Morpathia: Inquest information sheds light on surgeon’s tough duties

Morpeth Dispensary was founded in 1817 to give medical treatment free of charge to the sick poor. In its early days, the Dispensary doctor was known as the apothecary, but later as the house surgeon.

By Roger Hawkins
Monday, 24th January 2022, 4:24 pm
Hugh Devitt lived in Newgate Street.
Hugh Devitt lived in Newgate Street.

Most of the work of the house surgeon was routine – making and dispensing medicines, seeing patients and allocating some of them to the honorary surgeons, i.e. local doctors who worked for the Dispensary free of charge.

Some of their duties, however, were not of this description and in most cases it is the Morpeth Herald, founded in 1854, that we have to thank for recording them.

Mr Frederick Barrow was the house surgeon from October 1873 to December 1876. In January 1875, he carried out a post-mortem on a little girl. Here is the Herald’s report:

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The Turk’s Head is now Clintons Cards.

“Inquest at Morpeth – An adjourned inquest was held at Mr Wright Almond’s, Morpeth, on Tuesday, on the body of Frances Purvis, illegitimate child of Elizabeth Purvis, who died on the 22nd of December, aged one year.

“The child only weighed 7¾ lbs. Dr Barrow had made a post-mortem examination and found the base of the lungs highly congested, and one of the glands was enlarged. The jury returned a verdict of ‘Died from natural causes’.”

The Medical Officer of Health for Morpeth, Dr Clarkson, had been the house surgeon at the Dispensary some years before.

He was an energetic sanitary reformer, meeting the recurrent epidemics of those days by urging – and in some cases enforcing – a regime of good ventilation, thorough cleaning and fumigation.

It was this that led to the horrifying death of a five-year-old boy in May of 1875. Here again is the Herald’s report of the inquest:

“A Little Boy Accidentally Poisoned at Morpeth. On Monday, Mr T.D. Smith, coroner for North Northumberland, held an inquest at the Turk’s Head Inn, on the body of a little boy named Thomas Curley, who died on Friday night, through having drunk some carbolic acid.

“The following evidence was adduced – Hugh Devitt said he was a labourer and lived in Newgate Street, Morpeth. He identified the body the jury had just viewed as that of his grandson, Thomas Curley, who would have been six years old in December.

“The child’s father was Thomas Curley, a coal miner.

“The bottle containing carbolic acid – now produced, was got by his (witness’s) brother, who told him to be careful with it as it was poison. Witness did not know what it was.

“It was got to sprinkle over the floor, on account of his wife having died of typhus fever; and while her body was being coffined, he put the bottle on to the floor close to the wall, between the press and a box.

“The boy, who was in the house with some other children, could get at it there, but witness never saw him touch the bottle and he was not in the habit of drinking out of bottles. Witness heard him call for water and then he ran into the other room and dropped.

“A doctor was sent for and Mr Clarkson came, as the dispensary doctor was not in. The doctor came in about 10 minutes.

“He was ordered to get something to disinfect the things, because the doctor said his wife had died of typhus fever; and, as the shops were shut up, the stuff was got from Mr Sanderson, the inspector of nuisances, who said how it was to be used.

“By the foreman (Mr G. Routledge), Dr Clarkson was the first doctor there. One of the young men who succeeded Dr Rose came afterwards. The Dispensary doctor came too.

“There were three doctors there, but Dr Clarkson was there first and the child died ten minutes after he left.

“Dr Clarkson gave the result of a post mortem examination he had made of the body that morning, from which it was clear that the deceased had died from poisoning by carbolic acid, although there were no signs of burning in life.

“The remedy for the poison was castor oil and sweet oil, in equal quantities. He attempted to administer the former, but the child could not swallow – in fact it was in the agonies of death when he went.

He remained 20 minutes and went away, only when he found he could do nothing.

“A teaspoonful of carbolic acid would cause death, but the child must have taken more than that.

“A little girl called Mary Mackfarlane, who was in the house, was called, but not sworn, and in answer to the coroner, said she saw deceased take a drink from the bottle produced, which he got ‘aback’ of the box.

“The foreman thought the officers of the Local Board ought not to be supplying such a poison. A chemist supplying it without a proper label and without getting the purchaser’s signature would be fined. Other jurors thought it was right for the board to do so.

“Dr Clarkson said he had implicit faith in carbolic acid as a disinfectant. He had given the inspector of nuisances instructions on how to use it, and he in turn had given them to the person who got the carbolic acid.

“The coroner said it was an anomaly that carbolic acid could be given away, but could only be sold under strict conditions. Verdict – accidentally poisoned by carbolic acid.”

The Origins of Morpeth, £7, and The Early Christian Landscape of the Wansbeck Valley, £6, both copiously illustrated, are available at Newgate News.