The early doctors of the Dispensary

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Morpeth Dispensary was founded in 1817. For the next 98 years, until 1915, the managers employed an in-house doctor.

At first, the doctors were referred to as the Apothecary, but from the 1850s more often as the House Surgeon. Over the years, the Dispensary had 20 in-house doctors.

The first of whom we have record of was Robert Shute, who served from 1817 until January 1820. He was the son of the long-serving curate of Morpeth, the Rev Thomas Shute.

The evidence for him being the resident apothecary is a notice in the Newcastle Courant for December 25, 1819: “Morpeth Dispensary. The Annual General Meeting of the Subscribers will be held at the Dispensary, on Wednesday, 12th January, 1820, at twelve o’clock, for the purpose of examining the Treasurer’s and Secretary’s accounts, also for the election of an Apothecary, and on other business.

“By Order of the Committee, Robert Shute, Secretary. Morpeth Dispensary, December 15, 1819. N.B. No Subscriber will be allowed to vote if in arrears.”

It was usual for the apothecary to be Secretary to the Dispensary as well. If so, he was the outgoing apothecary.

In the 1841 census Robert is described as a surgeon, aged 45, living in Bridge Street. Unfortunately, the ages given in this census are rarely accurate. People aged 15 or over had to round their age down to the next five below, rather than giving it accurately.

If 45 is correct, he would have been born in the period 1792-96, and would have been aged between 21 and 25 when the Dispensary opened in 1817.

Robert Shute was a reformer. He was one of the Vice-Presidents at a dinner held at the Queen’s Head on June 23, 1832, to celebrate the passing of the Great Reform Act. The Chairman, Dr Trotter, was unwell so Robert took the chair during the dinner, the doctor making his entry “after the cloth was drawn”.

In September 1837 another dinner was held, this time for the new MP, Lord Leveson.

If the health was drunk of someone not present, another person had to acknowledge the compliment for them. Public dinners were all-male affairs. So when Lord Leveson proposed “the ladies of Morpeth”, he coupled it with the name of Dr Shute.

It was “Drunk with 3 times 3,” and Robert “briefly returned thanks for the ladies”. Later, however, he was able to respond to the more appropriate toast of “the medical profession and the health of Dr Hawdon and Dr Shute”.

He became one of the honorary surgeons of the Dispensary immediately after he resigned.

The Morpeth Herald of February 12, 1859, says: “This excellent charity, we have pleasure in announcing, has recently had the names of the whole of the Medical practitioners in the town, added to the Medical Staff, which in the course of time had dwindled down to one, namely Robert Shute, Esq., Mayor, who, for 39 years, has rendered gratuitously his services to the Institution.”

The second resident apothecary was Matthias Hawdon. He signed himself “Secretary, P.T.” in a notice dated February 2, 1820, in which he called a meeting to examine the previous year’s accounts and to elect a new secretary and committee. It is evident that he must himself have been elected to the post of apothecary at the meeting on January 12.

In 1825, however, he became seriously ill. A meeting was called in November to “consider the propriety” of appointing someone else, and this marked the end of his tenure.

Seven years later, at the Reform dinner of 1832, the Chairman, Dr Trotter, proposed the health of Dr Hawdon as “the father of surgery in the town”, which seems to imply that he was not a young man when he was appointed apothecary to the Dispensary in 1820.

In the 1841 census a Robert Hawdon, surgeon, aged 25, lived in Bridge Street. He was also one of the four surgeons of the dispensary, and was presumably the son of Matthias Hawdon.

The man appointed in 1825 was Mr William Watson. In December he placed, as secretary, the usual notice in the Newcastle Courant for the forthcoming AGM.

He has two entries in Parson & White’s Directory of 1827. Under the Dispensary, he is listed as an apothecary, but in a second entry as a surgeon living in Kings Head Yard, Bridge Street.

It is a matter of doubt whether any of these three ever actually lived at the Dispensary. Shute, being in his early 20s when he was appointed, may well have done. In the case of Hawdon there is some doubt because of his presumed age. As regards Watson, there is no doubt. In 1827 he was living in Kings Head Yard. This does not, however, preclude him from having lived at the Dispensary some time before.

The fourth apothecary was Thomas Gibson. He was appointed in 1829, and is the first that we know to have been actually resident. He was also the longest serving, holding the post for 34 years until his death in 1863.

Thomas was a Newcastle man, but trained at Apothecaries’ Hall in Dublin. In the 1841 census he is described as a surgeon, aged 35, living in Oldgate. It doesn’t actually call it the Dispensary, but there isn’t much doubt.

He had a son, Thomas William, aged 13, born in Ireland, and there was a 15-year-old maidservant called Elizabeth Douglass. Later censuses show that these were their exact ages, also that Thomas William was born in Dublin, and Elizabeth in Rothbury.

In 1851 they were at the Dispensary in Bell’s Yard. Thomas and Elizabeth were married with three children aged five, three and two. Thomas William was the Mathematical Master at Morpeth Grammar School. By 1861 they had five children, the youngest aged nine and five. Thomas William was still at home and still a teacher of mathematics.

The article in the Morpeth Herald of February 12, 1859, says: “The resident Medical Officer, Mr Gibson, continues to discharge the duties of his office, as he has ever done, skilfully, and with attention.”

He died in harness in 1863.