The doctors serving the Dispensary

Bullers Cottage, now Bow Villa, the residence of Dr Robb.
Bullers Cottage, now Bow Villa, the residence of Dr Robb.

Parson and White’s Directory, 1827, says: ‘The Dispensary, for the relief of the indigent sick and lame, is situated in Oldgate, where it was first opened in 1817, since which it has been liberally supported by donations and subscriptions.

Ralph Atkinson, Esq. ranks amongst the most munificent benefactors of this institution, for which Mr William Watson officiates as apothecary.’

There was, of course, no health service in those days so that the poor had no access to proper medical treatment. Dispensaries were supported by the rich to help the poor, and to some extent filled the gap.

Various practitioners at that time could practise as doctors.

Physicians, who qualified at university, enjoyed the highest prestige.

Almost as prestigious were members of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons of Edinburgh, Glasgow or London.

Many surgeons, however, were only apprenticed. And even people intending for university or medical school often spent a year apprenticed to a practising doctor, or in a hospital.

Apothecaries, who also qualified by apprenticeship, were often surgeons as well.

Their status rose in 1815 when their society was recognised by Act of Parliament.

A five-year apprenticeship was required, and from 1834 there were examinations.

The Dispensary was established at the instigation of William Trotter, MD, the son of a former Presbyterian minister of Morpeth.

In the census of 1841, he is recorded as a physician, aged 45.

He lived at Bon Accord, in Newgate Street, as pictured in last week’s Morpeth Herald.

In addition to his own practice, Dr Trotter was also Honorary Physician to the Dispensary, the senior position in its medical establishment, and an annual subscriber for one guinea.

John Robb, also a doctor of medicine, aged 50, lived in the elegant house called Bullers Cottage, now Bow Villa.

Although he was an MD of St Andrew’s, he appears in the Dispensary’s annual reports as an honorary surgeon.

Two other honorary surgeons were Robert Shute, 45, surgeon, who lived in Bridge Street between Old Phoenix Yard and Chantry Place, and who was, I believe, the son of the curate; and Robert Hawdon, 25, surgeon, who lived in Bridge Street, near the Black Bull.

Thomas Gibson, surgeon, lived in Oldgate in 1827. This was the Dispensary’s original address, but by 1855 it was in Green Court, roughly where Waterstones is now.

As House Surgeon and Apothecary, he was the poor people’s doctor for Morpeth and for a very large area around.

The annual report for 1840 (Northumberland Archives, ref. NRO 990/D4) gives the salary of the resident apothecary as £70pa.

He also got an apartment at the Dispensary rent-free, and an allowance for coal and candles.

His equivalent at Alnwick got the same plus £80.

Both posts were for single men only, but the committee at Morpeth allowed Mr Gibson to keep the post even though he was married.

His position was, however, relatively lowly.

Robert Blakey, who in any case detested workhouses, describes an incident from 1839:

‘A poor girl, named Ann Thompson, aged twenty-seven, was placed in this workhouse, and soon died of consumption.

‘It became known that the medical attendant, Mr Gibson, of the Morpeth Dispensary, had been brought before the Morpeth Board of Guardians, and publicly reproved by that body for having brought a piece of tea-cake to this poor suffering creature to enable her to take her medicine.’ (Newcastle Journal, April 10, 1841).

In short, Mr Gibson was humiliated for an act of kindness.

There is no reason to doubt the truth of the account.

The recently-published biography of Coun Dorothy Robson reveals the same callousness in the Morpeth Workhouse in the 1930s and 40s.

When the Hon. and Rev Francis Grey became rector in 1842, he came as a new broom, and a hard one at that.

This from the Gateshead Observer of January 26, 1850:

‘Sir,—A paragraph ‘from a Correspondent,’ in your last number, reveals to the public a glaring instance of clerical interference in the government of a lay institution — namely the Morpeth Dispensary.

‘The Morpeth Dispensary was founded upon strictly Catholic principles; and amongst such men as Dr Trotter, who originated the charity, were to be found ecclesiastics of the Anglican church (the late Mr Charles Otter, Rector of Bothal, was one) who bade its foundation rise upon....the universal basis of a Christian’s love towards all, of whatever creed, colour or country....and little was it then imagined that the day would come when a son of (Earl Grey) should force a party to proscribe a man who had served the Morpeth Dispensary, faithfully and well, as House Surgeon, for one and twenty years because he would not become an apostate to his religious principles.

‘Dr Trotter stood manfully forth and demanded that Mr Gibson should be heard in his own defence from the vague charges and insinuations brought against him by the Rector and Mr Matthew Brumell. But in vain.

‘And equally unsuccessful was the House Surgeon and Secretary to the Dispensary to elucidate the cause of his dismissal.

‘Mr Brumell may wish for a wider field than he now enjoys....but let him not aim at such eminence to the injury of a man whose abilities as a surgeon, in the opinion of the public, are not beneath his own; and whose inoffensive disposition and good moral conduct will bear a trial against Mr Brumell’s any day.’

Even the doctor himself was not immune:

‘To The Subscribers Of The Morpeth Dispensary,

‘My Lords, Ladies And Gentlemen,

‘It is with no ordinary feelings that I bid you farewell.

‘I was one of those who originated, for upwards of thirty years I have subscribed and given my services as Physician, to your valuable charity; prescribing for, and visiting the sick, in cases where even their immediate relatives had fled for fear of contagion.

‘And my Reward has been – that without any obvious or assigned cause, a resolution was moved at the Annual Meeting, on the 9th instant, that I should be dismissed from the office I voluntarily held.

‘After such an insult, I cannot, with justice to my feelings as a Gentleman, or that of the profession to which I belong, remain any longer; I therefore lay before you my resignation, leaving you to decide if anything in my conduct has merited such treatment.

‘I have said what is my reward? – but I would wrong the poor, if I omitted to add, I have received from them what is more valuable than gold, and what gold can never buy – the blessings of over-flowing hearts too full for expression.

‘I have the honour to be Your faithful Servant,


‘Morpeth, 10th January, 1850.” (Newcastle Chronicle, January 11, 1850).

Whether Dr Trotter resumed his honorary duties, I cannot say.

But when Mr Gibson died in 1863, the Morpeth Herald recorded that he was House Surgeon at the Dispensary for 34 years.

‘He was a skilful practitioner, and many who have derived benefit from his professional attentions, will hear of his death with great sorrow.’