for North Northumberland, held an inquest at the Greyhound Inn, (Mr John Carr’s), Morpeth, touching the death of Jane Barton, aged 52, who died suddenly on Wednesday night. Mr John Dobson was chosen as foreman of the jury.

Catherine Gair said: “I am the wife of John Gair, mason. I do not know the deceased, Jane Barton, very well. She has not lived long in our yard. Deceased was the wife of William Barton. She told me she was about 52. She lived in the same yard, but not next door.”

We do not know where Mrs Gair's yard was, but the Greyhound was in Newgate Street, where Maylia’s Fish and Chip Shop is now, so perhaps it was off Newgate Street.

Mrs Gair continued: “Her husband and she lived together. He is a mason, and is at present working at Seghill. He goes there at the beginning of the week and comes back at the end. He went away on Tuesday morning last, leaving his wife at home. So far as I know they lived happily together.

“Deceased has been poorly and under the doctor’s care since before the New Year. She has been treated by Dr Yeoman. I saw her twice on Wednesday last, and spoke to her once. I asked her how she was. She answered ‘Just about the same’.

“On Wednesday night Mrs Nichol came running in and cried, ‘Oh Mrs Gair, come and see what is the matter with this woman’. I went and found her lying on the bedside. I lifted her up.

"A great quantity of blood was flowing from her mouth. I lifted her up, and she rested her head on my arm. I put her to bed, and she died in about ten minutes. She never spoke. There was no one else there except Mrs Nichol and myself.”

By a Juryman: “She did not hear any disturbance.”

Stanley Yeoman said: “I am physician and surgeon at present holding the appointment of house surgeon to Morpeth Dispensary. I have treated the deceased since January 26.

"I was never able to get a thorough examination because she declined. Therefore, I was never able to ascertain the real cause of her illness. In appearance she appeared to be suffering from pain in her chest. She was troubled with shortness of breath.

“I was called in on the last occasion on Wednesday evening about 9 o’clock. I found her in her house and lying on the bed. She was dead. There was a good deal of blood on the floor. There were no signs of any struggle.

"I made a post-mortem examination on the body on Friday morning, the 20th inst. There were no signs of violence on the body. By my examination I ascertained the cause of death to be the rupture of an aneurism into the windpipe. An aneurism is an enlargement of a blood vessel.”

By a Juryman: “She would not let him come to examine her, because her house was in such a state. He could not have saved her life by such an examination, but he could have given her relief.”

“The Coroner said the whole affair was of a very simple nature. The Jury returned a verdict of death from natural causes.”

The coroner's main concern was to decide if there was foul play. There clearly wasn’t, and the jury so found.

Although the inquest was purely a legal process, it gives us a rare glimpse of the everyday life of ordinary people.

Mrs Gair was clearly a leading figure in her little community. It was she that Mrs Nichol came running to, and she spoke with a degree of authority. Both her and Mrs Barton’s husbands were masons, and although she didn’t know Mrs Barton well, she knew Mr Barton’s goings and comings, and was able to pass an opinion on their domestic situation.

It is plain that Mrs Gair was the local howdie, a midwife, layer-out of the dead and giver of help and advice at all times and in every situation. They were part of the fabric of life.

My grandmother was born in 1876, and my mother once told me that she had been a sort of “wise woman” that people sent for in times of need. Their house was in a terrace of about a dozen houses, to which the back access was by a single passage (known in Leicester as an entry) so that the situation was not unlike a Morpeth yard.

Dr Yeoman came from Northallerton in Yorkshire and was then 25. Mrs Barton must have been one of his earliest patients and had probably been treated by his predecessor, Dr Gidley.

Later that year, in November, Dr Hugh Dickie was appointed workhouse doctor. When he wrote to thank the Guardians for his appointment, he requested that Dr Yeoman should be his deputy, which was granted. This was a sensible arrangement. The Dispensary treated the poor, and they were the people most likely to go into the workhouse.

What is odd about it is that it contravened Rule XXV of the Dispensary’s Rulebook, which stated that the House Surgeon “shall not follow any private practice, or receive any fee or gratuity whatever for his professional services, other than his salary, and he shall be required to devote himself exclusively to the business of the Institution”.

Whatever the truth of the matter, it was no secret so presumably met with the approval of the Governors of the Dispensary.

When he resigned, the Governors resolved: “That this meeting of Governors place on record their regret, a regret shared both by patients and the general public, at losing the valuable services of Dr Yeoman, their appreciation of the highly efficient manner in which he has discharged his duties during the time he has been Medical Officer of the Institution, and their best wishes for his future welfare and prosperity.”