Rule by the Margate Local Board of Health 1851 - 1858

Anthony Lee

3. A Petition is prepared.

It might come as rather a surprise given the state of Margate in 1849, but the town was not wildly enthusiastic about the Public Health Act. There were worries that invoking the Act would advertise the fact that Margate was not a healthy town, and that would not be good for the holiday trade. There were worries about the costs of any improvements that might be shown to be necessary. Finally, applying the Public Health Act to Margate would lead to major changes in the way that Margate was governed, and, although to many this might have seemed a good thing, to those whose employment and position depended on the existing structures any change was likely to be worrying.

At this time Margate was run by a board of Improvement Commissioners, the Commissioners for Paving and Lighting the Town of Margate, established under the 1787 Margate Improvement Act [27 Geo 3, c. 45]. Under the Act, replacements for any Commissioner who died or resigned were chosen by the remaining Commissioners. This system of self-selection obviously left the Commissioners open to complaints of cronyism and nepotism; such complaints were probably well placed as, for example, in 1850 six of the Commissioners were Cobbs. There was also a further source of complaint. Margate was a ‘limb’ of Dover, that is, it came under the administration of the town of Dover, and the Mayor of Dover appointed a Deputy in Margate to represent him in the town. Although in principal the Deputy was chosen anew each year by the Mayor of Dover, from about 1770 it was always a Cobb that was chosen, Francis Cobb the first, Francis Cobb the second and Francis William Cobb serving as successive Deputies until the town became a corporate borough in 1857. Making things even worse, although the Commissioners, under their original Act, were free to choose the Chairman for their meetings, in practise it always seems to have been the Deputy, who was, of course, a Cobb. In a town like Margate where there was a Board of Improvement Commissioners, a Local Board of Health would take over all the powers of the Commissioners and so remove the power base of the Cobbs. 

Francis William Cobb 1847
Francis William Cobb 1847

Opposition to rule by the ‘King’ Cobbs had gradually grown over the first half of the nineteenth century, as shown by the formation in 1837 of ‘The Margate Municipal Reform Association’.68 Petitioning for the application of the Public Health Act to Margate might have seemed a good way to get rid of the Commissioners; under the Act a petition from just ten percent of the ratepayers could bring an end to the self-elected Commissioners, to be replaced by a Local Board of Health elected by the rate payers. However, many of those who had been pressing for reform in Margate were wary of invoking the Act. Some reformers were against all Boards – a Local Board of Health sounded too much like the old Board of Improvement Commissioners. Others felt that forming a local Board of Health would be a distraction from the real goal, which was for Margate to separate from Dover and become an independent Borough. Many of the reformers also shared the general worries about declaring that Margate was a dirty town and the effects that sanitary reforms could have on the local rates. 

Four of Margate’s medical men would prove to be particularly influential in the arguments about reform. Until the beginning of the nineteenth century medical practitioners could be divided into three categories; physician, surgeon or apothecary. Top of the pile were the physicians, who had medical degrees (Doctor of Medicine) and alone were entitled to use the title of ‘doctor’. Surgeons, originally known as barber-surgeons, obtained a qualification through a practical apprenticeship rather than through an academic education. Finally, the apothecaries also trained through an apprenticeship but were involved in the dispensing and selling of medicines. Gradually, however, these distinctions broke down, with increasing numbers working as ‘surgeon-apothecaries,’   the equivalent of the present day general practitioner. 

One of the most prominent of the medical men in Margate was Joshua Waddington, a surgeon-apothecary69 who had served his apprenticeship in Margate with his uncle, Daniel Jarvis, another surgeon-apothecary.70 Waddington  undertook a further years’ training at Guy’s Hospital in London71 where he obviously impressed at least one of his teachers, Sir Astley Paston Cooper: ‘Of the 8000 apprentice surgeons who were guided by my teachings, Joshua Waddington was the best student’.72 Waddington returned to Margate to practice, becoming consulting surgeon to the Sea Bathing Infirmary, one of the Board of Improvement Commissioners, and a major figure in the fight against the rule of the Cobbs. Also prominent was George Yeates Hunter, another local surgeon-apothecary, also a consulting surgeon at the Sea Bathing Infirmary and one of the Board of Commissioners; he was also Chairman of the Pier and Harbour Company. He was the son of a local doctor, Dr Robert Edward Hunter, taking over his father’s practice in 1815. He obtained an MD from Giessen in 1844, at the age of 50, and became a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1852. In 1827 he married Mary Ann Cobb, the daughter of W. M. Cobb, and became the first Mayor of Margate.73-75

George Yeates Hunter
George Yeates Hunter
[From: St John’s Cemetery Margate 1856-2006, Friends of Margate Cemetery 2006]

The other two medical men important for our story did not start with local connections. Frederick Chambers studied at the London Hospital before becoming a ships surgeon. He then established a practice in London, in Hackney Road, staying there for thirty six years, before finally retiring to Margate.76 His obituary in The Lancet76  refers to him throughout as ‘Mr. Chambers’ and his qualification was as a Licentiate of the Society of Apothecaries,74  but he was always referred to locally as ‘Dr. Chambers’. His obituary described how ‘his residence in Margate proved a real blessing to the town. He found the place in a wretched sanitary condition; the inhabitants drank water from polluted wells, and pigstys and filth were everywhere paramount. In spite of abuse and opposition, Mr. Chambers fought earnestly and untiringly in the cause of sanitation; he attacked abuses without fear or favour, and in time brought about a better state of things. For many years he was a leading spirit in the town; he was three times mayor, was a guardian of the poor, a justice of the peace, and filled various other honourable and unpaid offices’. 76

Dr Chambers 1874 Pictorial World
Dr. Frederick Chambers [Pictorial World 1874]

The final medical man was Dr. David Price, who trained at Guy’s and St. Thomas’s Hospital in London, obtaining his MD from St Andrews University in 1825.75  He practised in the East End of London for a number of years but failing health led to his moving to Margate in 1826, at the age of 39. He practised in Margate for forty four years, also becoming a consulting surgeon at the Sea Bathing Infirmary. His obituary described how he was ‘the very type of the gentlemanly general practitioner, and was remarkably good-looking even in old age. He was painstaking, earnest, and able, inspiring confidence by his manly bearing and pleasing manners, and extracting from all who knew him much reverence for his thorough honesty and uprightness’. 75

Our medical men were divided over many things, including the lessons to be learnt from the outbreak of cholera in Margate in 1849. In a letter to the Morning Chronicle, published in October 1849 after the epidemic at Margate had ended, Joshua Waddington reported that he had treated eleven cases of cholera, of which eight proved fatal, and over a hundred cases of ‘diarrhoea’, none of which had proved to be cholera, and of which only one had died.78 Based on this experience he concluded that ‘cholera is not infectious, or contagious, either before or after death, no more than bilious remittent fever (miscalled typhus), a disease generally within the control of medicine and diet, and which very rarely proves fatal in this healthy locality.’ In the case of the outbreak of cholera at Perry’s Pauper Asylum, also known as ‘the Wilderness’, he was ‘firmly of opinion, that the disease was not  taken from the children removed from Drouett’s Infant Pauper establishment at Tooting, but was generated at ‘the Wilderness,’ and that the exciting causes were the impurity of confined air, want of cleanliness, and the bad smell of the patients, acting upon debilitated constitutions’.79 He admitted that medical men were divided on how to treat cholera: ‘One says, bleed; another try transfusion; a third advises an emetic; another, camphor; a fifth, turpentine; a sixth, cold water’; he thought that the best preventative ‘next to temperance and sobriety, is warm bathing’.80 In another sweeping statement he concluded that cholera was common in Turkey but not in the rest of Europe because of ‘the uncleanly habits and . . .  the carelessness, indolence, and indifference of the Mahomedans, in consequence of the  religious tenet of predestination’.81 As an old-fashioned Tory he disapproved of any form of Government intervention and so was against the Public Health Act as matter of principal. Since he also believed that there was nothing basically wrong with Margate’s sanitation and that any changes would be both unnecessary and expensive, he was against any petition to the General Board of Health.

Frederick Chambers took a very different view on things. In August 1849 he addressed a meeting of the Impprovement Commissioners on the sanitary condition of the town.82 His views were very strongly supported by the Kent Herald who described him as ‘the zealous and inde­pendent promoter of all good things for Margate, and for the health and prosperity of its inhabitants’. 82  Chambers told the Commissioners that he would not detail the many ‘highly dangerous . . . nuisances’ in the town that needed to be removed, because there were so many. But, he said ‘each in themselves engendered a permanent mischief in contagious, low, and malignant fevers, the causes of which were known and remova­ble beyond all doubt; — he said that the upper part of High-street was literally saturated with the most filthy refuse of the adjoin­ing houses as well as the cesspool. The back of the Marine Ter­race was in a most filthy state although he had personally complained of it some time ago. The town was naturally healthy, and it ought to be purged and freed from those things so detrimental to health’.82 He believed that it was necessary ‘to appoint an inspector of nuisances or officer of health, whose particular duty it should be to report to the committee all nuisances in order that they might be speedily and effectually removed.’ It was, he believed, no good simply relying on members of the public to report problems as ‘it was not to be expected that neighbours would complain one against another’. It was also necessary, he thought, to pursue offenders with more vigour as the Inspector of Police had told him that, at present, ‘all that the offender had now to do was to remove the nuisance just before the day of meeting [of the Improvement Commissioners]: and replace it the day after.’

Chambers’ ideas did not go down well with the Improvement Commissioners. George Yeates Hunter, one of the Commissioners, ‘boldly protested against any sanitary officer being appointed, for that it would cause unnecessary alarm to the public; and said that he as parish surgeon and with a large practice could not come to the conclusion Dr. Chambers had arrived at; he protested also against any censure on the commissioners for a laxity of duty.’ Joshua Waddington added that ‘he hoped it would not go forth to the public that the Marine Terrace [where he lived] was deserving of the character that Dr. Chambers had given it; he, Mr. Waddington, never saw any nuisance or cause of fever there’.82

The Kent Herald continued its campaign for reform and on 16 August published the following report:83

A few weeks back we called attention to the circumstance of the owners of some houses in a filthy court, situate between Love-lane and King-street, having received notice to remove some objectionable privies adjoining to dwelling houses; and that the court in question had been the focus of a violent fever, terminating in death to more than two or three of its inhabitants. Our readers will be surprised to hear that beyond the service of the notices no further steps have been taken to remove, or improve, the abomination. This court is known to the authorities to be one of the worst in the town — badly paved — badly ventilated: no drainage — no supply of water;  the atmosphere constantly charged with a fetid smell; and all this in the very heart of the town. Several of the medical men say there is no need for interference; and yet it is a fact beyond dispute, that there their visits are more numerous than at any other locality of the same extent in the town. Their denial of the truth will bring down interference from the London Board of Health, who by this time have all the facts before them. Their attention will not only be called to this plague spot, but also to Pump lane — a dilapidated unhealthy row of houses which the commissioners have for a length of time contemplated pulling down and making a new street on to the fort, but from a want of firmness or party consideration they have hitherto neglected to put the Act of Parliament in force.

This was followed the following week with a letter from Frederick Chambers:84  

‘To the Editor of the Kent Herald

Sir,—Two or three weeks since you had the kindness to publish the report of my visit to the self-elected commis­sioners of Margate.

The public will recollect upon that occasion I urged the necessity of generally cleansing the town, (which by the by I believe will never be done by the present constituted body,) and the appointment of a respectable sanitary officer, when Mr. Hunter, surgeon, opposed the request by boldly affirming that the town was cleaner than other towns, and that there was no amount of illness from one cause or other needing especial attention. How that gentleman, or any others as medical men could object or make such a statement I for the life of me cannot discover, for it is no secret that many parts of the town are very filthy, and fever always more or less severe, which strange to say, a report of a committee appointed by themselves, verified I believe the same day. What will these gentlemen say now? They certainly would not venture to repeat their former tale, for the inhabitants and visitors know too well the reverse.

The back of the Marine Terrace is still the receptacle for general filthy refuse, and the stagnant decomposing vege­table matter in the ditches at the back of Brook Terrace adjoining is abominable, all of which could be immediately removed and avoided, yet another space of three weeks has passed and the nuisances are doing their destructive work. This is a lamentable state of things. If commis­sioners will not attend to their public duties, they may be assured that I will continue to publish their negligences or idleness.

Fortunately for Margate, the pro-reformers finally won the day, and, in September 1849, a petition was submitted from Margate to the Board of Health asking for an Inspection.85 On 11 October the Kent Herald reported that ‘the memorial signed by about 400 of the rate payers, and presented to the Board of Health, praying an enquiry into the sewerage of this town has been accepted, and an inspector appointed, whose time of coming and place of sitting will shortly be notified on the church and chapel doors of this parish’.86 In fact, the petition was signed by only 303 rate payers, but as there were only 1,974 rate payers in the parish, this amounted to more than the 10 percent required to trigger an inspection of the town.15

The petition was simple and to the point: 15

That the parish of St John, Margate, contains about 12,000 inhabitants, and from its contiguity to the North Foreland, and other great local advantages, it has long been esteemed one of the most salubrious  places within an equal distance of London, and is, moreover, by means of the two-fold convenience of steam-boats and railroad, the most accessible to visitors.

That possessing such advantages, it is ascertained that upwards of 60,000 visitors are annually induced to frequent this parish for the benefit of sea air.

That it is consequently of the first importance that the natural salubrity of the locality should be preserved with every possible care.

That although several Acts of Parliament exist for the management of the town, yet there is not at present any provision made for the proper drainage or supply of water, whilst at the same time no place possesses more easy and natural facilities.

That when it is considered that the settled population of the town is only in number about 12,000, but that that number is by the influx of visitors augmented to 70,000 annually, the vital necessity for the formation of proper sewers  is apparent.

That in various parts of the town it can be shown that low fever and sickness have always been prevalent, and that such sicknesses are chiefly to be attributed to the want of proper sewerage.

Your petitioners therefore deem it advisable that the provisions of the Public Health Act of 1848, should be applied to and come into force and operation within the said parish; and they accordingly humbly pray —

That your Board will cause to be instituted  the necessary proceedings for bringing the provisions of the said Act into full force and operation within the said parish.

Unfortunately the papers of the time carry no reports on how the signatures were collected for the petition , although Joshua Waddington later complained that ‘the Leaguers (Dr. Chambers and Mr. Towne) succeeded in cajoling the rate payers into signing the memorial’.87 Chambers’ apparent co-conspirator, Josiah Towne, was a local solicitor with an extensive legal practice in East Kent, living at Belgrave Cottage in Grosvenor Place. The petition justified an inspection of the town because of the lack of proper drainage or supply of water.15 The board in London agreed to send an inspector to Margate.