The Beginnings of the Exeter Dispensary

Alumnus Dr John Richard Wilkie, who graduated from the School in 1972 with an MSc in Social Medicine, writes about the Exeter Dispensary, which was founded in 1818 to provide relief for the poor. Dr Wilkie’s full article appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, a journal which looks at the area’s local history and archaeology.

The Exeter Dispensary was established in 1818 “for the purpose of affording advice and medicine to poor people”.  Dispensaries were widespread in the nineteenth century and at various times there were dispensaries at Barnstaple, Bideford, Dawlish, Devonport, two at Exeter, Honiton, Newton Abbot, Ottery St Mary, Tavistock, Teighmouth and Tiverton, but the Exter Dispensary was the largest and the first.

The Exeter Flying Post on the 8th January 1818 enthused: “It must afford infinite satisfaction to every humane mind to be informed that a Dispensary is about to be established in this city for the gratuitous supply of medicine and professional advice to the indigent poor” [1].

The Dispensary started to collect money and offers from physicians and surgeons to work for the Dispensary at no charge. What were the motives of the people in putting their hand to the wheel so willingly? We cannot know for certain, the city of Exeter already had a hospital but its constitution excluded children, accidents and infectious diseases. The motive of the doctors presumably was that it helped define their position as an established, known and reputable practitioner.

The Dispensary and the doctors were very courteous in their dealings with each other as the minutes of the Dispensary detail: “The best thanks of this meeting be given to the medical officers for their zealous, kind and unremitting attention to the patients” (1843). In resigning from the staff of the Dispensary to go to the Devon and Exeter Hospital, one of the surgeons writes: “(I have) the honour of being connected as a surgeon with your Dispensary, a well ordered and highly prized Institution.”

Thus the medical professional and the Dispensary supported each other. The medical staff earned their living from their private practice; work for the Dispensary was gratuitous. Each doctor would do one day a week as a physician or surgeon so the Duty Rota at 31st January 1818 was:

Physician Surgeon Day
Dr. Daniel Mr Johnson Monday
Dr. Neal Mr Tucker Tuesday
Dr. Moore Mr Kingdon Wednesday
Dr. Millar Mr Pridham Thursday
Dr. Blackall Mr Stabback Friday
Dr. Collins Mr Amory Saturday

Before the Dispensary building was obtained, the meetings of the Committee and public meetings were all held in Exeter Guildhall which is a measure of the importance of the proposed Dispensary to the City and the support it had. The Management Committee met weekly and dealt with problems, thus the meeting on 28th March 1818 recorded “that the articles wanting for the surgeons be purchased” and “the pump in the back yard be repaired immediately”.

In 1840 the Dispensary moved to its present location on Queen Street at the corner of Nothernhay near Exeter Central Railway Station. It is still there. [2]

John Richard Wilkie, June 2014

[1] Exeter Flying Post, 8th January 1818, p.4 2nd column

[2] Russell P.M.G., A History of the Exeter Hospitals, p.101 (1976) 

Notes from the author: I am grateful to Peter Thomas at Exeter Cathedral Library and Professor Sir Dennis Perreira Gray for the encouragement and Devon Heritage Services at Sowton Exeter for unfailing assistance.

Reprinted by kind permission of Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries. Volume XL1 Part VII. Abridged.

Photo: The 1840 Dispensary building in Queen Street, photographed in 2014.

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