Social class and the Morpeth Dispensary

Charles William Bigge.
Charles William Bigge.

The Dispensary is in Oldgate, and was established in 1817. This useful institution is supported by subscriptions and donations; and Mr Wm. Watson officiates in it as apothecary. So writes John Hodgson in 132.

Subscribing to a charity was a way of making a statement about yourself. In January 1841, the Newcastle Courant and the Chronicle both reported that: ‘R. Rogerson, Esq, of Spring Gardens, Morpeth, has become an annual subscriber of 10s 6d to the Morpeth Dispensary.’

The Dispensary operated under a committee of local gentry, both to keep it under their control and to assure potential subscribers of its respectability. They also raised money, almost a fifth of it from their own purses.

There was a separate Medical Committee, consisting of local doctors. They gave their services free, but much of the work was done by a Resident Apothecary, who was salaried.

Tradesmen might become annual subscribers, but were not on the committee, and in this and other ways, Morpeth Dispensary gives us an insight into the workings of early 19th Century society.

As was usual then, the Annual Report for 1840 carries the names of the committee and subscribers prominently on the front page.

The committee was headed by Charles William Bigge, of Linden. He inherited his family’s collieries at Longbenton, but moved from there to his splendid new mansion at Linden. By 1840 he was Chairman of the County Bench and Leader of the Whigs in Northumberland.

Two of the committee lived on the ancestral manors they were named after: A.J. Baker Cresswell of Cresswell, and Bertram Osbaldeston Mitford of Mitford. William Lawson and Isaac Cookson were also country gentlemen, Mr Cookson being also a merchant in Newcastle, with interests in glass-making.

The others were men of modest standing. Dr Trotter had founded the dispensary in 1817. He held the senior position in its medical establishment, that of Honorary Physician. Andrew Robert Fenwick was the Earl of Carlisle’s agent, and himself a landowner. Robert Bullock lived at Spittal Hill near Mitford. The Rev W.H. Parry was rector of Bothal.

In theory at least, subscriptions could be relied on, whereas donations could not, hence the subscribers appearing prominently on the front page:

They are listed in order of amount. People were fully aware of the need to do justice to themselves so this again is a faithful reflection of local society.

The largest individual subscriber, the Duke of Portland, had estates that included Hebron, Pegswood, Bothal and Ashington. This was before the days of great coal mines so there was little but farms and villages between Morpeth and the sea coast. His Grace’s generosity reflected both his rank and the people dependent on him who might need medical attention from time to time.

Two people subscribed for five guineas. Captain Howard was MP for Morpeth and son of the Earl of Carlisle. William Orde of Nunnykirk was a somewhat eccentric old gentleman, a breeder of racehorses, quite without political ambition, who took a benign interest in Morpeth on account of a long-standing family association.

Six subscribed for three guineas and nine for two, including most of the committee-men. Of the others, Mr Ekins was rector of Morpeth, while Sir M.W. Ridley, of Blagdon, was another country gentleman and Newcastle merchant.

Morpeth had only one MP after 1832 so its other great landowner, William Ord of Whitfield, was no longer MP for the town, hence his modest two guineas.

Morpeth Corporation – the new town council – subscribed two guineas. The old corporation of free burgesses had lost control of the corporate properties and no longer had any money.

The Township of Morpeth subscribed £20. Charity paid in guineas so this was more of a business arrangement.

The parish of Morpeth was divided into townships for Poor Law purposes. By this means, rural townships with just a few big ratepayers, such as Stobhill and Newminster Abbey, looked after their own poor, while ensuring that outsiders were kept out, so that their Poor-Rates were kept low.

The township of Morpeth – the town itself – had many poor and no way of excluding incomers so this was a ready means of providing them with medical care.

Morpeth’s position as the central place for a large rural area is shown by subscriptions from Whalton, Bedlington and Woodhorn.

Of the townsmen, Henry Brumell and Anthony Charlton, solicitors, each gave a guinea, as did three tradesmen, William Creighton and Richard Lewins, chemists and druggists, and Thomas Swan, who, if I have the right man, was a butcher. The Rev Matthew Brown, Presbyterian minister, was a half-guinea subscriber. The total amount was just under £100.

At a time when women could not rise high in business, the professions or sports, charity gave the wives and daughters of the gentry a chance to make their mark.

The six lady subscribers were mostly the wives, widows or daughters of wealthy families, but were totally absent from the committee.

There was, nevertheless, a tradition of holding a ball every year in support of the dispensary, under the patronage of the ladies of the nearby county families. Henry Brumell organised it, and it continued until 1837.

After that, civic balls took their place. Though not in itself important, this represented a small step in the gradual diminution of the gentry’s influence in Morpeth’s affairs and the growth of the urban middle class.

Acknowledgement: The portrait of the Rev Matthew Brown appears by kind permission of the Rev Ron Forster, of St George’s United Reformed Church.