The College

Victorian Studio Photos
Victorian Studio Photos

Epsom College 1853
Epsom College 1853
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

As you may have read in our article entitled 'Epsom College', the establishment was founded as the Royal Medical Benevolent College by John Propert and formally opened in 1855 by Prince Albert. Propert started from humble beginnings and had been helped in his medical career by a generous relative. Consequently, when he became successful he wanted to do something for doctors and their families who needed assistance of some kind. Thus, among those at the College, you would find the widows and children of medical men, with the ladies being given accommodation and the boys being educated. There were also doctors who had fallen on hard times.

John Propert
John Propert
Photograph by Camille Silvy, albumen print, 25 September 1861
Image source National Portrait Gallery NPG Ax55820 (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

It wasn't a case of simply writing in and making a booking, obviously, for there was a very limited amount of accommodation available and some of the occupants lived for a long time. There were many widows of medical men and some of them had significant numbers of children who were still 'on their hands'.

Dicing with Danger

Back in those days doctors were exposed to all kinds of hazards and diseases, often without the knowledge to take appropriate precautions. As one example of the state of medical knowledge in early Victorian times, I can cite something I came across recently whilst researching the Wickwar family of Epsom. One member of this large family was a book-binder in London and he made such things as leather-bound despatch boxes and writing cases for government officials and even royalty. High-end luxury goods, we would call them now, so you might think that John Wickwar had an upmarket shop and workshop. Far from it. His premises were in Soho and the reality was thus.

'Bookbinders in Victorian London often worked in particular neighbourhoods. One such was present day Soho. Poland Street, Broad (now Broadwick) Street and Noel Street contained at least twenty three workshops. Binders and their families and apprentices lived above the business and any spare rooms were rented out to lodgers. Other employees worked on the premises for six days a week. Crowding was the norm, conditions were insanitary, and water came from communal outdoor pumps. Disease was rife.' (Source: British library blog)

In 1854 there was a massive outbreak of cholera in Soho. At the time this disease was thought to be caused by 'bad air', for want of a better explanation, and theories that there were such things as germs/bacteria had not quite gained widespread credence. The man responsible for the initial big breakthrough was Louis Pasteur.

A court for King Cholera
A court for King Cholera
Image source Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

However, there was another man - a London doctor called John Snow, who is considered one of the founding fathers of epidemiology. He didn't yet know about bacteria, but he was not impressed with the 'bad air' theory. Consequently, when he heard of the Soho cholera outbreak he went round to investigate. You might think he was taking a huge risk, but he really did not believe in the 'bad air' proposition. He was right, of course - cholera comes from contaminated water and, as Snow was a man who always boiled his drinking water, he was in no danger at all.

Dr. John Snow (1813-1858)
Dr. John Snow (1813-1858)
Image source Wikimedia

In a reputable newspaper the opinion was offered that the epidemic had probably occurred because ground in the vicinity had been used to bury multiple victims of previous plagues and that after many years the disease had somehow resurrected itself to afflict the current population. On 1 September 1854 John Wickwar was one of the hundreds who succumbed to the Soho cholera and his brother, William, who was not in good health anyway, rushed up from Brighton. He was too late to see John and only stayed in the house for 20 minutes to take refreshments - fatal refreshments. He drank a tumbler of brandy and water and died of cholera on 3 September. The water was from the public pump in Broad Street. Snow soon concluded from his copious enquiries that this pump was likely to be responsible for the epidemic and managed to persuade the authorities to remove the handle. It was discovered that the well from which the pump drew its water was just three feet from a leaking cesspit.

Broad Street pump
A white silhouette replica of the Broad Street pump.
Image source Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

So, the moral of the tale is that, if you had been any other doctor than John Snow, you might well have covered your nose and mouth against 'bad air', but if you had drunk any of the water from the public pump, even in a tumbler of brandy, that was likely to be curtains. Naturally, not all doctors who died before their time succumbed to disease of the epidemic kind, but it was a hard life and, for instance, there was no treatment whatsoever for a whole range of things, especially cancer. Also, they were just as prone to heart failure and strokes as anyone else in those times and life expectancy generally was much lower than it is now.

This is a quote from John Wright, who was a doctor in Nottingham in the early 19th century, and we shall meet his family soon, since Mrs Wright came to live in the College.

'Engaged as I am in the arduous plan of treating disease, which compels me to walk many miles in a day, and incessantly talk to those who are either affectedly weak, or willing, but really unable to speak.'

John Snow, the cholera man, never caught cholera, but he still died of a stroke at age 45, and John Wright died of cancer in 1853.

Living in College

The information we have about the accommodation side of the College comes from Alan Scadding's book 'Benevolence and Excellence: 150 years of the Royal Medical Foundation of Epsom College' and I am indebted to Liz Manterfield for picking out the salient points I needed for this article.

So, as far as the accommodation/almshouse aspect went, Propert's Committee envisaged rooms for 100 pensioners, who would be qualified medical men or their widows with incomes of at least £ 15 a year. They would have two rooms each and assistance and accommodation as funds permitted. It was also hoped to be able to support deserving cases who did not have sufficient income to pay for asylum. The key was the phrase 'as funds permitted'. The money for building the College, including the school and chapel and all that went with it, had to come from benefactors, fund-raising events and fee-paying pupils. And, as is still the case today, costs ran over and some of the materials and workmanship were inferior.

The intention had been to build a quadrangle, with the pensioners' flats encompassing the school and chapel, but the fourth side remained unbuilt. At first only 20 pensioners could be taken in, which reduced income even further, and there were building deficiencies such as unstable chimneys and draughty windows needing attention. Lighting was by gas, which was not yet generally available to domestic premises; open fires were used for heating and water came from a well on the site.

So, how did you get a place in the pensioners' rooms? As I said earlier, you couldn't just make a booking - elections took place and a system of public votes was employed. There were all manner of charitable institutions around this period and, if they provided accommodation at all, they had limited places and limited funds, so there was fierce competition to get in.

Normally a pensioner's accommodation in the College was fully furnished and comprised a sitting room, bedroom, scullery, WC and coal cellar, with some cupboards for storage. You were expected to buy and cook your own food (facilities provided). If you could afford a servant, they could be housed in the eaves, but had to be approved by the College. You required permission to have a visitor to stay and, from 1856, sons over 15 years of age were not allowed in residence at all. Daughters were permitted, as they could help with elderly and infirm parents.

Before I knew all this I had an image of sedate, genteel old ladies being fed, watered and generally waited on, but that was not the case unless they had a servant or resident daughter. Apparently, shopping could be a problem, given the considerable walk into the town, and a sense of isolation was also an issue. By 1894 the asylum aspect was no longer viable and an Act of Parliament was passed to relieve the College of the duty to provide accommodation.

Explanatory Note

This article, and what follows on the linked pages, was 'inspired', if I may use that word, by photos in the collection of glass negatives featuring studio portraits made by local man Cuthbert Hopkins, mainly in the 1860s. The plan was, and is, to identify the subject of a photo and, if it was a local person/family, to produce an accompanying article. However, some of the people should logically be grouped together and the pensioners of the College are an example, since they came from all over the country and the College was the sole reason they were in Epsom at all. In due course we hope to cover other pensioners, even if there is no photo, and the articles will be linked to this page so that the background is readily accessible.

Linda Jackson 2018