Dr Fothergill

Dr. John Fothergill of Upton, physician, botanist and anti-slavery campaigner.<--break-> Dr. John Fothergill was born at Carr Road, Wensleydale in Yorkshire on March 8th 1712. His home was a plain, stone farmhouse that remained in the possesion of the family until 1841.

His mother and father were Quakers and he remained a member of the Society of Friends all his life. After leaving Sedbergh Grammar School at the age of 16, he was apprenticed to an apothecary named Mr Bartlett, at Bradford, who eventually allowed him to visit and prescribe for patients, although not fully qualified. From Bradford he went to Edinburgh University to study medicine, graduating in 1736. Then he came to London and after experience in St Thomas' Hospital, set up practice as a physician in Gracechurch Street in the City.

Epidemics of the type we now know as diphtheria and scarletina were prevalent in England and on the Continent in the 18th century and there was a particularly severe visitation in London in 1747-48. Dr Fothergill established his reputation with his exact diagnosis and his forward looking treatment. His "Account of the Sore Throat attended with Ulcers" is the best known of his many publications and medical and scientific papers.

He also dealt with a variety of other complaints - not all then known by their modern names such as hydrophobia (then little recognised) epilepsy, migraine, tuberculosis, angina pectoris and influenza (which was epidemic in the middle of the 18th century). He was a strong advocate of inoculation against smallpox-  a practice then only lately introduced in England.

Cattle plague broke out in 1748-49 and it is surprising how modern was Fothergill's approach to the containment of the disease. There had been a recent outbreak of "foot and mouth" which meant that all access to stricken farms had been forbidden. Fothergill's instructions to his brother, who still farmed at Carr End, were precise. He insisted on complete isolation of infected cattle and suggested that all markets and fairs should cease whilst the disease was prevalent.

One of his main interests was botany. To aid his collection of plants, he paid seamen to bring back any strange or curious plant they found on their arrival in other lands.

In August 1762, he purchased an estate of thirty acres in Upton (now West Ham Park). At that time the house was called Rooke Hall and had been owned by Admiral Elliott who had brought back cones of Cedar trees from the Lebanon, to plant in his garden. Fothergill enlarged the estate and developed the garden.

In his garden he built hothouses and greenhouses which were entered by a glass door from Upon House. They extended for nearly 260 feet and contained over 3,000 species. Here he grew orange and myrtle trees and plants which had been named after him, for example: Fothergill's Lily (Nerine Fothergilli), and Fothergill's Geranium (Pelargonium Fothergilli). Men were paid to visit Canada, West Africa and the Alps to bring back flowers and plants. Fifteen men were employed to look after the gardens and hothouses and artists were engaged to sketch the contents. These flower paintings, numbering 2,000, were sold after his death and eventually became the property of the Empress of Russia.

During the previous century, tea had first come to this country and was a very expensive drink. Fothergill was able to get some plants by 1769, for he wanted to see if they could be grown here. Queen Charlotte begged for a specimen for her garden at Kew, but these plants died, although Fothergill managed to get one to flower in 1774. This of course, was in one of his hot­houses, where it grew to a height of 7½ feet.

A tradition still in existence at Upton during the time of Samuel Gurney's residence there was to the effect that Dr Fothergill had so little time to visit the place by day-light, that when he came from London in the evening he ~would go round the garden with a lantern to inspect his favourite plants. At this time he was seeing sixty patients a day.

As he grew older he found that Upton was too near London for his own comfort. He was much in demand as a physician and Upton was near enough for people to drive down and request treatment. In 1764 he decided to live for a time at Lea Hall near Crews. There he made the acquaintance of Josia Wedgwood, but even at Lea Hall he still found he was in much demand as a doctor, for his reputation was great. He took no payment for his attendance at the nearest market town, where he prescribed for the poor.

He worked with John Howard in the prisons, making suggestions for the employment of convicts, and wrote letters to the papers on the subject of the absence of pavements, and the narrowness of the streets. A month before his death he wrote to the River Lea Company suggesting that they cut down the trees on the banks of the river as he thought the decomposition of the leaves polluted the water. He also urged that public baths should be established, but he was two hundred years too early in time, for that idea to be accepted.

He was greatly concerned about the' impending war between England and the American Colonies (now called the War of Independence). His father and brother had visited Quaker friends in America and American ministers visited his home. He had helped establish Quaker Schools at New York and Philadelphia and proposed plans for giving work to the Indians. Such was his fame that intending patients crossed the Atlantic for his advice. He formed a friendship with Benjamin Franklin who was in Europe to try to find a settlement between the two countries and so avoid the war. Fothergill wrote a paper setting out means by which England and America might agree, and Franklin accepted his suggestions, but they were not accepted by the British Government. Fothergill blamed the following decline in industry and commerce, the decrease of land values, the stoppage of public works, bankruptcies and increased taxation on that war. Franklin sailed on Monday 21st 1775, but hostilities had already started on April 19th at Lexington, to be followed by the Battle of Bunker's Hill. Fothergill and other Quakers presented a petition to the King for a peaceful settlement, but to no avail. He corresponded with Friends in America and suggested a mediator should be sent to Congress, but the government sent more troops with the Commissioner, Admiral Lord Howe. The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 12th and reconciliation was no longer possible. The declaration received no Quaker signatures - no recognition of the de facto government was made and Friends were persecuted by the colonists; some even to their death.

In 1777 Ackworth School in Yorkshire was founded. This was established by the Society of Friends with a zealous interest being taken by Fothergill.

It was intended as a boarding school for the education of children whose parents were not rich. It was Fothergill who found the building, previously a Foundling Hospital, surrounded by 84 acres of land, and he afterwards took great interest in the school, serving on the committee and subscribing to expenses. Ackworth was opened in 1779 and by 1780, 80 girls and 150 boys were being taught there. The journey from London to Ackworth took five days, their route being by Waltham Cross, Royston, Huntingdon, Stilton, Newark and Doncaster. The original buildings still exist and the 84 acres grew to 280. The School Hall seating 400 persons is named Fothergill Hall and was built in 1899.

Fothergill did not marry, his sister Anne kept house for him until his death. He died in 1780 and the sale of the contents of the garden took three days, some of the plants going to the home of his friend Dr Lettson at Camberwell.

 (Originally published as Local Studies Notes, No.15, by Newham library Service)

Dr Fothergill