The founding of a medical service for all

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This year is the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Morpeth Dispensary.

It hasn’t been a real dispensary since 1948 when the National Health Service began, but it continues to this day to help people in need.

The first notice we have of it is an advertisement in the Newcastle Courant and the Newcastle Chronicle for August 3, 1816, and in the Tyne Mercury for August 6. There was, of course, no Morpeth newspaper in those days.

It stated: “A meeting is intended to be held at eleven o’clock in the forenoon of Wednesday, the seventh day of August next, at Mrs Sunderland’s, the Queen’s Head, in Morpeth, to take into consideration the propriety of establishing by subscription, a Dispensary for the town and neighbourhood, when it is to be hoped that the charitably disposed to so valuable and praise-worthy an institution will favour the meeting with their presence and support. July 17, 1816.”

The date is significant — 1816 was the year without a summer, caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in the East Indies in 1815. The ash created a volcanic winter in which harvests failed throughout the northern hemisphere.

Looking back after the beginning of the NHS in 1948, the Morpeth Herald of September 2, 1949, said that the Dispensary was established by “a body of Morpeth’s business and professional men”.

In 1817 they rented "a small room in Oldgate", and a doctor was appointed at £80 per annum, but there seems to be no record of its actual date of opening.

The Herald was right, up to a point, but its view was coloured by the situation as it was in 1949.

Then, the Dispensary was indeed managed and largely funded by local business and professional people. But it wasn’t like that in 1816.

I looked through all three Newcastle papers, but found no report of the inaugural meeting so we don’t know who took the chair, nor who spoke. But we do know that society then was different.

Tradesmen in Morpeth — people you would think of now as businessmen and middle class — were mostly working men who got their living by their own labour.

The lower professionals, people like clerks, curates, poor schoolmasters and most of the non-conformist clergy, were only a little better off.

The difference between any of them and a vicar with a small living, was that the vicar could draw his income whether he worked or not.

Above them all were the aristocracy and the landed gentry, and the richer sort of professional men, such as solicitors, barristers, well-beneficed clergy, and high-ranking military and naval officers. These were the people who really counted when you were setting up a charity.

Although we have no record of the Queen’s Head meeting, a hint about how it went can be found in the Tyne Mercury for October 21, 1817.

It states: “The Hon. Wm. Howard, MP, and Wm. Ord, Esq., MP, have each given a donation of 20l. and subscribed 1l.1s annually to the Morpeth Dispensary. The Tanners’ Company has subscribed 1l.1s, and M. Milburn, Esq. has donated 5l.5s to the same charity.”

The Hon. William Howard was a younger son of the Earl of Carlisle. William Ord was a wealthy landowner. They were the two MPs for Morpeth.

Mr Ord’s estates included the Newminster Abbey lands to the west of the town. Mr Milburn, an ‘Esq.’, must also have been rich to afford such a large donation.

By contrast, the Tanners’ Company, the most prestigious of the seven companies of Morpeth, some of whose members held high positions in the service of the Earl of Carlisle, only subscribed a guinea a year.

The one person we do know was involved in the founding of the Dispensary was William Trotter (1790-1857). There is little doubt that he was the moving spirit behind the project.

Dr Trotter was one of seven children of the Rev Robert Trotter, Presbyterian minister in Morpeth from 1757 until his death in 1807.

He was an MD, trained at a university. This made him superior both socially and professionally to surgeons and apothecaries, both of whom learnt their trade by apprenticeship. Physicians could charge handsome fees. Only the wealthy could afford them. Their wealth and the people they associated with marked them out as members of the upper classes of society.

That is the sum total of what we know about the Dispensary in its first ten years.

We do not know who the original apothecary or house-surgeon was — the two professions were often combined.

Nor do we know where it was in Oldgate. John Wood, who published a fine map of Morpeth in 1826, did not think the Dispensary sufficiently important to be marked out for particular notice.

Our next solid information comes only in 1827, in Parson and White’s directory: “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 excellent institution, for which Mr William Watson officiates as apothecary.”

The same building also housed the Subscription Library and the Savings Bank. It is curious that these institutions, which existed to serve the middle class and the gentry, should rub shoulders with one that served only the poor.

The Morpeth Herald's retrospect in 1949 gives us a brief outline of its later history: “In the year 1870 the present premises in Bell’s Yard were purchased and equipped as a Dispensary, with a consultation room, a waiting room and all the bottles and jars familiar to a doctor’s business premises.

“Only in 1920 was it found to be impossible to maintain a full time medical service with a resident medical officer, and at that time the doctors of the town began to treat patients at their homes on behalf of the Dispensary.”